Image and Narrative
Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X



Home archive




Issue 19. Autofiction and/in Image - Autofiction visuelle

Narrating Little Fatima: A Picture is Worth 1001 Tales — "Multiple Critique" in Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood

Author: Diya M. Abdo
Published: November 2007

Abstract (E): This paper examines the ways in which Orientalist or Western as well as national normative narratives and discourses are challenged in Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi's novelized autobiography Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood . This challenge is located in para- or supra-textual elements: packaging and photographs, elements which also challenge, re-write, transform and modulate the narrative of and the meanings within the text itself. By means of these textual fissures, Mernissi suggests an alternate reading of the autobiography itself, targeting multiple audiences, playing on misconceptions and stereotypes in an attempt to burst them in a surreptitious manner.

Abstract (F): Cet essai montre les façons dont Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood , l' 'autobiographie romantisée' de la sociologue et féministe marocaine Fatima Mernissi, défie les narrations et discours normatifs occidentaux voire orientalistes comme le discours nationaliste, non moins autoritaire. Ce défi se situe dans les éléments para-, ou supra-textuel de l'ouvrage : couverture et photographies - éléments qui également défient, réécrivent, transforment ou modulent intérieurement la narration ainsi que la signification du texte. Au moyen de ces fissures textuelles, Mernissi suggère une lecture transitoire de l'autobiographie elle-même, s'adressant à différents lectorats, jouant avec des stéréotypes et des préjugés de façon à ce qu'ils éclatent furtivement.

keywords: Mernissi, Orientalism, photography, paratext

To cite this article:

Abdo, D. M. Narrating Little Fatima: A Picture is Worth 1001 Tales — "Multiple Critique" in Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Image [&] Narrative [e-journal], 19 (2007).


1. Introduction


In her feminist endeavors, an Arab and Muslim woman is not only challenging and being challenged by local and national normative discourses; she must also contend with the West's discourse of her as a woman within the Arab culture and Muslim religion. This paper examines the ways in which these colonial, Orientalist or Western as well as national narratives are critiqued, re-scripted and re-appropriated in Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi's "fictionalized" autobiography Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by the text's images (taken by Mernissi's frequent collaborator Ruth V. Ward). These images transform and modulate the narrative of and the meanings within the text itself. Using Miriam Cooke's theory of "multiple critique" as she sees it employed in the efforts of Islamic feminists and Susan Stanford Friedman's theory of the "return of the repressed" in women's autobiography, this paper argues that these seemingly peripheral yet actually integral elements of the text serve as devices which function, in collusion with textual strategies, to implicitly critique these multiple oppressive narratives, primarily by playing upon stereotypes only to explode them.


Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist and professor of sociology at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, who studies the lives of women in Islam both in modern times and during the time of the Prophet. She was born in Fez in 1940 and in her autobiography (her only work written in English, the others being originally in French), the young Fatima narrates incidents from her childhood years in the harem into which she was born. Her voice modulates into the voices of the many women who shared that harem with her and who in turn tell their own stories. These harem lives and narratives are set against the background of Morocco 's fight for independence from the French and the nationalist efforts of the male members of the Mernissi household. Thus the women's own dissatisfaction with their harem life and their attempts at freedom are linked to and intertwined with Morocco 's own struggle for freedom.



2. Double Agency


Dreams ' text, in its childish narrative voice, is seemingly concerned with the everyday events and tales of life within a harem (i.e., an extended family household), whereas its paratext (i.e., its images) can be seen in the light of Friedman's analysis of women's autobiography, in which she finds hidden strategies which act as "an insistent record-a trace, a web, a palimpsest, a rune, a disguise-of what has not or cannot be spoken directly because of the external and internalized censors of patriarchal [and, I add, in the case of an Arab woman writer, also colonial and Orientalist] social orders" (Friedman, 1989: 142). Mernissi's text functions within this theoretical framework, in which women's autobiographies "often consciously or unconsciously negotiate a compromise between revelation and concealment of the forbidden through textual disguise" (142). The images are in fact these disguises that conceal and reveal, consciously or otherwise, an implicit and explicit attack on the normative narratives that "organize [ Fatima 's] powerlessness" (Mernissi, 1994: 3). The technique also places Mernissi theoretically alongside other Arab and Islamic feminist women writers who effect a "multiple critique" of "the global system, their own political regimes, and religious and family contexts and the patriarchal vein that runs through them all and still remain wary of others' desires to coopt their struggle" (Cooke, 2000: 98).


Hence, the book's text and images attack local paradigms of oppression while resisting a Westernized cooptation of Mernissi's struggle by conducting its own attack on Orientalist and Western appropriations of the image of the Arab and Muslim woman. Mernissi's text attempts to play the role, using "veiled strategies" (Cooke, 2000: 99), of the "double agent"-critiquing the colonizer and colonized at once, while "asserting and also balancing multiple overlapping and sometimes contradictory allegiances" (107). This double agency manifests itself in Mernissi's work in the form of her "double" strategy of text and image.


If the written text is the explicit, surface level of the autobiography, then the photographs are its implicit, subterranean level, letting Mernissi's "multiple critique" of the various narratives that enshrine an Arab Muslim woman's life shine through in vivid black-and-white. The photographs are ambivalent and mercurial, their instability heightened by the fact that, although the text is an autobiography, they do not portray the real-life Mernissi household. Furthermore, the photographs are not representative temporally: they are much more recent then the book's setting in the 1940's. Time and space quickly create a dislocation between how we are meant to view these photographs and what they must actually represent. The images are not to be taken at face value; their inclusion and position in the text imbues them with a particular symbolic, thematic and subversive significance.



