Western Harem

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The Western Harem

Amidst of the hours dwindling down to the beginning of our journeys to Morocco and Spain, a particular quote by Fatema Mernissi from the her book “Scheherazade Goes West” has resonated with me: “Travel helps you figure out who you are and how your own culture controls you.” (p. 90) Throughout the book, Mernissi presents the traveling as a beacon for understanding other cultures and as a means for shedding veils of predisposed assumptions. While Mernissi does not insist that the male-female relationships in the East are ideal or faultless, she reveals that there are faults of gender inequality that transcend between Eastern and Western culture.

In the tales of famous distinguished women in the East, the leading women are all described as being well-established and intellectual. Women of the East depend and take pride in their intelligence and strength of convictions. Men of East also value women with intellect. Unfortunately, when compared to the general consensus of the values of women and men of the West, empty materialistic expectations confer a woman’s worth. Immanuel Kant, a Western philosopher expresses the Western ideals of beauty are for women to be “…speechless. For not only does great knowledge wipe out a woman’s charm…but exhibiting such knowledge kills femininity altogether.” (p. 91)

It is clear through Mernissi’s tales that femininity is depicted heterogeneously amongst different cultures. Although I detest Kant’s understanding of femininity, his ideals are apparent in our current societal understanding of beauty. Both Eastern and Western cultures have created ideal standards for women and in this way, women of all cultures are trapped in an invisible, inescapable harem. According to Mernissi, men of the Eastern culture trap women in harems because they are intimidated by their intellect and their potential disrupt the culture. But men of the Western culture, on the other hand, trap women into harems depending on physical appearance expectations.

In a way, it seems as though Western women are trapped in a worst harem because society dictates how a woman should look and then determines worth based on that look; creating a vicious cycle of discontent and diminished self-worth. On the other hand, Eastern women are not expected to strive for a certain look, and thus are more likely to be content within their own skin.

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