Sunday, January 21, 2007

Scheherazade Goes West

After finishing Dreams of Trespass I went on to read Fatema Mernissi's book Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. In this book Mernissi attempts to understand the differences and similarities between the invisible harems of the West and the Muslim world. The book itself is very interesting, as Mernissi delves into the rich history of strong Muslim women against the virtual invisibility of powerful women in the history of the West. She makes the argument that, although throughout time Muslim women have been hidden away in harems and behind veils, they have always been valued for strength, intelligence and talent. In the imperial harems, she explains, Kings and Emperors chose their wives (or jarya or odalisques) based on their levels of talent and intelligence. She also compares the portrayal of Scheherazade, the heroine of The Thousand and One Nights, in the Western world and the Muslim world (where the tales were born). In the East, Scheherazade has always been viewed as an extremely strong woman, with a creative and very sharp mind, whose survival comes from her own intelligence. In the West, Scheherazade has been portrayed as the epitome of Oriental female beauty, who more or less charms the King into sparing her life.

The following excerpt comes from after Mernissi, while giving a book tour in Germany, attends the ballet Scheherazade, choreographed by the Russian Sergey Diaghilev. I
t highlights what she perceives as some of the main differences between the Western and Muslim view of this mythical female heroine:

To my surprise, the ballet's Scheherazade lacked the most powerful erotic weapon a woman has -- her nutq, or capacity to think in words and penetrate a man's brain by using carefully selected terms. The Oriental Scheherazade does not dance like the one I saw in the German ballet. Instead, she thinks and strings words into stories, so as to dissuade her husband from killing her. Unlike the Scheherazade in the German book I'd
seen earlier, who emphasizes her body, the Oriental Scheherazade is purely cerebral, and that is the essence of her sexual attraction. In the original tales, Scheherazade's body is hardly mentioned, but her learning is repeatedly stressed. The only dance she performs is to play with words late into the night, in a manner known as samar.

Samar is one of the m
any Arabic words loaded with sensuality. Though literally, it simply means to talk into the night, it also implies that to talk softly in the darkness can open up incredibly rich veins of feeling. Samar reaches its perfect state when there is a moon; "the shadow of the moon" (zil al qamar) is, in fact, another meaning of samar. In the shadow of the moon, the lovers fade into their cosmic origin and become part of the shimmering sky. In the shadow of the moon, dialogue between a man and a woman -- as difficult as it seems during the day -- becomes a possibility. Trust between the sexes has a better chance to flourish when the conflicts of the sky have faded. The Oriental Scheherazade is nothing without the fluid yet so intense hope of samar. You hardly pay attention to her body, so powerful is the spell of her fragile call for dialogue into the quiet night.

What on earth, I wondered as I remembered this, is the exact meaning of orgasm in a culture where attractive women are denied brain power? What words do Westerners use for orgasm if the woman's brain
is missing? Intercourse is by definition a communication between two individuals; actually, in Arabic, one word for intercourse is kiasa, which literally means "to negotiate." And what has to be negotiated in sexual intercourse is the harmonization of expectations and needs, which can be accomplished only when the two partners use their brains. Scheherazade survived because she realized that her husband associated sexual intercourse with pain instead of pleasure. To get him to change his associations, she had to work on his mind. If she had danced in front of that man, he would have killed her as he had all the others before her.

(pp. 39-40)


At the end of her book, Mernissi comes to a realization that many Western feminist authors have come to before her. She comes to understand that the dominant paradigm of the Western world has
created its own invisible harem for its women -- one that she believes is far more dangerous than the veil used in the Muslim world.

Her is a selection from her final chapter. It's rather long, but I thought it was quite powerful, and it embodies much of the message of the entire book. It occurs when she is on a trip in New York and enters into a clothing store wanting to buy a skirt. The saleswoman informs her that she must go to a specialty store to find a "deviant size" such as hers (read: above a size 6). Here is her epiphany moment which comes when the saleslady asks her where she comes from:

"I come from a country where there is no size for women's clothes," I told her. "I buy my own material and the neighborhood seamstress or craftsman makes me the silk or leather skirt I want. They just take my measurements each time I see them. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. We discover it together in the making. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time. Actually, I don't know what my size is, to tell you the truth."

The saleswoman laughed merrily and said that I should advertise my country as a paradise for stressed working women. "You mean you don't watch your weight?" she inquired, with a tinge of disbelief in her voice. And then, after a brief moment of silence, she
added in a lower register, as if talking to herself: "Many women working in highly paid fashion-related jobs could lose their position if they didn't keep to a strict diet."

Her words sounded so s
imple, but the threat they implied was so cruel that I realized for the first time that maybe "size 6" is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil.


Yes, I thought as I wandered off, I have finally found the answer to my harem enigma. Unlike the Muslim man, who uses space 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. If she dares to look fifty, or worse, sixty, she is beyo
nd the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility. In fact, the modern Western man enforces Immanuel Kant's nineteenth-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.

These We
stern attitudes, I thought, are even more dangerous and cunning than the Muslim ones because the weapon used against women is time. Time is less visible, more fluid than space. The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within an idealized childhood, and forces women to perceive aging -- that normal unfolding of the years -- as a shameful devaluation ... This Western time-defined veil is even crazier than the space-defined one enforced by the Ayatollahs.

The violence embodied in the Western harem is less visible than in the Eastern harem because aging is not attacked directly, but rather masked as an aesthetic choice. Yes, I suddenly felt no only very ugly but also quite useless in that store, where, if you had big hips, you were simply out of the picture. You drifted into the fringes of nothingness. By putting the spotlight on the prepubescent female, the Western man veils the older, more mature woman, wrapping her in shrouds of ugliness. This idea gives me the chills because it tattoos the invisible harem directly onto a woman's skin. Chinese foot-binding worked the same way: Men declared beautiful only those women who had small, childlike feet. Chinese men did not have to force women to bandage their feet to keep them from developing normally -- all they did was to define the beauty ideal. In feudal China, a beautiful woman was the one who voluntarily sacrificed her right to unhindered physical movement by mutilating her own feet, and thereby proving that her main goal in life was to please men. Similarly, in the Western world, I was expected to shrink my hips to a size 6 if I wanted to find a decent skirt tailored for a beautiful woman.


