The Bikini vs The Berka


There are many things to believe in, many ideals under which humans voluntarily place themselves in order to draft a map of meaning.  These influences are sometimes put in place by parents, teachers, lovers, and pastors but in every way society and culture are the behind the scenes puppet masters of the organization of belief.  When asked where the epistemology of beliefs comes from, most people have a difficult time answering or claim that they have always felt a certain way or another.  For those who notice the puppet masters pulling the strings of influence, there is a way to get out, to see the world from a different angle: travel.  According to Fatema Mernissi her grandmother claimed that “To travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself.”  Through Mernissi the reader watches as she discovers exactly what that one phrase means and how many different aspects of her life it will affect while at the same time affecting the minds of so many other people.  By warning the reader that her perceptions have been challenged she is welcoming the reader on a journey of discovery from which everyone will benefit.  In “Scheherazade Goes West” Mernissi struggles to understand how western cultures make sense of their women through the avenue of how her favorite literary character is handled in the hands of western men.

   When Mernissi writes she does so as though she were speaking to the audience over tea, her words are passionate marking the emotion she has been taken by very clearly.  This style of communicating her points is highly effective as it evokes the reader’s sympathies forcing an understanding through layers of different cultures.  Her points are all made in such a matter of fact way that the reader feels a fool to not jump on board one hundred percent.  This is highly effective except that it takes half the book to realize that the arguments of Mernissi’s that are agreed with so strongly are actually quite foreign. The most powerful of these is during a conversation Mernissi has with her Persian reporter friend when she claims, “Muslim men seem to get a sort of virile power from veiling women and harassing them in the streets if they aren’t ‘covered’ properly, while Western men like yourself seem to derive a tremendous pleasure from unveiling them.”  To the Western mind the last half is so obvious that it takes a little bit of time to decipher the first part.  The reader simply agrees with Mernissi and moves on.  It is however within this one statement that her entire position could be broken down.  Muslim men see the inherent beauty of a strong powerful woman and know that if they do not do something to hide her from the rest of the world that someone else will see her beauty and try to steal it from them.  The sentiment is still unfortunately patriarchal but in a way that admits its own weakness.  In Western cultures the men attempt to strip everything away about a woman that is strong and beautiful in an attempt to convince her that she must be constantly rebuilding herself in ways approved by the men with constantly changing rules.  This is why women are expected to wear makeup, skimpy clothing, high heels, perfectly quaffed hair but all in different styles.  By trying to stay on top of current trends thus making yourself a more desirable target for a mate, Western women do not all have the time to devote to building up the more important personally empowering characteristics that their Muslim sisters do. 

    More examples of this concept are seen when Mernissi first personally encounters how Western authors have all handled her beloved Scheherazade.  She watches as her heroine is debased into a royal court fashion accessory, a threatening intellect that must be killed, and a vapid waste of space.  None of these being characteristics attributed to her childhood role model.  What seems to be even more insulting is watching Mernissi detail her observations of Jaques to his harems that he has deposited all over Paris.  She watches in mute horror as the women are controlled by sex and sensuality, creating a picture of perfect female sexual submission, the most base use one person could require of another. 

   As a seemingly liberated female living in a Western environment Mernissi argues that it is time to take a journey of discovery to discern a deeper truth.  To do this an introspection of influence and beliefs must be undertaken and meditated upon all the while setting out front the image of Scheherazade, strong, confidant, powerful and completely unexpected.


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