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Scherezada goes West, by Fatema Mernissi

February 25, 2012

Scheherazade Goes West, by Fatima Mernissi. Washington Square Press (2001), 240 pages.

In Scherazade goes West, Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan women, sets out to explore the differences between “Eastern” and “Western” men’s views of the harems and promoting the superiority of “Eastern” views of sexuality and gender. Read for the African Reading Challenge.

Instead of stating positions and offering evidences for them, Mernissi takes us along on her exploration into “Western” men’s views of harems. She describes the European and American paintings and books she explored and the two, atypical “Western” men and one woman that she interviewed. Not surprisingly, she identifies how harem women are portrayed as passive and inarticulate, waiting for men’s attention. Such images led her to see “Western” gender relations in those terms. On the basis of not being able to find a skirt in her size in a New York City store, she determines that “Western” men control women by defining women as obedient, brainless children. Interesting insights with some validity for some men, but hardly enough to define a whole culture’s views of gender and sexuality.

Having defined “Western” men’s views, Mernissi presents an extremely attractive description of harem women and of an expanded vision of the sexual pleasure that took place in harems. Women in harems had to be strong and competitive, educated and articulate, in order to attract and hold the attention of a man. Because men knew that women resented their enclosure within walls, men recognized and feared their aggression and power rather than assuming they were eagerly awaiting males.

According to Mernissi, sexuality in harems ideally included much more than physical sex. Companionship and intellectual exchange were an important part of sexuality. For a woman to seduce a man with her words was a regular practice. The inclusion of an intellectual opening between a man and a woman was considered essential for full physical pleasure. Scheherazade is the premier example, although she and her stories were diminished in their publication for “Western” readers. Mernissi found many other examples in Islamic history and literature over the centuries.

I can only celebrate the sexual relationships which Mernissi describes, but I found her overall book troubling. I am never comfortable with impressionistic evaluations of whole cultures, especially when viewed through a relatively personal lens like Mernissi’s and a single institution like the harem. Such practices set up stereotypes that make it difficult for women and men to reach across. I was also bothered by the way in which Mernissi structured her book, presenting information and leading us into conclusions that may or may not connect to where she started. Her jump from views of women in harems to “Eastern” and “Western” attitudes toward gender and sexuality were simply too big for me to accept.

In addition, the centuries-old literature, like Mernissi uses in discussing “Eastern” men’s views, is never proof of how actual people behaved, even within harems. We have no evidence of how frequent total mind and body sexuality actually was. Did both men and women experience the ideal mutually? Even if men and women knew such pleasures in harems, what evidence is there that others outside their circle followed their example, or even cared?

In addition, while Mernissi helpfully explained that the Islamic empire was international and full of regional variations, I was left with basic questions. She never identified where she meant by her major categories of Eastern and Western. How extensive were harems over time and space? What conditions encouraged their growth and their decline?

Finally, I did not see anything feminist about this book, although I know Mernissi and others have identified her as a feminist. She was not listening to women tell of their experiences and needs. She showed no interest in working with other women to make life better and more fulfilling for all women. And she certainly was not challenging the status quo in any way or considering women needs across lines of class and ethnicity.

Most troubling, however, was Mernisse’s consistent focus on what men thought and wanted and her willingness to act is if men’s views are all that matter. This attitude is simply outside any definition of feminism that I respect. She explicitly explained that she had not been brought up expecting to be saved by a prince. She was taught, instead, how she could work hard to bring him, and thus herself, pleasure. She assumes that pleasure, and perhaps fulfillment, must come from a man. Her entire focus is on heterosexuality. Maybe her other books are more attentive to women. I hope so.

I am not willing to recommend this book. At best, it might help break down readers’ assumptions about the universality or superiority of “Western” practices. Perhaps that was all Mernisse was trying to do.

Related books:
Women of Algiers in Their Apartment, by Assia Djebar.”>Women of Algiers in Their Apartment by Assia Djebar. A contrasting depiction of women in North Africa by a feminist. See my review.

Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, by Leila Ahmed. A book I will read to get another perspective.

Arab and Arab American Feminisms, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber. See the review by Melissa at Feminist Texan Reads.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2013 12:00 pm

    Hmmmm: good to know! I had similar issues with a Latin American ‘feminist’ nonfiction book I read in 2011 (In the Land of God and Man). It wasn’t as bad as what you describe here, but it was too focused on men & heterosexuality for my taste. I might skip this one, then.

    • January 19, 2013 6:26 pm

      Several people who read her later book for FemCl found her to be balanced, but really annoyed me in this one–as you read.

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