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. The objective remains identical in both cultures: to make women feel unwelcome, inadequate, and ugly.

The power of the Western man resides in dictating what women should wear and how they should look. He controls the whole fashion industry, from cosmetics to underwear. The West, I realized, was the only part of the world where women's fashion is a man's business. In places like Morocco, where you design your own clothes and discuss them with craftsmen and -women, fashion is your own business. Not so in the West. As Naomi Wolf explains in The Beauty Myth, men have engineered a prodigious amount of fetish-like, fashion-related paraphernalia: "Powerful industries -- the $33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetic industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry, and $7-billion pornography industry -- have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral.

But how does the system function? I wondered. Why do women accept it? Of all the possible explanations, I like that of the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, the best. In his latest book, La Domination Masculine, he proposes something he calls "la violence symbolique": "Symbolic violence is a form of power which is hammered directly on the body, and as if by magic, without any apparent physical constraint. But this magic operates only because it activates the codes pounded in the deepest layers of the body." ... Both Naomi Wolf and Pierre Bordieu come to the conclusion that insidious "body codes" paralyze Western women's abilities to compete for power, even though access to education and professional opportunities seem wide open, because the rules of the game are so different according to gender. Women enter the power game with so much of their energy deflected to their physical experience that one hesitates to say that the playing field is level. "A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty," explains Wolf. It is "an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one." Research, she contends, "confirmed what most women knew too well -- that concern with weight leads to a 'virtual collapse of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness' and that . . . 'prolonged and periodic caloric restriction' resulted in a distinctive personality whose traits are passivity, anxiety and emotionality." Similarly, Bourdieu, who focuses more on how this myth hammers its inscriptions onto the flesh itself, recognizes that constantly reminding women of their physical appearance destabilizes them emotionally because it reduces them to exhibited objects. "By confining women to the status of symbolical objects to be seen and perceived by the other, masculine domination ... puts women in a state of constant physical insecurity ... They have to strive ceaselessly to be engaging, attractive, and available." Being frozen into the passive position of an object whose very existence depends on the eye of its beholder turns the educated modern Western woman into a harem slave.

"I thank you, Allah, for sparing my the tyranny of the 'size 6 harem,' " I repeatedly said to myself while seated on the Paris-Casablanca flight, on my way back home at last. "I am so happy that the conservative male elite does not know about it. Imagine the fundamentalists switching from the veil to forcing women to fit size 6."


Mernissi, Fatema.
Scheherazade Goes West. New York: Washington Square Press, 2001.

Monday, January 15, 2007

dreams of trespass

I just finished reading the book Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi. Mernissi is well-known Moroccan feminist and sociologist, as well as a lecturer at University Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood details her beginning years growing up in a domestic harem in Fez, Morocco. This book was just so fantastic and soooo much of it touched me very deeply. So... I want to share some excerpts.

This first excerpt is making an attempt to define the term harem; the young Fatima is having a discussion with her maternal grandmother Yasmina.


Yasmina said that I needed to relax about this right-and-wrong business. She said that there were things which could be both, and things which could be neither. "Words are like onions," she said, "The more skin you peel off, the more meanings you encounter. And when you start discovering multiplicities of meanings, then right and wrong becomes irrelevant. All these questions about harems that you and Samir have been asking are all fine and good, but there will always be more to be discovered." And then she added, "I am going to peel one more skin for you now. But remember, it is only one among others."

The word "harem," she said, was a slight variation of the word haram, the forbidden, the proscribed. It was the opposite of halal, the permissible. Harem was the place where a man sheltered his family, his wife or wives, and children and relatives. It could be a house or a tent, and it referred both to the space and to the people who lived within it. One said "Sidi So-and-So's harem," referring both to his family members and to his physical home. One thing that helped me see this more clearly was when Yasmina explained that Mecca, the holy city, was also called Haram. Mecca was a space where behavior was strictly codified. The moment you stepped inside, you were bound by many laws and regulations. People who entered Mecca had to be pure: they had to perform purification rituals, and refrain from lying, cheating, and doing harmful deeds. The city belonged to Allah and you had to obey his shari'a, or sacred law, if you entered his territory. The same thing applied to a harem when it was a house belonging to a man. No other men could enter it without the owner's permission, and when they did, they had to obey his rules. A harem was about private space and the rules regulating it. In addition, Yasmina said, it did not need walls. Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within. You had it in your head, "inscribed under your forehead and under your skin."

(p. 61)


The next excerpt comes from a chapter in which Mernissi is discussing her childhood understanding of World War II and the Jews. I found this to be particularly fascinating, considering the current animosity between Arabs and Jews. Just a warning, this particular excerpt is kind of long, but it is completely worth reading in its entirety.


The mysterious Allemane (Germans) were not only after the French, however; they had also declared war on the Jews. The Allemane forced the Jews to wear something yellow whenever they stepped out into the streets, just as the Muslim men asked the women to wear a veil, so they could be spotted immediately. Why the Allemane were after the Jews, no one in the courtyard was really able to say. Samir and I kept asking questions, running around from one embroidery team to another on quiet afternoons, but all we got was speculation. "It could be the same thing as with women here," said Mother. "No one really knows why men force us to wear veils. Something to do with the difference maybe. Fear of the difference makes people behave in strange ways. The Allemane must feel safer when they are by themselves, just like the men in the Medina who get nervous whenever women appear. If the Jews insist on their difference, that could unsettle the Allemane. Crazy world."

In Fez, the Jews had their own district, called the Mellah. It took exactly half an hour to get there from our house, and the Jews looked just like everyone else, dressing in long robes similar to our djellabas. They wore hats instead of turbans, that's all. They minded their own business and kept to their Mellah, making beautiful jewelry and pickling their vegetables in a most delicious way. Mother had tried to pickle zucchinis, small cucumbers, and tiny eggplants the Mellah way, but she had never succeeded. "They must say some magic words," she concluded.

