Western and Eastern Harems

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“In both miniatures and literature, Muslim men represent women as active participants, while Westerners such as Matisse, Ingres, and Picasso show them as nude and passive.” This is one of Fatema Mernissi’s earliest discoveries as she travels through Europe and America looking for the answers to her questions about men’s fantasies of what a women should be. As a woman who grew up in a harem and experiencing firsthand its restrictive nature, it seems the most obvious metaphor to describe the enslavement that women face in conforming to the standards set for them by men.

In the Muslim world, men control women by limiting the space they inhabit. 07_10_2006_1842 Forced veiling in public places and the restriction of many professions are some ways that women are kept ‘in their place.’ In the “western harem” however, Mernissi discovers that the restrictions put on women are constraints of time and light. Youth is framed as beauty and maturity is condemned which pressures women to look younger and almost childlike. The metaphor of the harem, though, is not only used to describe the suppressing standards for women, but also the sexual fantasies of men.

As Mernissi was traveling on a book tour, she was bewildered to see men’s eyes light up when she mentioned growing up in a harem. To western men, a harem represents the ideal sexual environment. To Merissi, it represents a reality of imprisonment in an establishment where a multitude of women are prevented from leaving. As she dug deeper into men’s sparked interest in harem life she made discoveries about the fantasies of men, which have nothing in common with the reality of the haram she knows.

Through observing art and culture, Mernissi made a startling discovery, which clarified the reason for western men’s fascination with the eastern harem. It is a place that, to them, represents the epitome of erotic pleasure, a place where women are readily available without the obligation of intellectual or emotional communication first. She explains that what attracts western men to women, at least on the level of fantasy, is the absence of intellectual exchange, which is seen as an obstacle to erotic pleasure. Conversely, eastern men fantasized about women, such as the legendary storyteller Scherezade, who are talented and intelligent. Intellectual exchange with a woman is crucial for an eastern man and according to Mernissi, this is true for both real and imagined Muslim harems.

Beyond the observations from interactions with men, Mernissi also spent time looking into Muslim and Western art and how they portray women. One interesting discovery was a painting called Odalisque with Red Trousers by Matisse. Henri Matisse - Odalisque with Red TrousersWhat Mernissi noticed about this painting was that the date, 1921. The painting portrayed a Turkish Odalisque (haram slave girl) but the painting was finished in a time when Turkish women were entering politics and professions. Mernissi was dumbfounded that an image created by Matisse could keep Turkish women in slavery instead of displaying the reality. She wondered, “Could it really be that an image has more power than reality?…Is reality that fragile? This idea of the image as a weapon that condenses time and devalues reality made me very uncomfortable.”

Time, space, and art are all ways that men exercise control over women and enforce their dominion over them. Western women are pressured to manipulate time to appear younger, reminiscent of a child with child-like intellect and naiveté. Eastern women are manipulated through the restriction of space, both literal public spaces and professional spaces. And artists like Matisse demonstrate the power of an image to demote women to an object of fantasy removed from the existence of her increasingly politically involved reality. Though real harems have been obsolete for years, they are very much alive and well in their metaphorical understanding of men’s controlling fantasies of the ideal, well behaved, sexy woman in both the East and the West.

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