Us and Them: a Closer Look at What it Means to be in a Harem


Fatema Mernissi’s book Sheherazade Goes West addresses the misconceptions westerners have of the harem, defining it in a way that all cultures can identify with a form of a harem.  She presents this idea through her own stories and investigation—opening up herself to westerners, trying to understand the intrigue the harem has for the West.

Struggling to comprehend the West’s celebration of the harem through admiration and elevation, Mernissi shares the true meaning of the harem in her culture.  A friend of Mernissi’s describes a harem: “Only desperately fragile men who are convinced that women have wings could create such a drastic thing as the harem, a prison that presents itself as a palace” (8).  Thus, Mernissi describes a harem that is a prison, keeping in women because the men are afraid of not having power over them.  In this view the women are “active participants, while Westerners such as Matisse, Ingres, and Picasso show [women] as nude and passive” (15).  The harem was created because men were afraid of women’s power, not because the women were passive and willing to offer their bodies loosely to men.

Though these women are imprisoned, they are powerful, Mernissi argues.  Women of harems use skills and knowledge to get the attention of their harem master.  These women are reduced to slaves and it seems the only way up is through education and artistry.  The westerner’s view of an odalisque though is women using their bodies as a way of control.  “The Oriental Scheherazade is purely cerebral, and that is the essence of her sexual attraction” (39), Mernissi argues, uncovering a vast gap between the West and the East’s understanding of a harem.  “Even when Scheherazade chooses to speak in the register of pornography, she has a political message to convey” (64).  The true understanding of these women is not as sexual objects, but as politicians and advocates speaking in a way they will be heard.

As Mernissi’s understanding of the West’s view of the harem, she began to notice, “[western] men rely more on fashion to establish their distance from women, and more consciously emphasize their power through clothing” (106).  There is a façade of equality in the West, and “the image of beauty in the West can hurt and humiliate a woman as much as the veil does when enforced” (208).   Veils and the confines of a harem entrap some women, while others are suffocated by the ideal image of beauty—fitting into a size 6 as Mernissi points out.  Men dictate this ideal image causing women to fear ugliness and inadequacy.   Finally, Mernissi insightfully points out, “Being frozen into the passive position of an object whose very existence depends on the eye of its beholder turns the educated modern Western woman into a harem slave” (219).  The Western women are not openly slaves to men, but are defined by their image, evaluated or devaluated, causing them to become nothing more than an object for men to gaze upon.


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