Like us, the Jews had their own prayers, loved their God, and taught His book to their children. They had built a synagogue for Him, which was like our mosque, and we shared the same prophets, with the exception of our beloved Mohammed, Allah's Prayer and Peace Upon Him. (I never went too far in listing the prophets, because it got too complicated and I was afraid of making a mistake. My teacher Lalla Tam said that making mistakes in religious matters could send a person to hell. It was called tashif, or blasphemy, and as I already had decided that I was going to paradise, I tried to stay away from mistakes.) One thing was for sure, the Jews had always lived with Arabs, since the beginning of time, and the Prophet Mohammed had liked them when he first started preaching Islam. But then they did something nasty, and he decided, that if the two religious were to co-exist in the same city, they would have to live in separate quarters. Jews were well organized and had a strong sense of community, much stronger than ours. In the Mellah, the poor were always taken care of and all the children went to highly disciplined Alliance Israélite schools.

What I could not understand was, what were the Jews doing in the country of the Allemane? How did they get there, into Snowland? I thought that Jews, like Arabs, preferred warm climates and steered away from snow. They had lived in the city of Medina, in the middle of the Arabian Desert, during the Prophet's time, fourteen centuries ago, right? And before that, they had lived in Egypt, not that far from Mecca, and in Syria. At any rate, the Jews had always hung around with the Arabs.

[Footnote: This idea of Jews and Muslims belonging together may seem strange today, but the events in this book took place before the creation of the State of Israel in May 1948. At that time, this vision of a strong cultural and historical bond between Jews and Muslims was very prevalent, especially in Morocco, where both communities still had a fresh memory of the Spanish Inquisition, which had led to their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Bernard Lewis wrote an interesting chapter about this pre-1948 vision, in which he explains that many Europeans then believed that the Jews and Muslims had conspired together against Christian interests in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bernard Lewis, "Les Juifs pro-Islamiques," in Le retour de l'Islam, french translation; Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1984, p. 315). The radical shift in perception regarding the alliances between the three religions around the Mediterranean has happened in an incredibly short time. In fact, even at the end of the 1940s, the Moroccan Jewish community was impressive in numbers and one of the pillars of tradition in North Africa, with deep roots reaching far back into the local Berber pre-Islamic culture. Since then, most Jews have left Morocco, migrating to Israel and other countries such as France and, later, Canada. Today, the Fez Mellah is entirely populated by Muslims, and the Jews left in the country number only in the hundreds. Therefore, many Moroccan Jewish intellectuals have been trying as fast as they can to document the cultural characteristics of the Moroccan Jewish community, one of the most ancient of the world, which has vanished in less than a decade.


So the Arabs and the Jews lounged around there in Andalusia for seven hundred years, enjoying themselves as they recited poetry and looked up at the stars from the middle of their lovely jasmine and orange gardens, which they watered through an innovative and complicated irrigation system. We forgot all about them down here in Fez until one day, the city woke up to see hundreds of them streaming down into Morocco, screaming with fright, their house keys in their hands. A ferocious Christian queen named Isabella the Catholic had emerged from the snow and was after them. She had given them one hell of a beating and said, "Either you pray like us or we'll throw you into the sea." But in fact, she never gave them time to answer, and her soldiers pushed everyone into the Mediterranean. Muslims and Jews together swam to Tangier and Ceuta (unless they were among the lucky ones who found boats) and then ran to Fez to hide. That had happened five hundred years ago, and that was why we had a huge Andalusian community right in the heart of the Medina, near the Qaraouiyine Mosque, and the big Mellah, or Jewish quarter, a few hundred meters away.

But that still does not explain how the Jews ended up in the land of the Allemane, does it? Samir and I talked about this and decided that maybe, when Isabella the Catholic started screaming, some of the Jews walked the wrong way, heading north instead of south, and found themselves in the heart of Snowland. Then, since the Allemane were Christians, like Isabella the Catholic, they chased the Jews away because they did not pray alike. But Aunt Habiba said that this explanation did not sound right, because the Allemane were also fighting the French, who were Christians too and worshipped the same God. So that put an end to that theory. Religion could not explain the war going on in Christendom.

I was about to suggest to Samir that we let the mysterious Jewish questions sit until the following year, when we would be much older and wiser, when Cousin Malika came up with a sensible but terrifying explanation. The war had to do with hair color! The blond-haired tribes were fighting the brown-haired peope! Crazy! The Allemane, in this case, were the blonds, tall and pale, while the French were the brunettes, smaller and darker. The poor Jews, who had simply gone the wrong way when Isabella chased everyone from Spain, were trapped between the two. They just happened to be in the war zone, and they just happened to have brown hair. They were not part of any camp!

So, the might Allemane were after anyone with dark hair and dark eyes. Samir and I were terrified. We checked what Malika had said with Cousin Zin, and he said that she was absolutely right. Hi-Hitler -- that was the name of the king of the Allemane -- hated dark hair and dark eyes and was throwing bombs from planes wherever a dark-haired population was spotted. Jumping into the water would not do any good either, because he would send submarines to fish you out. Looking up at his older brother, Samir put his hands over his sleek jet-black hair, as if to hide it, and said, "But do you think that once the Allemane have knocked out the French and the Jews, they'll push south and come down to Fez?" Zin's answer was vague; he said that the newspapers did not mention anything about the Allemane's long-term plans.

That night, Samir begged his mother to promise to put henna in his hair, in order to redden it, the next time we went to the hammam (public baths), and I ran around with one of my mother's scarves securely tied around my head, until she noticed it and forced me to take it off. "Don't you ever cover your head!" Mother shouted. "Do you understand me? Never! I am fighting against the veil, and you are putting one on?! What is this nonsense?" I explained to her abut the Jews and the Allemane, the bombs and the submarines, but she was not impressed. "Even if Hi-Hitler, the Almighty King of the Allemane, is after you," she said, "you ought to face him with your hair uncovered. Covering your head and hiding will not help. Hiding does not solve a woman's problems. It just identifies her as an easy victim. Your Grandmother and I have suffered enough of this head-covering business. We know it does not work. I want my daughters to stand with their heads erect, and walk on Allah's planet with their eyes on the stars."

