goes West: different cultures, different harems
Washington Square Press, 2001
…the Scheherazade ballet … made me understand that women's obsequiousness, their readiness to obey, is a distinctive feature of the Western harem fantasy. …the second distinctive feature of the Western harem: Intellectual exchange with women is an obstacle to erotic pleasure. Yet in real or imagined Muslim harem, cerebral confrontation with women is necessary to achieve orgasm. Could it be that things are so different in the West? I wondered. Could it be that cultures manage emotions differently when it comes to structuring erotic response?
…Civilizations will flourish when men learn to have an intimate dialogue with those closest to them, the women who share their beds. … Any reflection on modernity as a chance to eliminate despotic violence in the Muslim world today necessarily takes the form of a plea for feminism. …the debate on democracy soon drifts into a debate on women's rights and vice verse. The mysterious bond existing between pluralism and feminism is today's troubled Islamic world was eerily and vividly foreshadowed by the Scheherazade-Shahrayar tales.
…the Arab elite, often encouraged by their despotic rulers, condemned The Thousand and One Nights to oral history for centuries and prevented it from gaining the credentials of a written heritage. Not until the nineteenth century, one hundred years after the Europeans, who had the written text as early as 1704, were the tales finally published in Arabic! And none of the first editors were Arabs!
The first edition of the Arabic text was published in Calcutta in 1814 by a Muslim Indian, Sheik Ahmad Shirawani, who was an instructor of Arabic at Calcutta's Fort Williams College. The second edition of the Arabic text is the 1824 Breslau (Germany) edition and the editor was Maximilian Habicht. A decade later, Arab publishers began making money with the written text of the Nights, starting with the Egyptian Bulaq edition printed in Cairo in 1934.
According to Kant, a "normal" woman's brain is programmed to "the finer feeling." She must relinquish "the deep understanding, abstract speculations, or branches of knowledge useful but dry" and leave them to men. Writes Kant: "Laborious learning, even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroys the merits that are proper top her sex, and because of their rarity they can make of her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex." The discovery of Kant's split between beauty and brains scared me at first. What a terrible choice Kant's woman has to face, I thought-beauty or intelligence. It is as cruel a choice as the fundamentalist's thread: veiled and safe, or unveiled and assaulted.
Kant's message is quite basic: Femininity is the beautiful, masculinity is the sublime. The sublime is, of course, the capacity to think, to rise higher than the animal and the physical world. And you'd better keep the distinction straight, because a woman who dares to be intelligent is punished on the spot: She is ugly. The tone in Kant's book is as cutting as that of a Muslim Imam. The only difference between an Imam and Kant, who is considered to be "the chief luminary of the German Enlightenment," is that the philosopher's frontier does not concern the division of space into private (women) and public (men) realms, but into beauty (women) and intelligence (men). Unlike Harun Ar-Rachid, a caliph who equated beauty with erudition, and paid astronomical sums for the witty jarya in his harem, Kant's ideal woman was speechless. For not only does great knowledge wipe out a woman's charm, according to Kant, but exhibiting such knowledge kills femininity altogether: "A woman who has a head full of Greek, like Mme Dacier, or carries on fundamental controversies about mechanics, like the Marquise de Chatelet, might as well even have a beard." Madame Dacier (1654-1720) translated the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other Greek and Latin classics into French, and the Marquise de Chatelet, the companion of Voltaire, won a prize in 1738 from the French Academy of Science for an essay on the nature of fire.
The Caliph asked Tawaddud:
"What is your name?" to which she answered,
"My name is Tawaddud." He then inquired,
"O Tawaddud, in what branches of knowledge dost thou excel?" to which she answered,
"O my lord, I am versed in syntax and poetry and jurisprudence and exegesis and philosophy; and I am skilled in music and the knowledge of the Divine ordinance and in arithmetic and geodesy and geometry and the fables of the ancients…and I have studied the exact sciences, geometry and philosophy and medicine and logic and rhetoric and composition; and I have leant many things by rote and am passionately fond of poetry. I can play the lute and know its gamut and notes and notations and the crescendo and diminuendo. If I sing and dance, I seduce, and if I dress and scent myself, I slay. In summary, I have reached a pitch of perfection such as can be estimated only by those of them who are firmly noted in knowledge."
