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.

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