Monday, September 10, 2007

Scheherazade Goes West - A Must Read

“For Western men, the very word harem typically provokes voluptuous sexual fantasies in which men have their way with vulnerable women who are happy to satisfy their needs, observes Mernissi, feminist sociologist and Koranic scholar. In Islamic culture, by contrast, the harem is seen as the site of a dangerous, sexual power struggle in which powerful women resist male domination. The mythical Scheherazade, who recounted enough tales to fill One Thousand and One Nights, models this female power, Mernissi (Beyond the Veil) argues. In a cerebral rather than physical seduction, Scheherazade recounted complex tales to her king, using her nutq her ability to penetrate a man's brain by using the right words. So subversive was that power that her stories were published in Arabic only a century after appearing in French, and they remain a target of Muslim censorship. Using a wide range of Islamic sources etymology, art, religious law, cultural history Mernissi develops a nuanced analysis of the sexual power of Islamic women. By probing Western representations of Scheherazade in ballet, Hollywood movies, painting she also reveals the West's tendency to misconstrue the harem.

Unfortunately, Fatima Mernissi concludes that Western women are as tyrannized by the pressure to be a size 6 as Islamic women are by the veil. Additionally, Mernissi's stream-of-consciousness style of storytelling can be irritating. More troubling, she never returns to her initial mission to understand the Western image of the harem.”

- Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

“The contrasts Mernissi discovered between East and West were not as simple as one might imagine. In Berlin, for example, she leafed through pornographic German photo books of "harem women," produced for an eager audience of Western men, and in Paris, she accompanied a male friend on a walking tour of his favorite odalisques, from Ingres to Matisse, while he explained how comforting an insecure man found these nude, silent women. While the medieval caliphs tended to prize intelligence and erudition among the women of their harems, Western writers have lauded beauty over every other quality; as Kant put it, a learned woman "might as well even have a beard." In deceptively light prose, Mernissi introduces the sexual politics of Islam to a Western audience, while pointing out the inconsistencies and illogic in the Western tradition.”

- Regina Marler

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