Today’s Solutions: July 20, 2024

Fatema Mernissi was born in a harem, but her female counterparts in the West suffer an even harsher fate. An eye-opening new perspective on gender roles and the male-domination of the multi-billion dollar fashion industry.

Fatema Mernissi | August 2003 issue

‘I was born in a harem.’ That sentence marked the beginning of Fatema Mernissi’s first book. In the West, it provokes a smile, but Mernissi herself finds it hard to appreciate this reaction. The Western image of a harem differs from the Eastern reality. A harem is not a magical place with beautiful women, but a prison in which women are repressed, and men confronted with rebellious lovers aiming to spoil their sexual romps. In real harems fear reigns among the women while doubts plague the men. It is anything but paradise.

In her fourth book, ‘Le Harem et l’Occident’, Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, examines the Western smile at the word ‘harem’. She writes about the suppression of women, sex objects, shame, sexual desires and cultural and religious concepts. Mernissi concludes that Western women are not much better off than their veiled sisters in the East.

It was during my unsuccessful attempt to buy a cotton skirt in an American department store that I was told my hips were too large to fit into a size six. That day I stumbled onto one of the keys to the enigma of passive beauty in Western harem fantasies.

‘In this entire store, there is no skirt for me?’ I said. ‘You are joking.’ I was very suspicious and thought that the saleslady just might be too tired to help me. At least I could understand that. But the lady added a condescending judgment, which sounded to me like an Imam’s fatwa. It left no room for discussion: ‘You are too big!’ she said.

‘I am too big compared to what?’ I asked, looking at her intently, because I realised that I was facing a critical cultural gap here.

‘Compared to a size six,’ came the saleslady’s reply.

Her voice had a clear-cut edge to it that is typical of those who enforce religious laws. ‘Size four and six are the norm,’ she went on, encouraged by my bewildered look. ‘Deviant sizes, such as the one you need, can be bought in special stores.’

That was the first time that I had ever heard such nonsense about my size. The flattering comments I received from men in Morocco regarding my particularly generous hips had for decades led me to believe that the entire planet shared their convictions. It is true that with advancing age I had been receiving fewer and fewer compliments when walking in the medina, and sometimes the silence around me in the bazaars was deafening. But I had learned long ago not to rely too much on the outside world for my sense of self-worth.

In any case, nothing is too serious or definite in the medina, where everything can be negotiated. But things were different in that New York department store. In fact, I have to confess that I lost my usual self-confidence. In that peaceful store that I had entered so triumphantly, as sovereign consumer ready to spend money, I felt savagely attacked. My hips, until then the sign of a relaxed and uninhibited maturity, were suddenly being condemned as a deformity.

‘And who says that everyone must be a size six?’ I joked to the saleslady, deliberately neglecting to mention size four, which is the size of my skinny twelve-year-old niece.

At that point, the saleslady suddenly gave me an anxious look. ‘The norm is everywhere, my dear,’ she said. ‘It’s all over, in the magazines, on television, in the ads. You can’t escape it. There is Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Gianni Versace, Giorgio Armani, Mario Valentino, Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Dior, Yves Saint-Laurent, Christian Lacroix, and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Big department stores go by the norm.’ She paused and then concluded, ‘If they sold size 14 or 16, which is probably what you need, they would go bankrupt.’

She stopped for a minute and then stared at me, intrigued. ‘Where on earth do you come from? I am sorry I can’t help you. Really I am.’ And she looked it too. All of a sudden, she was interested and brushed off another woman who was seeking her attention. Only then did I notice that she was probably my age, in her late 50s. But unlike me, she had the thin body of an adolescent girl. Her knee length, navy blue, Channel dress had a white silk collar reminiscent of the subdued elegance of aristocratic French Catholic schoolgirls at the turn of the century. A pearl-studded belt emphasised the slimness of her waist. With her meticulously styled short hair and sophisticated makeup; at first glance she looked half my age.

‘I come from a country where there is no size for women’s clothes,’ I told her. ‘I buy my own material and the neighbourhood seamstress makes me the silk or leather skirt I want. Neither the seamstress nor I know exactly what size my new skirt is. No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time. Actually, I don’t know what my size is, to tell you the truth.’

The saleswomen laughed merrily and said that I should advertise my country as a paradise for stressed working women. ‘You mean you don’t watch your weight?’ she inquired, with more than a tinge of disbelief in her voice. Then, after a brief moment of silence, she added in a lower register, as if talking to herself: ‘Many women working in highly paid fashion-related jobs could lose their positions if they didn’t keep a strict diet.’