(pp. 94-96 and 98-100)


What I love the most about this passage is the childlike understanding of the situation. It was so fascinating to see this familiar situation through the eyes of child living in the Muslim world. There are just so many things to be said about all of it ... the Muslim/Jewish alliance, the Christian "reconquest" of Spain... I might devote an entry in the very near future to this latter subject because I find it particularly interesting. I also love the end, where Fatima's mother speaks about the veiling of women. If you read the book, you will see that she was surrounded by several very strong feminist women who obviously played a large role in shaping who she is today.

So this next passage pertains to the Americans, whose arrival in Casablanca in 1942 apparently confused the Moroccans. This excerpt, however, deals with the issue of race in America.


The other intriguing thing about the Americans was that they had blacks among them. There were blue-eyed Americans, and there were black Americans, and this surprised everyone. America was so far from the Sudan, the heart of Africa, and it was only in the heart of Africa that blacks were found. Mina was certain of that [My note: Mina was a servant in the Mernissi harem, kidnapped from the Sudan as a child and brought to Northern Africa], and everyone else agreed with her. Allah had given all the blacks one big land with thick forests, gushing rivers and beautiful lakes, just below the desert. So where had these black Americans come from? Did Americans have slaves, like the Arabs in the past? Believe it or not, when we asked Father that question, he said yes, the Americans had had slaves, and those black Americans were definitely Mina's cousins. Their ancestors had been captured long ago, and taken in boats all the way to America to work on big plantations. Things were different now, though, Father said. Now, the Americans used machines to do the work and slavery was most decidedly banned.

However, we could not figure out why, unlike the Arabs, white and black Americans did not mix and become just brown skinned, which was what usually happened when populations of whites and blacks lived together. "Why are the American whites still so white," asked Mina, "and the blacks still so black? Do they not intermarry?" When finally Cousin Zin gathered enough information to answer her question, it turned out that indeed, Americans did not intermarry. Instead, they kept their races separate. Their cities were divided into two medinas, one for the blacks and one for the whites, like we had in Fez for the Muslims and the Jews. We had a good laugh about that up there on the terrace, because anyone who wanted to separate people according to their skin color in Morocco was going to run into severe difficulties. People had mixed together so much that they came in hues of honey, almond, café au lait, and so many, many shades of chocolate. In fact, there often were both blue-eyed and dark-skinned brothers and sisters in the same family. Mina was really stunned at the idea of separating cities according to race. "We know that Allah separated men from women so as to control the population," she said, "and we know that Allah separated the religions, so that each group could conduct its own prayer, and invoke its own prophet. But what is the purpose of separating blacks from whites?" No one could answer that one question. It was one more mystery to be added to the rest.

(pp. 184-185)


There's not much to be said about that excerpt: I think it speaks for itself. Too bad it's still pretty much the same situation.

Ok, this next excerpt is on Morocco and modernity


Moroccan women, thirsty for liberation and change, had to export their feminists from the East, for their were no local ones as yet famous enough to become public figures and nurture their dreams. "No wonder Morocco is so far behind," Chama would remark from time to time. "Squeezed between the silence of the Sahara Desert in the South, the furious waves of the Atlantic Ocean in the West, and the Christian invaders' aggression from the North, Moroccans recoiled in defensive attitudes, while all the other Muslim nations have sailed away into modernity. Women have advanced everywhere except here. We are a museum. We should make tourists pay a fee at the gates of Tangier!"

(p. 128)


The reason why this passage struck a chord with me is mostly because it shows how radically things can change. Today, Morocco can be considered one of the more progressive Islamic nations, although up through the 1990s (known as the "Years of Lead") things were quite different. However, recently, Morocco passed one of the most progressive laws on women's rights in the Arab world. Speaking from my own personal experience as a tourist in Morocco, I would not equate it with the strict Muslim nations such as Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.

The following two excerpts both pertain to female liberation.


Once I asked Mina why she danced so smoothly while most of the other women made abrupt, jerky movements, and she said that many of the women confused liberation with agitation. "Some ladies are angry with their lives," she said "and so even their dance becomes an expression of that." Angry women are hostages of their anger. They cannot escape it and set themselves free, which is indeed a sad fate. The worst of prisons is the self-created one.

(p. 162)

"Aunt Habiba says that skin is important," I began, but Samir interrupted me. "I think that men have a different skin," he said. I just stared at him. There was nothing I could say because I realized that for the first time in our children's games, all that Samir had said was right, and that whatever I said did not matter that much. Suddenly, it all seemed so strange and complicated, and beyond my grasp. I could feel that I was crossing a frontier, stepping over a threshold, but I could not figure out what kind of new space I was stepping into.

Suddenly I felt sad for no reason, and I went up to Mina on the terrace and sat by her said. She stroked my hair. "Why are we so quiet today?" she asked. I told her about my conversation with Samir, and also about what had happened in the hammam. She listened with her back to the western wall, her yellow headdress as elegant as ever, and when I had finished, she told me that life was going to be tougher from now on for both me and Samir. "Childhood is when the difference does not matter," she said. "From now on, you won't be able to escape it. You'll be ruled by the difference. The world is going to turn ruthless."

"But why?" I asked her, "and why can't we escape the rule of the difference? Why can't men and women keep on playing together even when they are older? Why the separation?" Mina replied not by answering my questions but by saying that both men and women live miserable lives because of the separation. Separation creates an enormous gap in understanding. "Men do not understand women," she said, "and women do not understand men, and it all starts when little girls are separated from little boys in the hammam. Then a cosmic frontier splits the planet in two halves. The frontier indicates the line of power because wherever their is a frontier, there are two kinds of creatures walking on Allah's earth, the powerful on one side, and the powerless on the other."

I asked Mina how would I know on which side I stood. Her answer was quick, short, and very clear: "If you can't get out, you are on the powerless side."

(pp. 241-242)

All excerpts taken from:
Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Other books by Fatima Mernissi: (note: first name seems to be spelled as both Fatima and Fatema)

Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Indiana: Indiana University Press, Revised Edition, 1987.

