To travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself”, said Yasmina, my grandmother, who was illiterate and lived in a harem, a traditional household with locked gates that women were not supposed to open. “You must focus on the strangers you meet and try to understand them”. The more you understand a stranger and the greater is your knowledge of yourself, the more power you will have”. For Yasmina, the harem was a prison, a place women were forbidden to leave. So she glorified travel and regarded the opportunity to cross boundaries as a sacred privilege, the best way to shed powerlessness.
(Fatema Mernissi, Scheherezade Goes West…)
Of all the authors and writers on my ever-expanding list for this one of my current projects (helping to extend mappings of gender and culture beyond the borders and boundaries of Euro-american paths and patterns; advancing the fusion of feminist and post colonial perspectives for sociology, etc. ), no one has inspired me more than Moroccan feminist, Fatema Mernissi, in her more personally-informed writings, Dreams of Tresspass and Scheherezade Goes West. These two works, which weave their tapestry through a language particularly rich in personal memoir and reflection (and thus show how the fabric of each of our lives is linked up to culture, history and social institutions), render a convincing picture of the common threads, that, moving beyond conventional bias and stereotype, connect women’s struggles for equality, for full access to public space and voice, and for (individual and collective) self-representation (in politics and in art, in media and everyday life), historically and at present, in different parts of the world.
The disabling myths and traps of patriarchy have different faces and versions. We westerners tend to be unaware of the wide array of mechanisms and strategies that women in other parts of the world have developed to thwart and challenge their subordination, as we fall prey to “orientalist” mentalities that have encouraged us to think of Middle Eastern –and non-Western women in general – in monolithic terms, as oppressed victims who have been denied of the opportunities to reflect upon their lives and struggle for better ones. But as Mernissi points out, in Arab and Middle Eastern literary and folk traditions - and in history and society as well-, there is a legacy of intelligent, daring and competent women who not only assert themselves but are also admired for their unconventional attitudes. From a legendary tiger-hunting Persian princess to the clever Scheherezade who used her wit and story-telling skills to change her own fate, as well as that of other women who had been destined to doom , to the many women across the Arab world today who flock into universities, politics and scientific and technological occupations, Mernissi evokes another notion of the feminine: “A woman", she tells us, "must always be ready to jump on a horse and cross alien territories. Uncertainty is a woman´s destiny”. (And the courage to face this uncertainty, a not so uncommon response, I might add here)Yet Western philosophers, writers and painters (men, for the most part), mesmerized by what they had heard about the “harems of the Orient”, let their own imaginations run wild, fantasizing an enigmatic world populated by sensual eastern beauties who existed for and through their almost magical abilities to guarantee men their pleasures. These harem women became an object of male fascination – written about and painted by “masters” over the course of several centuries. As Mernissi’s witty narrative unfolds, she shares with us her unique insights – her own process of uncovering a foreign way of thinking – into Western representations of the harem, which have been cleansed of, or were perhaps always blind to, the intense subjective and relational dynamics in which women acted to assert their own desires, wrest control from men or construct particular forms of “counter-power”.
The worlds of east and west have both been, for many centuries, a “man’s world”. And modernity – as it makes its way over the globe, in different times and rhythms, and full of holes and contradictions of its own – does, in the best of hypotheses, create an important new terrain where women struggle for “subjecthood”. Mernissi evokes the work of other contemporary writers, such as Naomi Wolf and Pierre Bourdieu, who have been particularly brilliant in unmasking the forms of symbolic violence that are at work, in the West today, and run against the grain of modern feminist struggle. These are extremely powerful ways of devaluing women – and doing so through the reproduction of consent. Thus, “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… by putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility…”; the “violence embodied in the Western harem is less visible than in the Eastern harem because is not attacked directly, but masked as an aesthetic choice.”
[to be continued]