3. Orientalizing the Harem


At first glance, Mernissi elaborates a highly Orientalist representation of the lives of Arab and Muslim women as oppressed victims of an infamous institution, "the harem." The title Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, plays on the Western perception of the harem, replete with "Oriental" slave girls or jaryas caught in a "forbidden realm of women complete with tales of sexual orgies, lesbian affairs, violence, greed, lust, and unimaginable wealth" (Hamilton: 176). Such perceptions have been cemented by blockbuster Hollywood movies, Orientalist art and literature (179) and by current political climates in which the presumably pitiable status of Arab and/or Muslim women, supposedly akin to slavery, is highlighted in mainstream Western media and elsewhere (Fayad: 170). In their desire to trespass their boundaries, Arab and Muslim women become the sympathetic "brown women" eager to be saved from "brown men." Adding to this Orientalist illusion is the title's invocation of the exotic world of the Arabian Nights, a world supposedly thought to represent the strange and true customs of the East (Sallis: 69). Indeed, the blurbs declare Dreams of Trespass "enchanting," "exotic," "a necklace of Tales as delightful as Scheherazade's," and a gateway into a world hidden behind "iron gates." The book, one might believe, will act as our "sleeping dictionary" in the sense that Rosemary Weatherston applies the term to texts by third world women writers. Fatima (aka Mernissi, aka Scheherazade) will be our native informant, the luscious lover who will reveal all and decode the mysteries of this world.


Knowledge is promised by the packaging, and "the third world difference" (Talpade Mohanty: 53) upon which the authenticity of that knowledge depends is augmented by the text. The chapter titles, for example, displayed prominently in the contents page, play into the seductive "difference" of this world. The erotic, exotic and the downright strange are emphasized in words like "Scheherazade," "Caliph," and "Co-Wife." While the packaging initially invites "Western eyes," at the same time it turns off the Muslim and/or Arab reader who is likely to think at first glance that this is just another one of "those books" by the "sell-outs" (significantly mostly women authors, with the possible exception of the infamous Salman Rushdie) who cater to Western ideas for profit and momentary notoriety, such as Norma Khouri, whose book Forbidden Love was shown to be a fabrication ("An Imaginary Life").



4. De-Orientalizing the Harem


The risk of alienating Arab/Muslim readers of the English text is a calculated one. Soon, the American/European who is lulled into familiarity will realize that this book is not as Orientalist as it first appeared. It promises informancy only to later deny it, infiltrating into the dominant discourse before frustrating, critiquing, and re-writing it. The result is a multilayered text, and like the storytelling of Scheherazade which it mimics, the narrative is also subversive. Rather than being simply erotic or entertaining, as indeed harems and its women "ought" to be, the text attempts to subtly transform its audience and bring it to a place where it might be able to see the strangeness in itself and its perceptions and embrace the "difference." For a Western audience, this means being forced to see the Arab world without the not-so-rosy glasses of Orientalist and colonial discourse. For English-speaking Arab and Muslim readers it means becoming aware of the damage that religious, national and cultural discourses impose on women. In this way, Dreams employs Friedman's "disguises" to construct Cooke's multiple critique. Very quickly the text, with its childish narrative voice, and its photographs and footnotes tell us that the "harem" is not the Hollywood harem that the glossy cover seemed to promise. The concept itself, representative of the symbolic and discursive violence perpetrated against the Arab woman by imperialist discourse (Mehdid: 22) is destabilized. The remainder of the titles on the contents page, for example, undermine the previously mentioned ones, pulling the text out of its timeless, exotic landscape and plunge it into a context, a reality, and a sameness: "The French Harem," "World War II," "Egyptian Feminists," and "American Cigarettes."


Central to the frustration of the reader's expectations are the photographs which preface each chapter. Generally speaking, much like the packaging of the book itself, the pictures are seductive and subversive. They "play up" or "down" to a specific audience's expectations, both facilitating and withholding comprehension of the chapter to which they act as gateways. In this fictionalized autobiography, the relationship between text and image is an organic, dialectic one in which the meanings of both text and paratext keep changing and influencing one another.


A prime example of Mernissi's simultaneously Orientalizing and de-Orientalizing gesture is the cover photograph depicting three women in what seems to be a palace-like structure. The architectural elements and overall design are highly geometric and intricate, imposing perhaps, but severe and devoid of the stereotypical opulence of the lavish feminine harem space that the text itself describes: "In the summer, the doors would be opened and drapes of heavy brocade, velvet, and lace let down" and passageways of "silver-plated, wrought-iron grilles, topped with wonderfully colored glass arches" (Mernissi, 1994: 4). The women, very obviously artificially colored in these black-and-white pictures, are moving away from the eye of the camera and the reader. Their backs are to us, their features impossible to guess. The (artificial) colors of their dresses are bright and alive, defying both the image of the scantily clad woman in the belly dancer outfit (that is if they are not nude, as in Ingres' Bain Turc) common to classical Western art and embraced by Hollywood and popular culture ( Aladdin, R Kelly's video "Snake," and Sarah Brightman's "My Harem," to name just a few), and defying also the opposite image, beloved by Western news media, that of the woman enshrined in a black, textile prison of suffocation. The binary image of the Arab woman as "a silent beast of burden or that of a capricious princess, half naked odalisque or the shapeless figure of the woman wearing the veil or the Islamic 'hejab'" (Mehdid: 25) is frustrated.


