The Western woman’s harem

Fratema Mernissi, a professor of sociology at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, remembers trips to visit her grandmother, “who was illiterate and lived in a harem with locked gates that women were not supposed to open.”

In her book Scheherazade Goes West—Different Cultures, Different Harems, Mernissi describes visiting an American department store, where she was told that her hips are too large.

“That distressing experience made me realize how the image of beauty in the West can hurt and humiliate a woman as much as the veil does when enforced by the state police in extremist nations such as Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia…,” she writes.

“Framing youth as beauty and condemning maturity is the weapon used against women in the West just as limiting access to public space is the weapon used in the East. The objective remains identical in both cultures: to make women feel unwelcome, inadequate and ugly….(The Western man) declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look 14 years old….By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility.”

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