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"Digital Scheherazades in the Arab World" is a scholarly article written by Fatema Mernissi and published in the journal Current History in 2006. As such, its writing style is scholarly, although not so "scholarly" that it sacrifices readability for what is too often the case--proving through obscure scholarly words that the writer has "an education." Instead--and delightfully--Mernissi's piece is conversational.
Scheherazade was the heroine of 1001 Arabian Nights, the woman who learned that the sultan would enjoy a woman for one night, have her executed, then enjoy another woman for a night, and so forth. Scheherazade overcame this problem by telling the sultan interesting stories, so he kept her around to tell him another story each night. At the end of 1001 nights, he had fallen in love with her and did not have her executed. In so doing, Scheherazade "won" against an Arab man's plan; she has power over him in the end, a rarity in the Arab world.
Mernissi uses this metaphor to refer to the "digital chaos" that has pervaded Arab culture, in which the underdogs of society--women and children--are no longer under the controlling thumbs of the men, controlled and sheltered to the same degree they were before the digital revolution, as they have digital access to the outside world. In Mernissi's words, "These new technologies have destroyed the hudud, the frontier that divided the universe into a sheltered private arena, where women and children were supposed to be protected, and a public one where adult males exercised their presumed problem-solving authority" (121).
What makes this fascinating is that individual responsibility has never been a focus of education, so the people accessing the internet now are "free" in ways that could dangerously upset the balance of power in Arab society. The imams are thus urging that the old ways--the hudud--be abandoned in lieu of "ethical nomadism," where "individual responsibility creates order" (121). Thus, the women who are now accessing the internet have become a real version of the legendary Scheherazade, using technology to "liberate themselves and their countries" (121).
Mernissi's goal is to explain how technology is transforming male-female relationships and the balance of political power in the Arab world. Her piece is written in English (and much of her work in French), but we may assume that much of her target audience is Arab. Thus, she must present her ideas in such a way that they intrigue instead of horrify or offend. In order to achieve this, she explains her experiences in narrative form, frequently interjecting the words and ideas of men (still more respected than women in that society), like her young friend Kamal, and authority figures, such as Imam Qaradawi and the activist wife of Qatar's emir. This is more of a rhetorical approach than a literary device, but there is much overlap between the two areas of study. By giving credence to the ideas of those who would oppose her, she establishes that they both have the same values, which builds a bridge between the two factions, thus enhancing meaningful communication.
One important approach she takes is peppering her narrative with classic Arab events and tales. Arab society, perhaps more than ours, communicates ideas through stories and shared cultural tales. The most obvious example of her doing this is continuing to reference the admired heroine of 1001 Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, and comparing her wit and vision to that of Arab women today who work to subtly change the balance of cultural and political power in order to make terrorism a phenomenon of the past and convince the older people in charge that the vision of the younger generation is worth taking into consideration and working with.
She also points to Zubaida, a woman who "seduced" the Caliph Harun by "digging wells and building walls to provide creature comforts during the hajj in the 8th century AD--a woman who used her own power to affect important change and earn her own respect and admiration, instead of staying locked inside a home, able to speak only when the sun went down." Mernissi holds this historic figure up as an example to other Arab women (and Arab men, who she wants to warm to the idea of female power without feeling that their place in Arab society is threatened).
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