Whereas the title of Mernissi's work and the accompanying blurbs of endorsement promise us an eye-opening, voyeuristic look into the forbidden inner sanctum of the harem (a view superficially sustained by the palace-like structure depicted), the image's details, in conjunction with the text itself, "unveil" a different kind of harem, where there is no dancing for men. In the "harem" photographs we see no bare flesh, no opulence, and no ostentatious beauty. Indeed, we do not even see the faces of the women, who in typical Orientalist depiction should either gaze blindly into space (Delacroix's Women of Algiers) or stare at the viewer with the pain and sadness of victims, as we see in news images of Palestinian and Iraqi women. On Dreams' cover, the women deny the audience either kind of gaze. Walking away, they would appear to have more important tasks to accomplish. By showing us these women in daily and ordinary acts, the image and text defy the either/or dichotomy in the representation of Arab women.


The women's movement away from the reader on Mernissi's cover, faces denied, is a postcolonial political gesture. The voyeuristic colonial imperative is undercut, and the "native" woman's body as a site of inscription is unsettled. The fact that all of Dreams ' photographs save the artificially colored cover image are black and white also renders them opaque, defying the Orientalist desire for explicit description and "the details about clothes, jewellery, the movements and nakedness of the body," whereby "the female enigma becomes transparent, her body accessible and available for consumption through such careful and detailed drawing of its contours and of her general appearance" (Mehdid: 30-31). The lack of props further defies the ideal of the Orientalist representation that is usually a "catalogue of goods, a showpiece of commodities that the viewer might covet" where "the woman's revealed body becomes startling and arousing in contrast with a well-dressed room" (Kabbani: 70). Additionally, although the women on the cover photograph are inside a structure, their escape seems possible; they are mobile, not lounging. The ceiling of the building is cut off, making the sky open and limitless. The sun filters through the windows over them, and the harsh geometric tiles on the floor are dappled with sunlight as if reflecting the fissures and gaps that are available to these women for escape. They are moving towards a door, closed though it may be, that could possibly open for them. Thus, in its multiple significations, the image serves to invite, and then undermine, the expectations of the Western reader.



5. Double Vision


This cover photograph, like those within (all taken by the same photographer, Ward) could be seen as representative of the multiple relations between the colonizer and the colonized. According to Meyda Yegenoglu, "It is with the assistance of the Western woman (for she is the only 'foreigner' allowed to enter into the 'forbidden zone') that the mysteries of this inaccessible 'inner space' and the 'essence' of the Orient secluded in it could be unconcealed; it is she who can remedy the long-lasting lack of the Western subject" (Bahramitash: 224). Thus, on one hand, the photographs' very lack of informancy is not necessarily an active personal effort on the part of these women, but one claimed for them by the photographer. In the tradition of Orientalist visual representation, these images could simply be "producing rather than reflecting a reality," for "when a scene was inaccessible . the [Orientalist] photographer would not hesitate to construct it, complete with props, costumes, and assorted preconceptions" (Schick: 3). Such a practice would void the women's agency, making their "uninformancy" yet another representation and another staging by the "Other" and a manifestation of Western feminist efforts to save "brown women from brown men," typifying the much-discussed collusion between colonialism, Orientalism, and white Western feminism. On the other hand, the "harem" women's persistent refusal to show their faces and pose might be their deliberate and literal turning of the back to the "foreign" photographer, preventing her from invading their privacy. In this way, the photographs could in fact represent the Orientalist painter being shunned and rejected - a gesture in turn subverted by the fact that they are used by a foreigner to achieve that very effect. Layered and complex, the images, the women in them, as well as the two women who have together produced this work, act as double agents. Mernissi and Ward, Moroccan and American, text and paratext, word and image produce a double vision that addresses multiple audiences and creates stereotypes and binary oppositions that are ultimately unsettled.


The facelessness of the photographed women (who indeed, even when they stand in front of mirrors, are without reflection) has multiple meanings which serve to enhance and undercut a stereotype. First, the photographs mimic the concept of the harem itself: we, as readers, are strangers and thus are not allowed to gaze upon the women whose bodies and identities, and especially faces, are protected within the borders of their harem, here embodied by the photographic image which is in itself protected by the physical text. Their facelessness might signify a perception of the women's lack of individuality, their mystery, their inaccessibility, and their inability to return the gaze, thus enforcing rather than subverting the homogenizing image of the Arab woman. The image confirms their status as objects of discovery, desire, and observation rather than human subjects who are capable of interaction and eye contact. On the other hand, it denies informancy, as discussed above. With their faces hidden the women are safe, private, and unexploited by Western perception, as indeed covered women frequently argue in defense of the veil or hijab (e.g., Kamal-Eldin, Ahmed: 220-225, El-Solh and Mabro: 9).



6. An Ambiguous Harem


Thus we see how the cover photograph introduces one of the major issues critiqued and deconstructed by the text's images, which is the question of the harem as an institution and construct, especially the concept of "harem women," an issue challenged in Ward's photographs throughout the autobiography. To that end, the Orientalizing effect of Dreams ' packaging extends into Mernissi's text, in which aspects of harem life are deliberately exoticized in order to lure in the Western reader for whom those myths will subsequently be exploded. Another case in point is the photo at the beginning of chapter seven (56). Corresponding with the chapter's title, "The Harem Within," the image shows part of a structure with a design similar to previous interior shots. The structure, though beautiful in its tile design, is towering, overbearing, and very solid. Anyone who has been inside a mosque will find the view familiar. Thus, through their similarity, the mosque and a Muslim home are equated in their sanctity, their moralizing, and their presumed oppressiveness in the treatment of women. Indeed, in this chapter Yasmina compares Mecca to a harem, and thus implicitly the man of the house to God (61). But like the other photographs, this one too is ambiguous. While it might equate household regulations with the strict codes and male dominance of a mosque, it might also be taken to subvert that same image, showing how a house, with its fissures, and a mosque, with its similar fissures, can also be an escape. Religion, if understood and interpreted "correctly" through Islamic feminism, as Mernissi tells us in her scholarly work (1987 and 1991) could be Muslim women's escape and a way out from the restrictions of manmade rules.


