Finding Freedom

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In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European men travelled to Eastern countries for both political and recreational reasons. However, culturally, they were unable to observe Eastern Harems. Therefore, their writings about Eastern women were mere assumptions. This is what fanned the flame for furthered orientalism, or the way of seeing Arab peoples and cultures in a distorted and exaggerative way, especially compared to that of Europe and the US. Western men assumed that Eastern women lived in a polygamous culture in extreme seclusion, and a lot of Western writings from that time wrote of uncontrollable male sexuality and supposed oppression. The harem was like a blank canvas, unable to be explored by Westerners, therefore “filled in” with what they simply imagined. Unfortunately, their assumptions became the norm in the Western world.

harem painting

In Fatema Mernissi’s book tour travels, she became fascinated by Western male journalist’s idea of harem life. In Scheherazade Goes West, she wrote of the Western men’s view of the Eastern Harem; an essentially euphoric world where Eastern men prefer their women to be submissive and silent, where the women wear little and say next to nothing. Fatema describes the Western Harem as a “pleasure garden where omnipotent men reign supreme over obedient women”. The reality is that Muslim men often describe themselves as having fear of women and major self-doubt in their harems, real or imagined. Muslim women are actually praised for their intelligence, a conclusion that Western men don’t come to in their idealized harem.

Women in the Middle East are often seen as universally oppressed. One of the most compelling arguments that I’ve ever heard in regards to my own culture, is that perhaps western women are just as oppressed; a different kind of harem. It’s the difference between a literal harem and cultural harem. It is estimated that the average American woman sees 400-600 advertisements per day. Women are bombarded with Western images of the “ideal” body; long legs, thin waist, big boobs, tan, flawless skin, perfect teeth- you get the point. Thinness is emphasized as a standard for female beauty. However, the bodies idealized in the media are atypical and not necessarily healthy. Today’s fashion models weigh 23% less than the average female. In a study on young girls, 69% said that magazine models influence their idea of the perfect body shape. This creates an unrealistic standard for the majority of women.

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Fatema, being a 30 something Moroccan woman, never once thought she was “too big”, ugly, or unattractive, until she stepped into an American department store. Without hesitation, the middle-aged saleswoman looked at her and said, “There are no skirts here your size” and “4 and 6 are the norm”. It was one of the first times that Fatema ever felt insecure about her body. However, this little incident gave Fatema a huge revelation: “Now at last, the mystery of my Western Harem made sense. Framing youth as beauty and condemning maturity is the weapon used against women in the West just as limiting access to public space is the weapon used in the East. I realized for the first time that maybe “size 6” is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil”.

I found this revelation extremely compelling. Again, I’m learning of a new perspective. I’ve always had very strong opinions on Western media and their portrayal of women. I’ve seen how it’s affected the overall confidence of some of the most beautiful, strong, amazing women I know. I’ve also had to fight against it myself. Not only does Fatema’s statement compel me to think of my own culture in a different light, but further forces me to be rid of any preconceived notions I may have had, consciously or unconsciously, of Eastern women.

All that to be said, I’m researching and reflecting on things that I’ve yet to experience without having had a face-to-face conversation with someone who has actually experienced it. Hearing individual stories and truly immersing myself in a culture will teach me so much more than what I can read about sitting in a classroom. I’m especially curious about Muslim women’s opinions of American women. It will be enlightening to ask the question about Muslim women’s view on oppression. Do they actually feel oppressed in any way? Do they view me as oppressed? What about freedom? I identify my freedom with my faith. Do they?

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