Refuge from the Harem

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The hammam.  Girl talk central.  The six of us sat crosslegged and topless on the slippery tile floor, our skin having just been scrubbed smooth and our hair freshly washed.  We chatted with our new Moroccan friend Fatma about boys, parents, school – finding common ground as college students and as women although we live nearly worlds apart.  We Americans were feeling for the first time the gentle feminine unity of the traditional communal bathhouse.  The acceptance and openness of bodies and hearts in the hammam was an almost overwhelming contrast to our Western ideals of privacy, competition, and obsession with perfection.  There is a sense of relaxation and communion in all aspects of Moroccan life very different from my Western experience: for example, complete strangers piling into a taxi, chatting up the driver on the way to their destination, or the Moroccan mother telling us to sit down on the couch while she prepares tea and cookies even though we were only planning to stop by for a minute.  Leisure and generosity are ingrained in Moroccan culture, and to me it is one of the most foreign parts.  The hammam reflects these values.

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Mernissi’s concept of the Western Harem critiques how self-examination, competition, and the quest for the “perfect” body rule Western women.  We are expected to look like Barbie dolls.  A tiny, silent, plastic toy is our beauty ideal.  And from childhood, we are taught to aspire to this unrealistic image.  We mentioned this to Fatma as we lounged on the floor, enjoying the warmth of the steam and each other’s company.

Fatma cracked a small smile.  “In Morocco, fatter is cuter,” she said.  “The boys, they like fat girls.  I hate being skinny.”

This remark stunned me.  A cross-cultural exchange: sharing the harem.  This shows how beauty ideals are socially constructed; a Moroccan man’s desire may be an American man’s disgust.  And why?  Because of constructed cultural cues, handed down and internalized.  As a woman who has never been considered “thin,” I found hope in Fatma’s remark – maybe thinner isn’t actually universally better! – but I was also filled with sadness.  Is it possible to find a culture that does not feel the confines of the harem?

But in a world where we as women are taught to police ourselves and one another, the hammam is a blissful escape, where our nervous condition is scrubbed away with our skin and we can rest in the embrace of uninhibited womanhood.

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