Art and Image: Tools of Power and Domination

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The power and importance of images has come up again and again as we quickly prepare to embark on our journey.  We’ve discussed how images shape not just what we see, but how we see as well.  In Scheherazade Goes West, author Fatema Mernissi weaves an incredible picture of just how powerful art is in influencing both Islamic and Western views on a woman’s place in the bedroom, society, and wider politics and culture.  To her, art is incredibly important, because it flips the script on how we view women and the spaces they inhabit in these two respective worlds.  Art also reflects harrowing truths that we sometimes miss in real life, freezing a snapshot of the artist’s deepest fantasies for us to examine.

Thus, Mernissi embarks on a journey to understand why in the West, with its “enlightened” men and progressive politics, there are so many celebrated paintings of these passive and nude odalisques hanging in great halls of museums.  Mernissi is further shocked that in the West, even Scheherazade, the princess who makes the Sultan fall in love and change his ways by using her words to create powerful stories, has been transformed into nothing more than a seductive nude that uses her body to make the Sultan fall in love.  The West, for all its freedoms, still uses art as a method to imprison women in a less obvious, but just as sinister, harem.  Christiane, Mernissi’s French editor, explained that in Western erotic art, men are never depicted in their own harems, rather, it “‘was always a male observer looking at a nude woman he paralyzes in a frame'” (184).  The “male gaze”, as it’s referred to, is tied to philosophy and modern culture, where “‘Even now,’ she said, ‘I still hear the unavoidable…be beautiful and shut up – both in the workplace and in personal relations…'” (184).

In stark contrast, Mernissi details her own Islamic experience with art, where a woman’s intelligence is celebrated and images depict beautiful women as fiercely clever story tellers, adventurers, and boundary-crossers who aren’t afraid to be in control or pursue happiness.  She states that unlike the West, where men were in control of the painting and acquisition of art up until recently and used it as a means to revel in their fantasies and dominate the real women around them, in the Islamic world, powerful and public women, like Princess Nur-Jahan, influenced the art that was being made and because of her initiative, women were “no longer quite so invisible as they had been” (191).  Mernissi states, “The basis of misogyny in Islam is actually quite weak, resting only on the distribution of space” (192).  Once women breach that and make their way into the public space, male supremacy is jeopardized.

In the West then, famous painters and artists like Ingres who painted passive odalisques were not painting realistic portraits of Islamic harem women.  Those passive nudes do not exist in the Orient.  Rather, these artists, “bred in democracy, [were] dreaming of odalisques and an Islamic civilization that [they] confused with women’s passivity” (200), when in reality, Islamic women are anything but passive.

Mernissi argues after being turned away from an American department store because she is too large for a “size 6”, that perhaps the “size 6” is a more “violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil” (213).  She writes, “Unlike the Muslim man, who uses spaces to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light.  he declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look fourteen years old” (213).

Another way the Western man manipulates time and light is through art.  In paintings, we are portrayed as young, passive, and nude, and if in reality, we do not look the way they have painted us, we are deemed invisible and irrelevant.  We have all been looking with disgust at art we’ve thought depicted an oppressive Muslim harem.  In reality, it seems we have been looking at our own captivity.

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