Scheherazade Goes West

On a worldwide book tour after her previous work, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1995), author Fatema Mernissi was struck by Western male journalists’ idea of harem life: A world of passive, sex-starved women competing for their all-powerful husband’s attentions. The world Mernissi grew up in was one of independent women and insecure men, of male-female relationships much more complex than Westerners think. This perceptual dissonance inspired her to write Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems.

Among Mernissi’s revelations: Islam is not a woman-hating religion or culture. If anything, she argues, the need to control women through the harem and the veil is the result of men’s fear of women’s power over them—their power to hurt through rejection, abandonment, or betrayal. “Even the most fervent extremists never argue that women are inferior,” Mernissi writes, adding that “Muslim women are raised with a strong sense of equality.”

Romantic love is highly celebrated in Islam: Mernissi notes there are sixty ways to say I love you in Arabic. Still, Mernissi does not go so far as to argue that relations between Islamic men and women are ideal or even good; on the contrary, they are dysfunctional, but perhaps not much more dysfunctional than male-female relations in the West.

Then Mernissi turns the eye of the harem woman on the Western man. In the course of her musing essays, Mernissi finally comes up with an insight that will hit home with Western women: She calls it the “size 6 harem.” In Mernissi’s world of veils, women never have to worry about how men are sizing them up in public; there is no angst over makeup, clothes, hair, age or weight—which gives them a sort of freedom of experience denied Western women. Her conclusion is startling: “[The] image of beauty in the West can hurt and humiliate a woman as much as the veil does ... The power of the Western man resides in dictating what women should wear and how they should look. ...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.”