However, as Fatima says of her Fez harem, which the reader will assume to be the one depicted, the structure is a "fortress" and inescapable: "surrounded by high walls, and with the exception of the little square chunk of sky [also seen in the picture] that you [represented in the image by the eye of the camera, photographer and reader] could see from the courtyard below, nature did not exist" (Mernissi 1994: 57). The architecture of the Fez harem seems to seal the fate of these women; all windows open on the inner courtyard, and without nature they are doomed to imprisonment. The false, architectural nature - the harsh, solid, and geometric floral designs inscribed onto tiles, woodwork and stucco - symbolizes the multiple narratives and alternative damaging "natures" that have replaced women's own. Male nature has imprisoned and taken over female nature, male being has molded and solidified female being, and masculine Islam has replaced "true" Islam.


Hence, the accompanying photograph shows just the image of the "exotic," "beautiful" prison described succinctly and innocently by the exceedingly straightforward voice of the child. The image reinforces the text to help delineate the uniformity and barrenness of the women's harem. Yet nothing is quite as it seems in Mernissi's text. In the image, we notice that there are people atop on the roof of the structure: women and children. And the text tells us, "it is from the courtyard [that] nature [the way to escape] seemed irrelevant" (57) and unavailable. But the women and children in the image are on the rooftop, the terrace where, if one moves quickly enough, the fissures and gaps open onto possibilities for freedom and escape in the shape of a sky that is "larger than the house, larger than everything" (57). And to whom does nature seem irrelevant in this photograph? To those in the courtyard looking up at the small square patch of inaccessible sky, such as the eye of the camera, which also happens to be the eye of "the outsider," Ruth V. Ward, the "other" woman. More importantly, perhaps, it is "us," the audience and its gaze. The women atop the terrace are unclear, again denying the Orientalist gaze; we are trapped, unable to reach them. Looking again at the image after reading the text, the prison loses its grandeur. The flowers on the colonnades begin to represent the nature of the women of Fez: "the floral designs reproduced on tiles, on sofas, on stucco the images" (57). The women must, and do, make the nature here relevant, see and use it in the walls, in the sofas, in the curtains, in their weavings, in their stories. They become magicians who change the solid architecture around them to find wormholes, memory holes, fluid gaps in the colonnades through which they can enter into a parallel reality where they create an alternate existence and a feminist subjectivity; in fact, in all of Dreams' images the women are moving towards or entering into the gaps in the spatial architecture that represent the fissures of their world. Here, the women atop the terrace have passed through already to where nature becomes relevant and usable. The image changes: the prison becomes breakable, the darkness beyond contains infinite possibilities of other doors and stairs through which women can take to the terrace that opens onto the limitless sky. The sunlight pours triumphantly into the courtyard and onto these women.


Thus Dreams of Trespass' images reveal how the women's relationship with the architectural spaces that enclose them is ambiguous, an ambiguity that reveals the narrator's own ambivalence about her childhood, harem life and the harem itself, a restrictive institution but one which can provide marginalized women with much needed financial and emotional support. This ambivalence is exemplified in several photographs in which the women are depicted in the vicinity of some portal of escape-a door, a window, a terrace-as it is not always clear whether they are walking away from or into these fluid spaces, whether they are attempting escape or not, trespassing or simply dreaming of it. One particular photograph (74) (the image is available on Mernissi's website) more strongly depicts this ambiguity. It shows two women of unknown age captured, as in other images, in a moment of motion; they are running, caught in an arrested and immortalized moment of escape and freedom. But unlike in prior images, the women here appear blurry, so much so that their bodies seem more like wisps of air or light, a transparency through which elements of the architecture behind them can be seen, representing perhaps the text's imagery in Fatima's mother's desire for her: "'I want you to become independent, independent and happy. I want you to shine like moons'" (81).


The mysterious light shining through the girls is, in a way, this mother's hope for a brighter future. But the image, like others, is ambiguous in meaning, hopeful but also pessimistic: the women are ethereal and ghost-like, but the house, the space, indeed this harem prison around them is solid, in focus, all too real. This juxtaposition can be read in multiple ways. The women are escaping and mercurial; the prison is solid, but the prisoners' presence and life within it is not. Soon these harem lives will be ghosts of the past, haunting the colonnades, perhaps sometimes magically captured by the eye of an intruding camera seeking to reveal it to a modern audience. But the women resist; they might appear to us, but only as phantasms in an elusive cat and mouse game in which the reader attempts to apprehend them, but from whom they manage to escape and deny the gaze, giving us only an unsatisfying, incomplete image. This reading is encouraged by the narrative, which brims with the possibility of future change. The communal life of the harem is dwindling; nuclear families are breaking off (76-77). Fatima 's mother encourages her daughter to live for "one hundred percent happiness" (81). While the chapter itself is a hopeful look toward changing futures and changing harem lives, its undercurrent reveals "the return of the repressed," a pessimistic reading in which those nights of "one hundred percent happiness" are in fact fleeting and rare, like the moment captured by the photographer's lens. The prison endures, while the women inside it come and go and ultimately are forgotten. The prison does not change, only the prisoners.



