Mernissi Goes West

"Haram is what religious law forbids… But evidently, when crossing the frontier to the West, the Arabic word "harem" lost its dangerous edge… Westerners had their harem and I had mine, and the two had nothing in common" (Mernissi 12) When Fatema Mernissi traveled to Europe to promote her new book she came to the realization that outside the Arab world, the word harem took a new meaning. To the west it meant a "peaceful pleasure garden where omnipotent men reign supreme over obedient…[sexually available] women." And while Mernissi's interaction came from personal experiences and historical reality, the "Western Harem" was built and molded by artistic images from famous painters such as Picasso and Delacroix as well as "Hollywood moviemakers, who portrayed harem women as scantily clad belly-dancers happy to serve their captors." While Mernissi's approach to understanding the Western view on the Muslim culture did not serve the same purpose as Edward Said's distorted lens, at the end it seems to be an image of it.
When she was young, Fatema Mernissi learned from her grandmother, that "You must focus on the strangers you meet and try to understand them. The more you understand a stranger [as well as yourself]… the more power you will have"(1) So during her book promotion tour, when she was interviewed by more than a hundred Western journalists, she noticed that most of them "grinned when pronouncing the word harem" (2) When asking questions about the harem they would make it an unavoidable theme in their interviews, thus making Mernissi feel "trapped in a strangely solemn and dramatic situation totally out of place in the usual mundane world of book promotion tours." (13) Mernissi was aware that the questions and smiles had "sexual undertones." Feeling uncomfortable, she discussed the problem with her French editor, so she cou…


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