In this dialogue between the master and the slave, Tawaddud tries to sell herself. The few minutes of attention that the Caliph grants her is her chance to compete not only with other women in the harem but also with all the male scholars and artists swirling around the palace, hoping to entertain the ruler. A harem woman had no other alternative but to invest in her intellect. To follow Kant's advice, and cultivate intellectual mediocrity, would have been suicidal.
Isn't it strange, I thought upon reading this, that in the medieval Orient, depots like Harun Ar-Rashid appreciated defiantly intelligent slave-girls, while in enlightened eighteenth-century Europe, philosophers like Kant dreamt of silent women! Such a bizarre separation between feeling and reasoning! In Kant's enlightened West, the world is not populated by a single race of humans who share the capacity to feel and think, but by two distinct kinds of creatures: those who feel (women) and those who think (men).
The seventeenth century, Christiane went on-that century of enlightenment, when humanism and the cult of reason flourished-was also the century of Moliere and other like-minded men, who achieved enormous success by belittling educated women. …women who aspired to educate themselves about scientific discoveries were portrayed as ugly and repulsive.
"Yes, sure, women get the jobs," Christiane said. "But everywhere you see powerful men surrounding themselves with younger women to destabilize the older and more mature women who have reached higher positions. A French company might be housed in a modern glass building on the Champs Elysees, but inside, the atmosphere is still that of a repressive harem. Men feel insecure or jealous when women in senior positions insist on earning as much as they do."
The basis of misogyny is actually quite weak, resting only on the distribution of space. If the women invade the public space, male supremacy is seriously jeopardized. And in actuality, modern Muslim men have already lost their power base, as their monopoly over public space has been eroded with the massive entrance of women into scientific fields and the professions. … In oil-fuelled fundamental regimes, women's appetite for scientific fields is ever stronger: One third of all the scientists and technicians in the Islamic Republic of Iran are veiled ladies (32.6%). Kuwait's oil-drenched sheiks still deny women the right to vote, but 36% of the country's scientific "manpower" is female. Indonesian and Malaysian women also seem insatiable, holding down 40% and 44.5% of their respective countries' scientific positions.
…I prayed and meditated, though I did so while standing in the ocean. This is a small but essential detail whose meaning probably escapes my dear colleague: Modern Muslin women have gained access to the ocean. They have pulverized the harem frontier and gained access to public spaces. Veiled or unveiled, we women are in the streets today by the millions. To meditate in a harem, sitting inside four walls, is completely different from meditating while standing in the Atlantic waves. In the ocean, I feel connected to the cosmos-I am as powerful as Scheherazade's "Lady with the Feather Dress." With access to state-paid education, computers, and the Internet, Muslim women have gained wings.
…I have finally found the answer to my harem enigma. Unlike the Muslim man, who uses space to establish male domination by excluding women from the public arena, the Western man manipulates time and light. He declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look fourteen years old. If she dares to look fifty, or worse, sixty, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female childe and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility. In fact, the modern Western man enforces Immanuel Kan's nineteenth-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned as ugly. Thus, the walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.
These Western attitudes, I thought, are even more dangerous and cunning than the Muslim ones because the weapon used against women is time. Time is less visible, more fluid than space. The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within idealized childhood, and forces the women to perceive aging-that normal unfolding of the years-as a shameful devaluation. …This Western time-defined veil is even crazier than the space-defined one enforced by the Ayatollahs.
The violence embodied in the Western harem is less visible than in the Eastern harem because aging is not attacked directly, but rather masked an aesthetic choice. Yes, I suddenly felt not only very ugly but also quite useless in that store, where, if you had big hips, you were simply out of the picture. You drifted into the fringes of nothingness. By putting the spotlight on the prepubescent female, the Western man veils the older, more mature woman, wrapping her in shrouds of ugliness.
…"A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty," explains Wolf. It is "an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women's history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one." … '…concerns with weight leads to a "virtual collapse of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness' … constantly reminding women of their physical appearance destabilizes them emotionally because it reduces them to exhibited objects.
…Being frozen into the passive position of an object whose very existence depends on the eye of its beholder turns the educated modern Western woman into a harem slave.