7. Haremizing the "Other"


The text's "multiple critique" not only explodes stereotypical and Orientalist discourse but also "haremizes" the Western reader, recasting the construct so that it is not simply complicated and destabilized, but "westernized" as well. The text makes clear that women live in spaces codified by religion and men. Sometimes the spaces are clear and sometimes not, but women and men have internalized each other's roles in these spaces and unconsciously play by these codes. But all societies live by similar guidelines; according to Yasmina, Fatima 's maternal grandmother and the strongest feminist voice in the text, "when a woman worked hard, and was not making money, she was stuck in a harem, even though she did not see its walls" (63). These words open up another dimension of the photograph at the beginning of "The Harem Within" (56, discussed above). Who is looking up from the courtyard imprisoned in that invisible harem? Is it the well-meaning but misguided working mother or housewife of Europe and America, who, feeling sorry for those women of Islam as she looks up from the book, perhaps begins to notice the confining walls of her own anti-feminist world? The image reveals how easily one can internalize or construct the harem within.


This association is extended by the title of another chapter, which, playing on the insinuations of the phrase "The French Harem", also dislocates the reader from what they thought was strictly an "Eastern" experience. Women's experiences are comparable, Mernissi contends, whether the similarities are acknowledged or not. Anywhere in space or time, women tend to recognize their spatial and behavioral boundaries only through the violence that ensues after the fact. Perhaps, then, living in a place of explicit rules (like an actual, physical harem) can be "easier" than living in an invisible one, wherein learning the rules can only happen by trial and error.



8. Critiquing the Colonizer and the Colonized


In addition to a repressed attack on the "colonizer" and Orientalist discourse, the text's images reveal an attack on local discourses as well, exposing religious and national complicity in women's imprisonment. The photograph that begins the text's first chapter teases out the multiplicity of narratives in which Arab and Muslim women are inscribed and simultaneously highlights the West's participation in the very oppression they decry. The photograph of an "Oriental" looking minaret arch door (the same arch design surrounds the image on the cover, implying that this book is a doorway into a forbidden, "Oriental" world) shows the door bolted and locked, with multiple locks, from the outside. The implication seems to be that the owner of the house has left and locked up the house and the property within. In the chapter the reader learns women are still within that house. Locking them in reduces them to the status of prisoners unable to leave. This impression of the harem as prison is heightened by the chapter's title, "My Harem Frontiers." This stereotypical representation is undermined by a small detail on the photograph, the Arabic numeral "2" (not the Hindi numeral customary in the Arab world) carved or branded on the door. The image becomes dislocating: the number "2" is out of place, precisely because it is so familiar to an English-speaking reader, and should immediately undermine the perception of the Western reader who is comfortable with the "difference" of the "other" that this book supposedly embodies.


This initially very "Oriental" image with a slight Western touch serves to highlight the transgressive, non-binary nature of the text and its strategy of multiple critique. Nothing is clear-cut: "them" and "us" or East and West. Everything is infused with a third option that undercuts and merges the two seemingly polar opposites. The image speaks of more than just the idea of harem women imprisoned by their men folk; the foreign-numbered cell door also speaks of a colonized nation imprisoned and caged by its colonizer. The text addresses this connection between colonial and national narratives in the same chapter, on the page opposite the picture: "I was born in the midst of chaos, since neither Christians nor women accepted the frontiers. Right on the threshold, you could see women of the harem contesting and fighting with Ahmed the doorkeeper as the foreign armies from the North kept arriving all over the city" (1). Image and chapter join together to show how colonial and national imprisonment collaborate with, engender, and mimic each other. The gate that represents colonization is also the gate representing national and religious patriarchy. Moroccan male imprisonment of females is no more justifiable or acceptable than French aggression on the Moroccan nation. "Ahmed the doorkeeper" and "the foreign armies of the north" are both equally unjust; in both cases, woman is burdened with representing the nation.


The numeral "2," Arabic in origin but Western in modern usage, on the locked gate, represents the ways in which, as Leila Ahmed discusses, colonial and national discourses have, in their struggle with each other, managed to bolster one another vis-à-vis the situation of women who were imprisoned in a site of contention in between (Ahmed: 164). In the very first line of Dreams, Fatima establishes what she will call later "the geometric lines organizing [her] powerlessness" (Mernissi, 1994: 3): born in a harem, "five thousand kilometers west of Mecca, and one thousand kilometers south of Madrid, one of the dangerous capitals of the Christians" (1). Her physical and geographical relationship to the "headquarters" of Islam and a place of colonization marks her as a Muslim woman, who is racially marginalized as a colonized being. Race and gender intersect to create the powerlessness and double marginalization to which even the child is highly sensitized. In conjunction with the photograph, this self-definition becomes much more powerful because it innocently locates the place in which she feels trapped. Using the child's voice, the text deftly unpacks the position of women as a highly politicized one rather than a simply religious one: "The problems with the Christians start, said Father, as with women, when the hudud, or sacred frontier, is not respected" (1). From here on, the text begins to compare the Arab men to their colonizers. By linking these differing modes of oppression, Mernissi appears to be highlighting the national struggle but really emphasizes the oppressive nature of Moroccan life itself.



9. The Distorting Mirror of Autobiography


Perhaps no image better captures the thematic threads, the strategies of multiple critique and the "return of the repressed" in Mernissi's autobiography, while simultaneously reflecting the combustible relationship between reader and text, than the one in which we see a woman or girl tentatively looking in a mirror (218). What she sees we cannot know, but what the reader sees are flames superimposed where a face should be. Here in this photograph we come close to gazing on a face revealed, for what is more revealing and accurate than a mirror? Up until now, the sequence of images has seen a slow progression toward full revelation: figures and faces are less obscure, closer and closer to "unveiling." But here, in this penultimate image, the reader is denied that for which a steady expectation has been built. The images, like Mernissi's text, promise but refuse to deliver. The accompanying chapter, "Skin Politics," supports such a reading. The chapter describes the process by which women make themselves as ugly as possible in order to subsequently emerge as beautiful "goddesses" from the hammam (public bath). The reader waits for the result of this make-over, but the revelation never comes: we are not allowed to gaze on these women in the way they are revealed to us in the Orientalist paintings of the public bath.