The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. New York: Perseus Books Group, 1992.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. New York: Perseus Books Group, revised edition, 2002.

Women's Rebellion & Islamic Memory. England: Zed Books, 1996.

Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. Washington Square Press, 2001.

response to the ethnic mixing question

So, (a delightful and informative site on lesbian and bisexual women in entertainment) just recently did an interview with Janina Gavankar, who plays the role of The L Word's newest Latina, Papi. Earlier on I wrote about how strange I thought it was to continuously cast non-Latina actresses to play Latina characters. I was anxious to see if they brought up this ethnicity question in the interview. Sure enough, afterellen addressed the issue:

AE: Given that you’re not Latina, how do you feel about playing a Latina character on the show?
JG: You know, I get asked that a lot. … It’s sort of a strange question. I’m surprised people aren’t asking me what it’s like to play someone who’s gay, because I’m not gay either. So, it’s just acting, you know?

AE: So you get asked a lot about how it feels to play a Latina but not how it feels to play a lesbian?
JG: Yeah, I’m sort of surprised by that. Well, I’m not Latina, I’m not gay, I’m not from East L.A. I am brown. I’m not athletic, um … [laughs] I’m not very masculine. I’m not any of those things. I’m playing someone entirely different than me.

Ok, I was kind of disappointed by her response. I guess I get what she's saying. I'm definitely not one to claim that a person's ethnicity should be a central part of who they are. But still, I mean it's not like I could go and play the role of a supposed Black woman and say that it's just acting, so it shouldn't matter that I'm white ... I mean, I don't know. I still think it's weird. I mentioned earlier that the actress Iyari Limon was also one of the main contenders for the role of Carmen. Here's part of an interview with her concerning Carmen's "Mexican family" storyling. In the interview, Iyari has just mentioned how one of Carmen's infamous lines "Quiero lamarte hasta que te vengas en mi boca mil veces" was actually thanks to some improvisation by Iyari during her audition opposite Kate Moenning (who plays Shane).

AE: Were you angry?
A little, but at the same time, whatever. I guess if it's gonna work, whatever. But you know what did make me a little bit angry was the fact that in the breakdown t
hey said ‘She must be Latin and she must be fluent.'

And Carmen is not Latin, and she doesn't speak Spanish. And her Spanish when she speaks it on the show—I mean I love the character and I think she's hot and does a good job—but honestly, her Spanish is not the best.

The whole family is so stereotypical. I have hundreds of Mexican family and friends here—I mean I'm Mexican, I was born in Mexico , you know? I have tons of family there, tons of family here, all over– Las Vegas, Oklahoma, Texas--and none of my family is like that, or my friends' families. That's just so…wow, are you kidding me? I was really disappointed.

And I think from that episode on I just became so disappointed, I kind of stopped watching and then I started traveling.

AE: We actually did an article about that very issue recently—about the portrayal of Latinas on The L Word
I don't think they should have given her Spanish dialogue if she couldn't really speak it and have us Latins buy us. You don't have to speak Spanish, you could be still be Latin and speak a word here and there. But the dialogue…it was just really bad. (laughs)

And I thought, you know it's funny how they emphasized that she needs to be Latin, fluent, androgynous, and then they go completely with voluptuous, not Latin. That's how the business works, they don't know what they want sometimes.

If you want to read the rest of this interview, I have it linked back in the December 30th entry. And if you want to read afterellen's article on The L Word's portrayal of Latino culture, just click here

Well, I got to see Papi on last night's newest L Word episode. I admit, she's pretty hot and so far it seems like Janina Gavankar is doing a pretty good job portraying a Latina, other than the fact that she looks like she's South Asian (strangely). At least they're keeping the token Latina lesbian. Now all they need to do is get some representation of the Asian community. Hey, a girl can dream, right? Anyway here's a little intro scene of Papi, so you can judge for yourself about all this:

And just for fun, here's a video of the delicious Sarah Shahi playing Carmen. It's kind of long, as it contains various scenes from one particular episode of The L Word (I believe Season 3, Episode 9). Anyway, one of the scenes is Carmen coming out to her family (starts at about 6:00), so you can hear Sarah Shahi's spanish skills in action. I don't know why Showtime doesn't put subtitles in for the Spanish scenes, but for those who don't understand, Carmen's mom basically tells her that being a whore would be better than being a lesbian. Enjoy!

Monday, January 8, 2007


As I begin the year 2007 I have been thinking about the past year. In many ways it is unbelievable to me that another entire year has gone by. So much happened in 2006, and at the same time it went by amazingly fast. In celebration of the new year, I want to highlight some of the best moments of my year 2006! I've tried to make it so that these are in chronological order, so number one is not meant to be the "best" moment of 2006.

10. Morocco, Spain and Portugal with Mira and Maria

I remember when Mira and I were standing together in the University Bookstore in Library Mall in July of 2005 perusing the travel book section. As usual, we were contemplating the many wonderful places that we hoped to someday visit. I picked up a book on Morocco and had the sudden brainstorm of her coming and meeting me in Spain or Portugal over winter break and us traveling through those two countries in addition to Morocco. We quickly looked up how feasible it was to get from Spain to Morocco (very feasible) and then we had the second great idea of inviting Maria. Things fell into place from that point on: Maria immediately and excitedly agreed, the girls found very reasonably priced tickets into Madrid and soon after my arrival in Portugal in October I began planning our trip in earnest. December 26, 2005 I boarded a train from Lisbon to Madrid and met the girls there the next day. A travelogue of our fantastic adventures can be read in my blog of my year abroad: (check the january and on archives). But some highlights include our many travels aboard buses, trains and ferryboats, fascinating "Under the Sea"-style nativity scenes in Madrid, rambles down La Rambla in Barcelona, kilometers of walking to find slightly shady hostels next to hamburger and sex shops, midnight falafel pita sandwiches, picnics of cheese, baguettes and clementines on the streets of Spain, rockin it at a gay club in Marrakesh, meeting delightful Moroccan medicine men, getting naked in the Hammam (traditional Arabic bathhouse), listening to Maria and Mira trying to speak Portuguese, enjoying many many churches and incredible architecture, playing ring around the rosey with adorable Moroccan children, searching out the few vegetarian restaurants of Iberia, and so much more. What a great way to start out 2006!

