Revisiting the Western Harem and the Pursuit of Beauty
“Here I am, in a precarious condition. I struggle to maintain the standard of ‘beauty’ society demands and my authentic presence is inhibited. A focus on the external renders my internal being invisible. “
“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” – John Berger
In Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, Fatema Mernissi describes the reactions of Westerners upon learning that she was born in a ‘harem.’ Westerners described and thought of this word as some kind of “…voluptuous wonderland drenched with heavy sex provided by vulnerable nude women who were happy to be locked up.”* Contrary to popular belief, this kind of Orientalist imagery does not at all reflect the actual meaning of the word harem. In fact, Mernissi explains, “…for me, not only is the word harem a synonym for the family as an institution, but it would also never occur to me to associate it with something jovial…the very origin of the Arabic word haram, from which the word harem is derived, literally refers to sin…” Ironically, Muslim painters imagine ‘harem’ women as “riding fast horses, armed with bows and arrows…as uncontrollable sexual partners. But Westerners…see the harem as a peaceful pleasure-garden where omnipotent men reign superior over obedient women.”
In addition to highlighting misconceptions surrounding the term harem, Fatema Mernissi also makes the argument that there is a Western harem in existence, and its ramifications for women are worse than those of the Arab Muslim harem. Mernissi explains that while the Muslim man “uses space to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light [and]…By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility.” Mernissi presents a challenge here to the Western notion about what is ‘oppressive’ to women—in a sense placing a mirror in front of Western notions about women in the ‘Orient’ and demanding that those who embrace such notions engage in reflective practice to consider their own oppressions.
Mernissi makes the case that despite the ability to move freely in public space, women in the West remain trapped in harems: “The violence embodied in the Western harem is less visible than in the Eastern harem because aging is not attacked directly, but rather masked as an aesthetic choice” With a shift of Arab Muslim women from the private sphere into the public arena, there is a shift in harem conditions to one with less visible control of perceptions of ideal physical attributes. The basis of misogyny in Islam, as Mernissi explains, “…is actually quite weak, resting only on the distribution of space,” meaning that control or protection of women is emphasized in terms of their physical movement and location, as opposed to their appearance, which is kept hidden from the public eye, and thus not under scrutiny.
So, which harem does the most damage? According to Mernissi, “…Western attitudes…are [even] more dangerous and cunning than the Muslim ones because the weapon used against women is time…The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within an idealized childhood, and forces women to perceive aging—that normal unfolding of the years—as a shameful devaluation.”
The beauty company Dove carried out The Real Truth About Beauty study, based on quantitative data collected from a global study of 3,200 women, aged 18 to 64. According to findings,
Only 2% of these women describe themselves as “beautiful”
About 3/4 of them rate their beauty as “average”
Almost 1/2 of them think their weight is “too high”
With growing evidence that notions of beauty are becoming standardized across the world, women worldwide are in danger of turning into harem slaves, “frozen into the passive position of an object whose very existence depends on the eye of its beholder…” If women are to become or remain trapped in a psychological harem based on their physical attributes, this could be the realization of a worst nightmare for women in predominantly Arab and Muslim societies, without the help of the most conservative Islamist leaders.
Here I am, in a precarious condition. I struggle to maintain the standard of ‘beauty’ society demands and my authentic presence is inhibited. A focus on the external renders my internal being invisible. I am so trapped by prevailing concepts of beauty that even this awareness and critique will not free me from a distorted internalization of what it means to be ‘beautiful.’
What will it take for us women to stop watching ourselves being looked at?
*Fatema Mernissi, Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 2001.
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