In colonized Arab/Muslim countries where only an illusion of this visibility was upheld in Orientalist art and literature and postcards, it is the illusion-through the very same medium of visual representation-that is questioned and exploded because the "certainty of the visual, based on the authority of image-as-documentation, is brought into question," causing an "epistemological anxiety" on the part of the Western viewer or reader (Weatherston 124). If native woman informants are expected to be "as reflective as mirrors offering an unobstructed view of some objective truth," and "some version of the perfect tribal Eve" (Weatherston 140, my emphasis), then the Medusa, the vampire, the fire of the reflection in the mirror are the distortion of that coveted, perfect and simplistic representation, a rejection of that informancy and stereotypical "Eveism" (the burden of the original guilt and its embodiment in fitna), whether their origins be colonial and Orientalist or national and religious. Melissa Matthes, in her discussion of the memoirs of el-Saadawi, Mernissi, and Ashrawi, claims that each of these works is "not simply a mirror which inadequately reflects or explains reality, but rather a prism through which reality is transformed" and through which living memories are remolded (72). The photographs in Dreams of Trespass, in their distortion of nature, serve as just such prisms. Like the text, they are not "authentic" and objective representations of the "other," but transformative lenses in which the "East" and its customs and peoples are not merely reflected but instead transformed, fractured, multiplied, and complicated-or denied altogether-in a resistant critique of the onlooker.


Moreover, Brodzki and Schenk summarize the use of "the archetypal female prop of the mirror" that "has been used variously in relation to woman and almost always against her." It serves "to imprison femininity: for a woman to be reassured of her 'looks' is to know she will be looked at." It also serves to show how woman serves as a mirror herself-of her culture and of her sex. She becomes then "framed by the male gaze" (7) and I would add the Orientalist gaze. These framing and imprisoning aspects of the mirror are exploded by this photograph which refuses to reflect an accurate, or even recognizable, female/feminine image. However, while these images function on the level of multiple critique here, they also function as the author's and narrator's "return of the repressed" (Friedman). In their analysis of Snow White, Gilbert and Gubar examine how women writers have been caught in the mirror of the masculine authorial voice as the Queen, and buried in the "glass coffin of the male-authored text" (44). In one way, this particular image could reflect the nature of this book as a whole. We are gazing at a woman gazing at herself and seeing something inexplicable and distorted. The autobiography is Mernissi the adult reflecting on her life as a child within the harem, gazing at her "I," her self, her face, in the mirror. Is this a reflection of the anxiety of authorship of an Arab and Muslim woman writer? Is the fire the anxiety, or is it the transgression of that dogma of privacy and the vow of silence? Thus the image might also be viewed in light of the question, "how have women articulated their own experience, shaped their own texts artistically, met their own reflections in the problematic mirror of autobiography?" (Brodzki and Schenk: 7).


In the female autobiography, moreover, within the "process of framing an identity, [the writer] is always looking at herself through the eyes of others" (Manisty: 273). Whether in the narrative of the text or here in this photograph, can we see the subject's (Mernissi's?) gazing into "the problematic mirror of autobiography," and hence this narrative, as unreliable as a mirror image, as metaphoric and elusive? We are denied the true and complete identity of the girl, and instead we get something else, a reflection of the self that is but is not the self: a self that is rewritten. Here, as Elizabeth Ordonez argues of texts by ethnic women writers, the "narrative moves beyond cultural nationalism to a commonality of textual coding as the text itself becomes both the means and embodiment of modifying and reshaping female history, myths, and ultimately personal and collective identity" (19). The photograph could be the "repressed" of this text. The girl's nervous and tentative gaze into the mirror could reflect the manner in which the author herself finds the autobiography, the act of self-revelation and self-examination, dangerous. Is the author, like the girl, afraid of what she might see or uncover in this writing of a memoir, this looking in the mirror? And are we simply denied what she sees, or does she also see a burning flame of energy, or perhaps the ugliness of her life?


The women of the harem in Mernissi's text are rewarded with an ancient mirror whenever they make themselves ugly before the hammam, which had the "uncanny power to distort noses and reduce eyes to Satanic dots. I never played around with that glass, because it made me extremely nervous" (Mernissi 1994: 223). If, as Friedman suggests, the "prevailing social order stands as a great and resplendent hall of mirrors [which] owns and occupies the world as it is and the world as it is seen and heard," then this fiery reflection in the mirror "does not reflect back the unique, individual identity to each living woman; it projects an image of Woman, a category that is supposed to define the living woman's identity" (Friedman 1998: 75). The girl looking in the mirror and seeing a ball of fire, those flames, is a reflection not only of that identity, of being the "other," the always-distorted, the chaos, the difference, the devil's partner in sin and fitna, but also of the fear and anxiety of that social, cultural, religious, and national identity. It is also the paratextual rewriting and rejection of that culturally, socially, sexually and politically defined image of herself and her identity, of what she is supposed to see and identify as her being. Instead she sees Medusa, a nebulous something which can potentially be reshaped and remolded as it is fuelled by her desire.


Thus, this penultimate photograph in Dreams, like all its others, renders the text complex and its attitude ambivalent. On the one hand, the chapter and its image represent the empowerment of women through their bodies and their traditional beautification rituals. This beauty is rendered even more powerful because it remains personal, hidden not only from the gazes of men, but also from the voyeuristic Orientalist gaze. The reader's disempowerment in the hampering of their sight is an empowerment for the history and memory and lives of these women of the harem. But the photograph and the text also address the darker side of the self. Through her rebellion, her power to gaze at herself and the world around her and examine it, which reflection of these women to the masses and to herself will emerge? Will it be their beauty and empowerment or their ugliness and demonization for having defied the rules and therefore sinned and committed haram ?