9. Moving into the apartment at 5, Rua dos Oleiros

Ok, this one actually happened at the end of 2005, but I'm including it in 2006 because that was when this apartment actually became "home" for me. January was when everyone returned from winter break, when my American study abroad friend Erin moved in, when we all "clicked". I had lived in a all girls dorm previously, on the Rua dos Combatentes. Anyone who followed my study abroad journals knows that wasn't the greatest of experiences. Moving into my own version of "L'Auberge Espagnol" (A French film, "The Spanish Apartment", which is about ERASMUS -- European exchange -- students) was one of the best things of 2006. There were seven of us living in the apartment. The original seven were me, Monica (Portuguese), Erin (American), Daniela (Luso-American), Emilie (Portuguese), Christin (German), and Michelle (Macanese -- from the Chinese territory of Macau). After Monica finished her residency in Coimbra and returned to her hometown, we had Anne (French) move in. Apartment highlights? Umm... living down the street from little Portuguese markets where I could buy a kilo (2.2 lbs) of oranges for 60 euro cents, having my clothes dry in a couple of hours hanging out on the veranda, my big bright sunny room, the view of the Rio Mondego and of the University tower, and even spending an evening watching hookers getting picked up from our veranda. Love my apartment in Madison, but I do miss 5 Rua dos Oleiros!

8. My mom's visit to Portugal

My mom came and visited me for about a week in April of 2006. It was her first time out of the U.S., and I think we had an awesome time together. I've also chronicled pretty much this entire trip in my abroad blog. Some of the high points of her visit were visiting Porto, me getting into an argument with the Portuguese man working at the bus depot (anyone who knows me will understand why me getting into an argument with a stranger -- especially in a foreign language -- is a significant event), cooking for my mom in my apartment kitchen after going to the little market around the corner, trekking through the picturesque city of Sintra, the very bumpy bus ride to Cabo da Roca -- the westernmost point of Continental Europe, getting asked if I was Brazilian by a Brazilian guy (followed up by him asking if I was Spanish, French, British, Italian... finally I told him I was American. Boy was he surprised!), spending time with my mom in Portugal! Of course!

7. My feminist studies class ... in Portugal!!!

Well, unfortunately Portugal
is a little behind in the whole "feminist" movement. It wasn't just the virtual lack of women's studies oriented courses ... maybe it was the extremely high amount of machismo, getting hit on, stared at or spoken dirty to by at least fifty percent of the men I passed on the streets, the seemingly high levels of competition among women, the still high gender gap in the workforce (much higher than in the U.S.)... and the list goes on. I'm not saying it isn't like this in other countries, too. Hell, the feminist movement might possibly be most alive in the U.S. and look at how far we still have to go! But I have to say that it was such a breath of fresh air when Erin and I signed up for our "regular" university class with other Portuguese students and it was titled "Mulheres, Paz e Conflitos Armados." This translates to "Women, Peace and Armed Conflict." Our Professor, Tatiana, was a self-proclaimed feminist and our assigned readings were all on the gendered aspects of militarism, etc. At times it was frustrating to have to sit through the lectures on what "feminism" is and what "gendered" means -- I got all this stuff years ago. But at the same time it was incredibly eye-opening. There isn't even a translated word for "gendered" because the concept doesn't really exist yet in Portugal. Tatiana told Erin and me that this is the feminist studies course in the entire University and there is only one women's studies oriented type program in all of Portugal. For Erin (an International Studies and Critical Gender Studies major) and me (a Social Work and Women's Studies major), it was incredible to sit in a class with students who didn't even fully understand what feminism meant. I will never stop critiquing my own country from a feminist standpoint, but at the same time I now feel incredibly lucky that we have come this far.

6. Queima das Fitas (and everything in between)

I don't know if this annual University weeklong drunken festival actually makes my list of top ten moments of 2006. However, I think it is a good cover moment for all the fabulous moments I had with my friends and roommates while in Coimbra. There are so many and I don't know if I could have chosen one that really rose above the rest. There was Carnaval and our last minute costumes, thank you to Christin's closet (I was a sexy businesswoman). There was Monica's birthday, there was the night that we went to Procura-me discoteca and ended up dancing to classic American dance tunes until the very wee small hours of the morning, there were the countless dinners and late nights sitting up drinking glasses of red wine and laughing, there were the many trips to the cinema for 4 euro movies, there were nights of watching "The L Word" on Christin's bed, and of course there was the Queima das Fitas and the Cortejo -- the massive parade with bottles upon bottles of free beer handed out by rowdy graduates from their elaborate floats. Finally there was that final night out with our dinner at that wonderful Italian place on the river, dancing at Vinyl and lots of tears later on (mostly from me ... oops). All those memories could fill up at least one entire top ten list, but alas they will be shoved into this lone number.

5. Return to the United States!

After a long year living in Europe, filled with some incredible ups and some very lonely downs, I returned to the U.S. on the 8th of June, greeted by my family and all my beautiful friends. While I loved my year abroad, I was also extremely happy to return to the comforts of home. The adjustment was extremely strange ... especially the language change. I remember standing in line at Chipotle soon after I returned and listening to one of the workers talking in Spanish. Suddenly someone said something to me in English and I got extremely confused, first of all unsure of what they were saying to me, secondly unsure of what language to answer in. Luckily I recovered from that episode, but there are still moments when my thoughts wander into Portuguese and I wish that I could use the language. That was one really nice thing about my roommates in Coimbra ... we could speckle our conversations with Portuguese words when we thought they were more appropriate or descriptive than any possible English word. I wish I could do that now. Anyway, my return also equaled moving back to Madison, which was exciting. I love Madison in the summertime, and I loved the apartment that I shared with my longtime roommie, Mira. Another highlight that fits into this category was the purchase of our second cat very shortly after my return. Our first cat, Lexie, who is now almost two, seemed to be extremely lonely having to be by herself all day. So we acquired Shanti in June, a little black fluffball. She can be really freaking annoying sometimes because she is so cuddly and follows us around all the time, but the addition of our little "baby" was a definite high point of the year!

