This post is going to be a limited one, partly out of modesty because my main competency is with self-proclaimed fiction and not apparent sociological research. Another reason this post is short is because the engaging and talented author of the book Scheherazade Goes West, Fatema Mernissi, more or less reasons to a standstill, not really claiming that there are not good and bad qualities to both East and West when it comes to women’s rights, but seeming almost to claim that the East still has some edge, which is not what most western women (and men too, for that matter) would expect to hear.
Her argument runs briefly like this: In the East, men control women through control of space but not through the intimidation of their intellects (which is clearly untrue now at least in the light of things which have happened since she wrote, such as the recent abduction of the schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria by the Boko Haram, which signifies control of both factors). Mernissi says that the traditional seclusion of women in an Eastern harem is such a control of space, as is the insistence that women go veiled in public, along with other laws and statutes pertaining mainly to women or to the public relations of men and women. She claims that the Eastern man perceives this as a necessity not because he does not regard women as his equals, but because he knows that a woman’s intellect is equal to his and has chosen other means of control.
Much of Mernissi’s argument concerns the different ways women are pictured in art, both East and West, and she mentions some surprising things: the East, which most Westerners believe traditionally prohibits pictures of living things en masse regardless of country, has in fact many portraits of active and assertive women who were queens or wives or both, dressed in hunting gear or clothed for other vigorous activity, whereas the female figures painted in harem situations by Western painters, even those who knew better, are seen as nude, passive and available merely. While this line of argument is certainly interesting and vital, it’s a question as to how much one can determine of a society’s traditions by looking mainly at art. Luckily, Mernissi hits many different notes in her concerted debate on the issues.
Mernissi, who was born in a harem, points to the long tradition of allowing women to cultivate their creative, intellectual, and cultural qualities within the harem’s walls which, though their talents were to be used to fascinate and entertain the male still, were nevertheless appreciated as necessary accompaniments to the sensual relationship. She finds that by contrast, men in the West prefer for women to at least act brainless and less accomplished than the male because they are threatened by women’s equality. The surprise ending of the book comes when she suddenly has an “epiphany” in the department store she goes to that Western men control women as well through the clothing and cosmetic industries and by insisting that the women diet crazily and look like young girls in their physical beings before they are allowed to take a role in public affairs. She points out that in the East, women have seamstresses make their clothes, and that sizes are rarely discussed (at least speaking of women of her high status, which factor in my opinion should be seen to throw a different light on some of her arguments).
She does acknowledge that she has an advantage of higher social status, but puts the observation in the mouth of a male conservative who is telling her that her work is unimportant in its focusing on “what men want” and who is telling her she has an obligation to help less fortunate women instead. I say, they are both right: she does sometimes overlook the differences between herself and less financially or socially fortunate women, but also there is more than one way to help, and her book certainly helps by showing the upward path in all its reality. When all’s said and done, it’s clear that men in both East and West have much explaining to do, or since many are all too ready to explain why their systems should be as they are, that women and men “of good will” (as the saying goes) must both occupy themselves, whichever part of the world they are in, with improving the lot of those less fortunate than themselves. This is so true that it is a truism of many different sorts of political or societal effort, but in this case in particular, it’s not that one system needs to replace the other (we should remember that Boko Haram means “Western education is forbidden”). Let each society open its mind to ways in which the other has some superiority, and let each society see that its own citizens are all treated equally with each other, that is probably the most and the least that we should expect.
This book as I indicated before is written with humor and an engaging tone, never badgering or hectoring, and is documented with footnotes to every chapter for those who wish to pursue the matter in greater depth. All in all, I’m very glad that I took the opportunity to add some depth myself to my picture of the Eastern world; it replaces that sense that I had taken away from our constant news broadcasts in their slant that suggests that Eastern women have never had anything approaching equality or good education before the Western education system came along. Whereas the Boko Haram is lethal to the responsible and good conduct of societal affairs, and the schoolgirls have been following the education they themselves chose, which they have a clear right to do, I think we in the West must also realize that there are things we could do, ways we could interact which might be a little less likely to rile violent opposition and ways to be less condescending in our interactions with other cultures. I mean, let us help where we can, but be careful of attaching certain unspoken price tags to what we have to offer. By what I’ve seen of her writing, mutual respect is what I think Fatema Mernissi would appreciate and advise; I concur.