Perhaps this is the fear of the girl, the author: when her audience reads her autobiography, will they see an empowered, beautiful woman and support her, or will they see a traitor to a culture and religion? More importantly, perhaps, will the woman be able to see herself, or will her I, her self, her identity, be concealed from her as much as it is from the reader? Self-examination is a dangerous endeavor, especially when it is public. The author does not know the outcome and so, tentatively, she looks. What she finds is up to the various audiences who will read her work. She might remain a stranger to herself or be dismissed and criticized. All of these multiple readings and realities are found in this image, this subconscious of the text where we see how "the autobiographical subject finds [sees in the mirror?] him/herself on multiple stages simultaneously [because of multiple audiences] called to heterogeneous recitations of identity. These multiple calls never align perfectly. Rather, they create spaces or gaps, ruptures, unstable boundaries, incursions, excursions, limits and their transgressions" (Smith: 110).



10. Delicate Iron Prisons


The final image in Dreams of Trespass (230) completes the thematic ambivalence of the text as a whole. It is the only image in which a woman's face is revealed, such as it is. Finally we are allowed to gaze upon the "woman" who has thus far been facing away from us but who has been slowly revealing herself within the text and in Ward's photographs. Are we to understand that finally we (the readers) have comprehended, known, and thus possessed? Has the text itself been the slow unveiling of the author and the harem women, culminating in the bare face and the direct gaze? Has this book really been an Orientalist sojourn in the "other" world, a world we can now claim to have uncovered? The closer we look at this photograph, the more it seems to mutate. Only half of the woman's face is visible; the rest is hidden in the shadows of the intricate lace curtain that separates her from us, a fragile gate resembling those we have seen in previous images, the iron bars and doors that mark the women's boundaries. But lace is thinner, and so perhaps the power of her gaze and the flimsiness of the borders or hudud signal the loosening of the inscriptions around these women's lives, and around Fatima whose "tales" we have just read. The image conveys both the powerlessness of these women in their segregation and the frailty of the barrier, its delicacy, the potential ease of the escape.


While we observe "her" gaze, ours become less important. She is defiant: her eyes, her hand on her cheek, her posture indicate a sense of tired questioning and defiance. She taunts us: What have we learned? Do we really think we have "seen" and "known" her? Her face is not very clear, obscured nearly as completely by the lace as was the previous woman's by fire. The more we look at her, the more discomforting it becomes. Her gaze, as I look into her tired eyes, seems to me to be accusing, reprimanding. Who is really behind the veil, the partition, us or her? Does it serve as hijab, covering her from the world, or is it rather the divide beyond which we could also unknowingly be trapped? Her gaze is powerful and sorrowful; she is revealed and concealed. She is trapped, but so are we. Her incomplete revelation expresses perhaps the very essence of Mernissi's text: we might think now as readers that these women have been unveiled to us, but they remain distant. This is the illusion of revelation and its accompanying power that completes the trick performed by this book. The woman's face looks directly at the "other," the eye of the camera, but the lace works both ways: her vision, too, is obscured.


This image, a symbol of tentative openness and newfound vision, is positioned at the beginning of the chapter in which Fatima 's close playmate Samir, upon whom she depends, becomes a "man" and must be removed from the women's private gatherings. This chapter, then, is the beginning of "difference" for our author. The male gaze, here Samir's, becomes an "erotic stare" through which women are used and possessed, a power for which men are celebrated and because of which women's bodies must be covered and segregated. That the baring of the woman in the image coincides with this chapter ("Henna, Clay, and Men's Stares") reflects perhaps the recognition of that powerlessness that the reader's gaze, at the moment of viewing, causes these women. They are imprisoned behind a delicate but iron web through which they gaze at us accusingly for the role we have played, but also pleadingly and sorrowfully in the hope of escape. Samir recognizes his "unusual power" (240), and Fatima realizes "for the first time in [their] children's games, all that Samir had said was right, and that whatever [she] said did not matter that much" (241). Her narrative is powerless before his, and perhaps that is the sadness in this woman's gaze. The book's hopeful but bitter ending, the possibility but ultimate uncertainty of flight, inhabits the image, one of ambiguity, of powerless empowerment.



11. Successful Double Agency?


Ultimately, all of Mernissi's permutations of the meaning of the "harem" and the lives of its women reflect a radical bilingualism

that will allow us to speak of a subversive poetics: a poetics that seeks to create a new literary space for the bilingual, postcolonial writer. It is a space that subverts hierarchies [.] where separate systems of signification and different symbolic worlds are brought together in a relation of perpetual interference, interdependence and intersignification [.]. Such a poetics becomes a statement on the process of decolonization itself, where the latter is to be read as a two-sided rather than one-sided endeavor, a process in which both colonizer and colonized are implicated, where both parties are constantly written and rewritten [...]. In creating a new literary space for themselves, francophone North African writers are imposing challenging requirements in order for the reader, Western or otherwise, to decode their texts. (Mehrez: 260)

But are these strategies successful? Many reviewers note how indeed Mernissi did indeed explode the image of the harem and the Arab world for them (Booth, Calsyn, Kellyim). To o thers, however, this text remains a monolithic representation of Arab women (Abby). Using its complex strategies, the text might reach the most perceptive readers while eluding others. This is an outcome of the fact that writing in English might surrender Mernissi's text to the "other," as Abdelwahab Meddeb suggests writing in French does for North African writers, and so she, like others who resist a co-optation of their struggle, "will defend [themselves] with arabesque, subversion, labyrinthine constructions, the incessant decentering of the sentence and of language [here through paratext] so that the other will lose the way just as in the narrow streets of the casbah " (Mehrez: 269, n. 28). This is an admirable postcolonial gesture of resistance of co-optation, especially here for a woman. But as the text strategically attempts to de-center and educate, it does not want to entirely alienate. For as Mernissi/Fatima recognizes, a complete alienation and fear of the difference can lead to violence: "Our Medina streets were narrow, dark, and serpentine-filled with so many twists and turns that cars could not enter, and foreigners could not find their way out if they ever dared to come in. This was the real reason the French had to build a new city for themselves: they were afraid to live in ours" (Mernissi, 1994: 23). The gesture, if too extreme, might alienate completely without educating, or worse still, fall on deaf ears.