4. My preschool class at Leopold Elementary

Almost immediately after I returned to the U.S. I started working again. I had applied for a summer Americorps VISTA position while in Portugal, and did all the interviews and everything over the phone. I got the job and started on June 12th. The job was a Summer VISTA Associate for the Madison Preschools of Hope Literacy Project, and I got to be an assistant teacher for the K-Ready summer program through the Madison Metropolitan School District. The K-Ready program identifies incoming kindergarteners that might be at risk of falling behind their classmates, based on their kindergarten screenings. Many of these kids are from low-income families, and a good deal are English language learners (ELLs). The K-ready program is 8 weeks long and is sort of like Kindergarten. We worked on basic literacy and math skills and did all the normal kindergarten stuff like free time and recess and story time, etc. My class was at Leopold Elementary School on Madison's southwest side. There were ten students in my class with one teacher and then two VISTAs (including me). My class was predominantly Hmong, many with pretty low levels of English. It was challenging sometimes, but I so quickly fell in love with those kids! It was the best summer job I could have had. I couldn't have imagined spending my summer doing something other than playing "Monster" on the playground with the kids, reading stories, helping with art projects, and observing each child's English skills improve tremendously over only 8 weeks. Unfortunately, one of my low points of 2006 was having to say goodbye to those kids at the beginning of August

3. Our apartment on Paunack Place

Despite the approximately 72 extremely taxing and strenuous hours of work that went into moving from our apartment on Gilman St. to our new apartment on Paunack Pl, it was absolutely worth it. This is the first apartment that I will be living in for an entire year, and it's the best. Mira picked it out and signed the lease and everything while I was in Portugal, so I had to take her word for it that it was a good place to live. Luckily, Mira and I have pretty much the exact same taste, so when I finally got to see it (about a month before we were going to move in!), I fell in love. Hardwood floors throughout, tons of windows and lots of natural light, lots and lots of space... the only drawbacks would include the extremely old-fashioned sink (with lack of dishwasher or garbage disposal), electric stove instead of gas and the constant chill throughout the place even when the heat is turned up high. One of my major disappointments of 2007 will definitely be moving out of this place :(

2. Back to University and to Bayview!

After a year in the Portuguese university system, I was absolutely ready to return to my good old American university where the professors and students both cared where actual work was assigned and where I felt like I was really learning something. (Not to be too harsh to Coimbra or anything...) So it was exciting for me to begin classes again, surprisingly. While some of my classes were not exactly rip-roaring good times, I still managed to learn something and, hey, I now have only one semester left til I graduate! But one of the best things to come out of the new academic year was the beginning of my field work for my social work major. I got put into my first choice for a field unit -- Advocacy in a Multicultural Setting -- and also got my first choice for field placement, at the Bayview Community Center. Bayview is a housing project right near downtown Madison. Over 95% of the residents are people of color, and a large majority are also immigrants. My work is at the Community Center where we have lots of afterschool programs for the resident children. Working at Bayview was definitely the highlight of my semester, as I made some great relationships with some of the kids. They always were able to brighten my day, although sometimes also driving me to exhaustion. I'm definitely glad that I will be continuing there for another semester, although it's going to be even harder then to leave at the end of the year.

1. My new car

Well it seems somewhat anti-climatic to be having this as number one, but it's the only other big thing I can think of that happened to me this year. It's definitely part of the top 10, although my feelings are still somewhat ambivalent. I was always one of those crazy environmentalist types, vowing that I would never own a car. Unfortunately, real life caught up with me and I realized that owning a car might just be somewhat practical. I still feel somewhat guilty about it, but at the same time it sure is making my life easier. Thanks to Craig's List, I found a '97 VW Jetta for sale. It's black and in amazingly good condition for its age, with only 75,000 miles on it at purchase. Although I had to have the exhaust system replaced just recently (which was rather costly), I was told that was to be expected due to the age of the car. So now I have the luxury of driving to work instead of having to leave half an hour early and take the bus halfway then walk the rest of the way, and wait for twenty minutes or longer at the bus stop after work. I can also say adios to the Badger Bus, as I now can drive from Madison to Milwaukee whenever I want. And if I move to Minnesota it will be even more handy. My next car's gonna be a hybrid though. I'm not getting a new one until I can afford a hybrid -- that's a promise I'm making to myself! (Wish me luck)

So there's my top 10 for the year 2006. Here's hoping that 2007 leaves me with just as exciting a list!

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

new perspective on same old story

Last night I was revisiting an old musical soundtrack favorite of mine, Children of Eden. My high school, Wauwatosa East, was always very well-known for putting on spectacular musicals. I started attending them when I was a middle schooler and never missed a production. My senior year they were one of the first high schools in the state to perform Les Mis and did a truly amazing job. Anyway, wanting to continue the tradition of attending the musicals, I returned my freshman year of college to see their spring show, Children of Eden. I was slightly reluctant as I am an agnostic myself and not so much a huge fan of the Christianity. But they had done an incredible production of Godspell the fall of my senior year, so I figured I'd give this one a try too. And I didn't regret it. At the risk of this being the most boring post ever, I wanted to share a little bit about it. Because I think many times we look too hard at something and miss what is really there. For example, the Bible. Ok, my disclaimer is that I am a liberal, agnostic, unitarian, feminist and a whole lot of other stuff that might provoke anger or just simple disagreement in those of the more "right" leaning persuasion. Anything I state is simply an opinion, obviously.

So moving on ... the musical moves through some of the familiar parts of the old testament, beginning with Genesis and the whole creation and Adam and Eve in Eden, the tree of knowledge, the snake, etc. etc. Then it follows Adam and Eve out of Eden and the growth of their sons Cain and Abel, showing the infamous death of Abel resulting in the wrath of the Father who places a curse on the line of Cain. This first Act ends with the impending death of Eve, who prays that the following generations will be able to regain their lost garden.

