Corporate Harems of the West

Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan academic and feminist, perturbs and eventually infuriates a French journalist in this interview, as she intentionally inverts Western cliches about the status of women in the western and Arab worlds.

Mernissi, author of such works as Beyond the Veil and Forgotten Queens of Islam, suggests that the Western obsession with oppressed and submissive Muslim women may have as much to do with Western male sexual fantasies as with a concern for social justice.

Psychologies: You claim that Western women live in harems. Are you just being provocative?

Fatima Mernissi: Absolutely not. Every company managed by men is a harem; and seemingly by coincidence, almost every one of the Western magazines for women have men running them. Even a company with its headquarters in an ultra-modern all-glass building- like the ones we see in La Defense [Paris business district] can conceal a harem. A place where the master ensures that he is surrounded by dozens of women whose salaries depend on his good graces. And the repression there is as terrible as it is in the Orient, even if it has a more discreet character.

Q: You are speaking of harems, but not of sex…

A: The point of a harem is not to have sex, but to display one’s power. If sex is what you want, you do not surround yourself with dozens of people; you do not introduce rivalry and competition between women. Unless you have a weird sort of sex drive.

Q: You say that the size 6 for a Western woman is the equivalent of the veil that Muslim women wear. Don’t you think you are pushing it a bit too far there?

A: In Tehran, if you do not wear the chador, a cop will put you back in line. In the West, the terror is more intangible. All you need to do is circulate images and women will run themselves ragged trying to resemble them. Everything is fine as long as you are a size 6. Otherwise, if you are outside the norm, you cannot even rebel against it. It is a surreal kind of violence. Muslim women fast one month out of the year; Western women fast all year long.

Q: This submissive and obedient Western woman you talk about in your book-where do you find her?

A: In the fantasies of Westerners. All you have to do is look at the naked odalisques of Matisse, or read Kant and his conception of ideal beauty. The fantasy of the Western male is a silent woman who is intellectually passive. The fantasy of Oriental males is Scheherazade, a woman who is essentially an intellectual; she manipulates a man’s emotions through her skillful use of words.

Q: And what about women’s fantasies?

A: In our culture, there is a certain amount of flexibility between the two sexes. For example a man who is gentle is not seen as unattractive; quite the contrary. In the United States, a man who shows tenderness or who cries is seen as ridiculous. The Western male has to be tough, and cannot show his emotions. The Arab man by contrast, is scary if he doesn’t show his emotions. He is a fragile man, who expresses his weaknesses and laughs at them.

Q: You say that Oriental women seek to undermine the power of men…

A: We have this word ‘kayd’, which means mischievous, cunning; it’s not just subterfuge, it’s worse. It is an irresistible and destructive power. Men are afraid of Oriental women, because they have this subversive intelligence that is opposed to power, to the system. They are recognized as strategists, and intelligent ones when it comes to undermining male power. The first time I went to the United States, when I was a student, I was surprised to see that women were not supposed to be as intelligent as men. I had never felt that in a Muslim country.

Q: You say that the Oriental woman is more of a rebel than the Western woman. Is that a joke?

A: Resisting discrimination, and demanding gender equality, is a very strong reflex among Muslim women. They are nothing like the racist stereotype of totally passive beings that the Western media sells. That is why, in spite of the existence of extremism, many women rise to important political positions. In Islam, the woman is considered equal to man.

Q: That’s in theory, but do you think she really is?

A: In the nineties, the percentage of women teaching in universities or equivalent institutions was higher in Egypt than in France or Canada. The percentage of female student in engineering was twice as high in Turkey and Syria as in the Netherlands and UK.

Q: So how then do you explain that in the West, Muslim women are always seen as submissive?

A: Because that is the prejudice that is spread by the media. These images of miserable women: submissive, beaten up, raped-have become a consumer product for the West, like a drug that you need to take. It certainly does raise the moral of Western women marvelously well. They are being told: “You should be happy you are not living in a Muslim country”.

Q: You sound like you are saying that Muslim women are not oppressed…

A: A lot of them are heads of companies, but you do not hear about them in the media. Only those who are persecuted are interesting to Western eyes.

Q: But this Islam exists, for example among the Taliban!

A: I am not talking about extremists; I am talking about normal people! The women whom I meet win battles every day, and these women, you will not even look at! The only ones you are interested in wear the veil or are victims of the dictatorship of the extremists.

Q: In your research, what has been the most surprising fact that you have learned?

A: The fact that Western women think that their system is a good one for women. Because they have a few advantages they are blind to all the rest. They are absolutely not treated as the equals of men, yet behave as if that were the case. I think quite simply this is fascinating! In the Orient, I know that the laws are against me, which is why, at every minute, I am on guard not to let myself be swallowed.

Valerie Colin-Simard Translated from French by International Boulevard