Abby. " Easy to Read and Entertaining. " June 20 2003.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

"An Imaginary Life." The Sydney Morning Herald. 30 July 2004. 15 September 2004 <>.

Bahramitash, Roksana. "The War on Terror, Feminist Orientalism and Orientalist Feminism: Case Studies of Two North American Bestsellers." Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 14.2 (2005): 221-35.

Booth, Marilyn. "Review of Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi." World Literature Today 69.2 (1995): 419.

Brodzki, Bella, and Celeste Schenck, eds. Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Calsyn, Trisha. "Life in a Harem through a Child's Eyes. 2000." June 20 2003.

Cooke, Miriam. "Multiple Critique: Islamic Feminist Rhetorical Strategies." Nepantla: Views from South 1.1 (2000): 91-110.

El-Solh, Camillia Fawzi, and Judy Mabro, eds. Muslim Women's Choices: Religious Belief and Social Reality. Providence: Berg, 1995.

Fayad, Mona. "The Arab Woman and I." Kadi: 170-72.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. "The Return of the Repressed in Women's Narrative." Journal of Narrative Technique 19.1 (1989): 141-56.

---. "Women's Autobiographical Selves: Theory and Practice." Smith and Watson: 72-82.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

Hamilton, Marsha J. "The Arab Woman in U. S. Popular Culture." Kadi: 173-80.

Kabbani, Rana. Europe 's Myths of Orient: Devise and Rule. London: Macmillan, 1986.

Kadi, Joanna, ed. Food for Our Grandmothers: Writings by Arab-American and Arab-Canadian Feminists. Boston: South End Press, 1994.

Kamal-Eldin, Tania, dir. "Covered: The Hejab in Cairo, Egypt." Women Make Movies, 1995.

---. " Hollywood Harems." Women Make Movies, 1999.

Kellyim, "A Beautiful Story of Family, Love, and Strength" (2002). June 20 2003.

Khouri, Norma. Forbidden Love: Love and Death in Modern-Day Jordan. London: Doubleday, 2003.

Manisty, Dinah. "Negotiating the Space between Private and Public: Women's Autobiographical Writing in Egypt." Writing the Self: Autobiography in Modern Arabic Literature. Eds. Robin Ostle, Ed de Moor and Stephan Wild. London: Saqi Books, 1998: 272-82.

Matthes, Melissa. "Shahrazad's Sisters: Storytelling and Politics in the Memoirs of Mernissi, El Saadawi and Ashrawi." Alif 19 (1999): 68-96.

Mehdid, Malika. "A Western Invention of Arab Womanhood: The 'Oriental' Female." Women in the Middle East: Perceptions, Realities, and Struggles for Liberation. Ed. Haleh Afshar. London: Macmillan, 1993: 18-58.

Mehrez, Samia. "Subversive Poetics of Radical Bilingualism: Postcolonial Francophone North African Literature." The Bounds of Race: Perspectives on Hegemony and Resistance. Ed. Dominick LaCapra. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1991: 255-77.

Mernissi, Fatima. The Harem Within: Fear of the Difference. June 20 2003.

---. Beyond the Veil. Rev. ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987.

---. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Trans. Lakeland Mary Jo. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1991.

---. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1994.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. "Under Western Eyes." Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Ann Russo and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991: 51-80.

Ordonez, Elizabeth. "Narrative Texts by Ethnic Women: Rereading the Past, Reshaping the Future." Melus 9.3 (1982): 19-28.

Sallis, Eva. Sheherezade through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of the Thousand and One Nights. Richmond: Curzon Press, 1999.

Schick, Irvin Cemil. "Representing Middle Eastern Women: Feminism and Colonial Discourse." Feminist Studies 16.2 (1990): 345. ProQuest. November 30, 2002 <>.

Smith, Sidionie. "Performativity, Autobiographical Practice, Resistance." Smith and Watson: 109-115.

--- and Julia Watson, eds. Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Weatherston, Rosemary. "When Sleeping Dictionaries Awaken: The Re/Turn of the Native Woman Informant." Post-Identity 1.1 (1997): 113-44.


Diya M. Abdo is an Assistant Professor of English.  She obtained her B.A. in English Literature (1996) from Yarmouk University in Jordan and her M.A. (1998) and Ph.D. (2005) from Drew University in New Jersey.  Her Ph.D. dissertation examined the textual and paratextual strategies of Islamic feminisms with an emphasis on the Islamic feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi.  She has published articles in Women's Studies Quarterly and The Eugene O'Neill Review and has articles forthcoming in PAMLA's Pacific Coast Philology and collections on Arab writers and women writers. She has presented numerous papers in international conferences on Arab women writers, Islamic feminism, comparative literature, autobiography, postcolonial translation and American literature.  She currently lives and teaches in Amman, Jordan.



Maerlant Center Institute for Cultural Studies

This site is optimized for Netscape 6 and higher

site design: Sara Roegiers @ Maerlantcentrum