Act II is the familiar tale of Noah's Ark. Noah is busy building his ark and his family is preparing for the big flood. His two older sons Ham and Shem have wives, but his youngest son Japheth shocks the family by declaring his love for the servant girl Yonah, who is a descendent of the race of Cain. He decides to sneak Yonah onto the ark, which again brings about the wrath of God, who was hoping to erase the race of Cain. It continues to rain and rain and the family finally discovers Japheth's secret. Noah must make a decision without the help of the Father, who has stopped "speaking" to him. He decides to give Yonah and Japheth his blessing, and God realizes that he must give his children (humanity) the power to decide their own fate. The rains clear and they find dry land.

The thing that is so great about this play, in my opinion, is that it treats these biblical tales very much as a story of family and the relationships between parents and children. It puts an entirely new spin on some of the stories, such as Eve and the apple. In Act I, Father creates Adam and Eve and he loves them as his children and wants to protect them from everything. Adam is very complacent and child-like, but Eve on the other hand yearns for knowledge and to discover what lies beyond. Her eating the apple symbolizes the desire of every child to grow their own wings and begin to live for themselves. Father becomes very angry because he wanted to protect his children, and once their innocence is gone he can no longer do that. Adam is then made to choose between staying with Father in the garden or eating the apple and going with Eve. After much deliberation (including him asking Eve if she would take her actions back if given the chance...) he decides that he cannot live without Eve. Father sees them as ungrateful children and expells them from the garden, telling them to work themselves and bear their own children so that they might understand what he is now going through.

As Cain and Abel grow up they end up mirroring Adam and Eve in many ways. Abel is content doing the daily farm work and helping his parents, and hoping that one day they will once again receive communication from their silent Father. Cain on the other hand yearns for the land beyond and decides to leave. He returns telling his father that he has found proof of other humans. Adam admits that he has seen these other humans, but was afraid of what it meant. A fight ensues between father and son. When Abel attempts to intervene to stop the fight he is accidently killed at the hand of Cain. This is when the curse is put on his line, and he disappears into the wilderness.

Interestingly, during this time, Adam and Eve do not seem to be regretful of the choice they made to eat from the tree of knowledge. They continue to pray and hope that they will regain communication with their Father, but they are happy to be independent as well. In one song they state, And I remember in someone else's garden long ago/ We had all we could eat / But it seems the fruit our own hands grow / Somehow tastes twice as sweet ... Look at what we've got / Only what we made ourselves / Though it's next to nothing / Look how rich we are / Funny now how Eden doesn't seem so far. The final song that Eve sings, where she wishes for future generations to "find their way home" doesn't seem to be so much about giving up the knowledge and the independence they found, but about being able to find a balance between that an innocence. And also being accepted again by Father.

The relationship between Noah and Japheth in Act II is very similar to that of Father and Adam & Eve in Act I. Japheth disobeys his father by sneaking Yonah onto the ark. However, Noah's decision is different than Father's was. He sings the song "Hardest Part of Love" which explores this exact dynamic, while Noah thinks about how he would like to protect his son and tell him just how to live his life. But he realizes, But you cannot close the acorn / Once the oak begins to grow / And you cannot close your heart / To what it fears and needs to know / That the hardest part of love / Is the letting go. Father is listening in on all of this and realizes that Noah is right. He then joins in, singing The deeper is your love for them/ The crueler is the cost / And just when they start to find themselves / Is when you fear they're lost. Father realizes that he was expecting to much of his children (humanity) and must let go, allowing them to make their own decisions. This is when he clears the skies and places the fate of humanity into their own hands.

The final song "In the Beginning" sums it all up:

Japheth & Yonah:

This step is once again our first
We set our feet upon a virgin land
We hold the promise of the earth
In our hands...

Add Noah & Mama:
No flood from heaven comes again
No deluge will destroy and purify
We hold the fate of man and men
In our hands...

Add Family:
Now at this dawn so green and glad
We pray that we may long remember
How lovely was the world we had
In the beginning...

All except Father:
Of all the gifts we have received
One is most precious and most terrible
The will of each of us is free
It's in our hands

And if we hear a voice
If he speaks again, our silent father
All he will tell us is the choice
Is in our hands

Our hands can choose to drop the knife
Our hearts can choose to stop the hating
For ev'ry moment of our life
Is the beginning...

There is no journey gone so far
So far we cannot stop and change direction
No doom is written in the stars

All except Father:
It's in our hands...

We cannot know what will occur
Just make the journey worth the taking
And pray we're wiser than we were
In the beginning
It's the beginning
Now we begin...

Children of Eden
Grant us your pardon
All that we leave to you
is the unknown

Children of Eden
Seek for your garden
You and your children to come
Some day to come home

First and foremost I think this play reminds us that everything that has been written is open to interpretation, especially something written centuries ago and translated countless times by the hands of (subjective) men. We should not be so quick to assume meaning nor should we take things so literally. I particularly like how Eve is portrayed. Rather than being shown as all susceptible to "temptation" she was shown as thirsting for knowledge and the "spark of creation" that she speaks of in one of the songs. These themes are age old and span across civilizations. The most profound part I think is the personification of God as "Father." He is portrayed as very human, susceptible to strong emotions, love, feelings of betrayal, sadness, happiness, etc. He is also shown as susceptible to error in judgment and open to changing his mind. I think we can look at this as showing that things change, and the Bible, whether one believes they should be read as true stories or myths, should not be seen as the final word on anything. If "God" or whatever possible spiritual being might have created humanity is like a parent, we should bear in mind that parents are human. They change their minds, they (gasp) make mistakes and aren't always right -- even when they think they are looking out for us.

Ok, so enough of that boring spiel on the very foundations of Christianity ... once again, only opinions! I also might come back and make changes as this is basically a sort of stream of consciousness. If you don't enjoy those -- stay away from this blog! I've found that there are lots of topics I like to "stream" about, but I don't want to do it in my journal because I always get tired of writing about a quarter of the way through and can't write fast enough to get down all my thoughts before they are forgotten. Hence the typing. Here. Lucky you!