The Harem in Eastern and Western Perceptions


The beauty ideal in Western culture: a woman with a paralyzed brain.

Is this true? Is a women’s sexual appeal really only restricted to her physicality?

It shocked me to learn that Kant, one of the most prevalent philosophers in the West, testified in his writing that femininity is the beautiful and masculinity is the sublime, ultimately distinguishing the sexes by designating one as the exclusive realm of emotion and the other reason. Building from this long held belief, the Western harem, as Moroccan writer Fatema Mernissi coins it, is definitely a fantasy institution restricted entirely to “body politics” (52). There exists a harem today in the minds of western men that fetishizes the ultimate dream: “an orgiastic feast where men benefit from a true miracle: receiving sexual pleasure without resistance or trouble from the women they had reduced to slaves” (14). Western media has often portrayed eastern cultures as radically anti-feminist. Rather, it is Western culture that is missing the inherent fear Muslim women instill in Muslim men – women who are deemed men’s equal in the eyes of God and the Koran. Where the Western harem of the mind idolizes silent women who are overly sexualized and subservient to their master, the Eastern harem of old ironically dignifies these slave women and restores to them their power and intelligence that is key to their survival. Rather, in regards to the story of Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, “the Oriental Scheherazade is purely cerebral and that is the essence of her sexual attraction” (39). The Eastern harem fears their women who must educate themselves in order to earn favor with their masters and survive the unequal order of the autocratic harem establishment. In Scheherazade’s case, she employs language, the power of oral storytelling, in order to protect herself from her husband who becomes enraptured by her words. A stupid woman gets nowhere in the true harems of old, a message that is further supported by the tale of Tawaddud who invests entirely in her intellect in order to capture and keep up with her caliph who would have otherwise killed her. Women are dangerous, and Muslim men acknowledge this significant power they possess. Arabian Nights artwork16

Personally, I know that my Western programming has first introduced me to the type of harem that is “skin-deep, cosmetic and superficial” (74). I remember back in high school a group of Arabic girls who had wished to perform a belly-dance for an assembly meant to celebrate world cultures. They were turned down on the grounds of the dance being too sexualized. Mernissi contests this view by affirming that “In the Middle East and North Africa today, the belly-dance is seldom viewed, at least by women, as the monochromatic, physical agitation of the flesh, divorced from spirituality, that it is often portrayed as being in Hollywood films” (70). The Eastern harem does not glorify the flesh, which seems to be the predominant fiction of the West. Why are Western men, endowed with human rights and raised in a culture that upholds a democratic ideology, intrigued by a woman without brains? Mata_HariIt is clear that the East understands that sexual relations, specifically intercourse, are nothing if the partners are not equally yoked. By definition in Arabic, intercourse is described as kiasa, which literally means “to negotiate” (40). And in order to communicate and achieve orgasm, both parties must employ their minds. Ultimately, the Eastern harem, where it is an unfair and perverse system, operates on the assumption of the power and intelligence of women. Everything that is blown out of proportion by Hollywood such as belly-dancing and the Oriental dress/cosmetics is subservient to the ulterior motives of these women’s minds. In fact, they are employed with a much more educated intent, belly-dancing specifically engaging a spiritual dimension that is perceived today as an exercise in empowerment and self-enhancement (71).

To summarize, it is not a matter of beauty versus intellect, as it is in the Western harem; rather, intellect is the basis of both beauty and power – the key to a woman’s survival in the Eastern harem.


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