Her words sounded so simple, but the threat they implied was so cruel. I realised for the first time that maybe ‘size six’ was a more violent restriction imposed on women than the Muslim veil. Quickly I said goodbye so as not to make any more demands on the saleslady’s time or involve her in any more unwelcome, confidential exchanges about age-discriminating salary cuts. A surveillance camera was probably watching us both.

Yes, I thought as I wandered off, 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 14 years old. If she dares to look 50 or, worse, 60, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemns the mature woman to invisibility. In fact, the modern Western man enforces one of Immanuel Kant’s 19th-century theories: To be beautiful, women have to appear childish and brainless. When a women 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.

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 and more fluid than space. The Western man uses images and spotlights to freeze female beauty within an idealised childhood, and forces women to perceive aging – the normal unfolding of the years – as a shameful devaluation. ‘Here I am, transformed into a dinosaur,’ I caught myself saying aloud as I went up and down the rows of skirts in the store, hoping – to no avail – to prove the saleslady wrong.

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. This idea gives me the chills because it tattoos the invisible harem directly onto a woman’s skin. Chinese foot-binding worked the same way. Men declared beautiful only those women who had small, childlike feet. In feudal China, a beautiful woman was the one who voluntarily sacrificed her right to unhindered physical movement by mutilating her own feet, and thereby proving that her main goal in life was to please men. Similarly, in the Western world, I was expected to shrink my hips into a size six if I wanted to find a decent skirt tailored for a beautiful woman. We Muslim women have only one month of fasting, Ramadan, but the poor Western woman who diets has to fast 12 months a year.

According to the writer Naomi Wolf, the ideal size for American models decreased sharply in the 1990s: ‘A generation ago, the average model weighed 8% less than the average American woman, whereas today she weights 23% less.’ The shrinking of the ideal size, according to Wolf, is one of the primary causes of anorexia and other health-related problems.

The West, I realised, was the only part of the world where women’s fashion is a man’s business. He controls the whole fashion industry, from cosmetics to underwear. In places like Morocco, where you design your own clothes and discuss them with craftsmen, fashion is your own business. Not so in the West. Naomi Wolf explains in her book ‘The Beauty Myth’: ‘Men have engineered a prodigious amount of fetish-like, fashion-related paraphernalia. Powerful industries – the US$33-billion-a-year diet industry, the $20-billion cosmetic industry, the $300-million cosmetic surgery industry, and the $billion pornography industry – have arisen from the capital made out of unconscious anxieties, and are in turn able, through their influence on mass culture, to use, stimulate, and reinforce the hallucination in a rising economic spiral.’

But how does the system work? Why do women accept it? Of all the possible explanations, I like that of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu the best. In his latest book, ‘La Domination Masculine’, he introduces a concept he calls la violence symbolique. ‘Symbolic violence is a form of power which is hammered directly on the body, and as if by magic, without any apparent physical constraint. But this magic works only because it activates the codes pounded in the deepest layers of the body.’ Reading Bourdieu, I had the impression that I was beginning to better understand Western man’s psyche. The cosmetic and fashion industries are only the tip of the iceberg, he states. Something else is going on at a far deeper level, which is why women are so ready to adhere to their dictates. Otherwise, why, argues Bourdieu, would women make their lives more difficult, for example, by preferring men who are taller or older than they are?

Women relinquish what Bourdieu calls the ordinary signs of sexual hierarchy, such as old age and a larger body. By so doing, he explains, they spontaneously accept the subservient position. Bourdieu calls this spontaneity ‘the magic enchantment’.

Both Wolf and Bourdieu come to the conclusion that insidious ‘body codes’ paralyse Western women’s abilities to compete for power. Even though access to education and professional opportunities seem wide open, the rules of the game are very different according to gender. Women enter the power game with so much of their energy deflected to their physical appearance that one hesitates to say the playing field is level. ‘A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one,’ says Wolf. Research, she contends, confirms what most women know too well: concern with weight leads to a ‘virtual collapse’ of self-esteem and sense of effectiveness. Prolonged and periodic caloric restriction results in a distinctive personality whose traits are passivity, anxiety, and emotionality.

‘I thank you, Allah, for sparing me the tyranny of the size six harem,’ I repeatedly said to myself while seated on the Paris-Casablanca flight, on my way back home at last. ‘I am so happy that the conservative male elite does not know about it. Imagine the fundamentalists switching from the veil to forcing women to fit in size six!’

How can you stage a credible political demonstration and shout in the streets that your human rights have been violated when you cannot find the right skirt?


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