Feminist Role Models in Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi

The image the word “harem” may create of barely dressed women fulfilling every desire of a Middle Eastern man is only one way to envision the meaning behind the word. In Fatima Mernissi’s Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, several different ways to imagine a harem are provided, and not all of them include women being treated as objects. Some of the stories she tells have a feminist heroine as the lead character. Some of the women are fictional; some are real. Because the stories Mernissi tells take place while Morocco is being colonized by France, besides the oppression that women in Islamic cultures often feel from the men in their lives, there was also the oppression of colonization to deal with. Sometimes the harem is a wonderful place of sisterhood and protection for the women. Other times it is a place of boundaries where women are forced to give in to the will of men. This makes Dreams of Trespass both complex and variable. Mernissi grows up as a feminist, but who is it that inspires her feminism? Mernissi is inspired to be a feminist by the women she lives with, and some she does not, in both a negative and positive way.

The most negative way that the word harem can be defined in Dreams of Trespass is, as the title suggests, a place that is off limits and to enter it would be trespassing. Also to leave the harem is trespassing. “When Allah created the earth, said Father, he separated men from women, and put a sea between Muslims and Christians for a reason. Harmony exists when each group respects the prescribed limits of the other: trespassing leads only to sorrow and unhappiness. But women dreamed of trespassing all the time. The world beyond the gate was their obsession” (Mernissi 9). Yet the gate also protected Mernissi and her cousins from the dangers of the French army that colonized Morocco at the time. At the gate of Mernissi’s childhood harem was a gatekeeper named Ahmed.

Ahmed is in charge of allowing people in and out of the harem. He allows his wife to exit and re-enter when she goes to work, but he is much more reluctant to let other women exit the compound. The gate is a hudud or frontier. To cross it, one needed permission and that would only be granted if there was a good reason, such as work, for wanting to leave the safety of the harem. The harem was safe, but also restrictive. The pathway to the gate was even challenging including long hallways, and, of course, there was Ahmed. He was not cranky or anything. In fact, he would invite those who came his way to join him for tea, but he was also not easily persuaded to open the gate for just anyone. Negotiations had to take place (Mernissi 18). However, the fact that Ahmed’s wife, Luzza, is allowed to exit is a good thing for the young Fatima and her cousins because it is a sign that there can be freedom to cross frontiers. Luzza, for example, uses her ability to cook and make good money doing it for other families as a way to be allowed outside the harem. Luzza is a good example of a feminist that Mernissi had as a role model when she was a child.

Harems come in different varieties. In contrast to the urban harem, one of Mernissi’s grandmother lives in another type of harem in the country where there are no gates to lock out the urban dangers. While there are no gates to keep the danger out, there are also no frontiers to cross if one wants to leave. Other dangers are present if there are no gates to keep the colonizers out. Diya Abdu of Image and Narrative says, “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” (Abdu). When Mernissi visits her grandparents in the country, she does not feel comfortable because she does not know what the boundaries are.

One of the types of oppression that is often associated with harems is polygamy. In the harem where Mernissi lives with her parents, monogamy is practiced; Mernissi’s maternal grandfather is polygamous though and her grandmother, Yasmina, is his second wife. The first is a nasty woman named Thor. She thinks she is better than the other women of the family because of her status as first wife, but she also has power. Her example to Mernissi is a negative one because there is no sense of sisterhood in her actions. However, Yasmina, who is the second wife and hated by Thor charms Mernissi’s grandfather. She has a wonderful sense of cooperation with the wives and concubines of her husband with the exception of Thor. She leads them in being independent. For instance, she creates a style of dress for herself that hides her skinny legs, and the other women copy her because it also allows them more freedom of movement. Yasmina is another model feminist from Mernissi’s childhood.

Sisterhood is one of the advantages of women living together in a harem. The urban harem encloses several women. Inbisat Ali and Taimur Ali of the American International Journal of Contemporary Research say, “Harem, according to Mernissi becomes a space where women challenge and question the man-made rules, empower themselves by sharing knowledge and share the bond of sisterhood. In this way, harem becomes a site where women express their multiple identities and exercise various strategies for their empowerment and self-expression” (Ali and Ali 83). Most of the women are related to one another in some way either through genetics or marriages. Some of them have been divorced and had no option but to accept the kindness of Mernissi’s father and uncle who own the land the harem sits on. These abandoned and dependent women live on the third floor in small rooms where they are protected from the Islamic world that would not approve of them living by themselves or supporting themselves and from the colonizers. “Father always worried about whenever someone attacked the institution of harem life. ‘Where will the troubled women go?’ he would say” (Mernissi 15). This paints the harem as a fortress but Mernissi also sees the harem as a prison of sorts. These contrasting views make the image of the harem complex. This view of the frontiers of the harem is not as negative as the view that the frontiers are extreme challenges to overcome to be able to enter and exit the gate.

Many of the women that Mernissi mentions in Dreams of Trespass are fictional, but still considered feminist role models. Ian Campbell writing in the Journal of Middle East Women's Studies says, Mernissi’s “accounts present girls in a cloistered environment and use the technique of telling the stories of others, usually women, to provide nuance and counterpoint to the central narrative. Both texts offer forms of ‘multiple critique’ that give voice to women treated as objects in Moroccan society” (Campbell 81). Scheherazade, on whose tales of the Arabian knights Mernissi may have patterned her story, is one of the fictional women Mernissi relies upon to tell her story. Scheherazade is able to get a murderous king to stop killing the women he marries by marrying him herself. She charms him through her tales and saves her own life and that of her sister. Mernissi’s narrator mentions Scheherazade several times in the novel, which is partially autobiographical and partially fiction, perhaps similar to Scheherazade’s tales. Another woman, Aunt Habiba, who is fictional. is the woman abandoned for no apparent reason by her husband who lives on the third floor of the urban harem. Habiba is also a storyteller. She and Scheherazade are both positive feminists models for Mernissi.

But not all the women mentioned in stories told by the other women for Mernissi’s benefit are fictional. Mernissi’s grandmother tells her of Shajarat al-Durr who had become the queen of Egypt after the death of her husband, Sultan al-Salih. “According to Muslim law, a woman cannot rule a country, although that had happened a few centuries ago, Grandmother said. With the help of the Turkish army, Shajarat al-Durr . . . [who had begun as] a concubine, a slave of Turkish origin, . . . ruled for four months, governing neither better nor worse than the men who came before and after her” (Mernissi 22). Mernissi’s grandmother wanted her to see that women had power even if they were oppressed by the men in their lives, by colonialism and by the Islamic religion that was misinterpreted by many.

Mernissi was positively inspired to be feminist by the women with whom she lived as a child, to whom she was related to, and those who were the heroine’s of stories involving feminist women. She was also inspired in a negative way to not be like Thor for instance. She also listened to her female relatives who told her that the Koran say that all humans are equal, even though the men interpreted it to mean that they should be dominate. The notion of the harem as a sexist place where women are oppressed is one image in Dreams of Trespass, but it is also a place of safety and sisterhood.

Works Cited

Abdu, Diya 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 and Narrative 19 (2007). Web. 1 December 2019. < http://www.imageandnarrative.b... >.

Ali, I. and T. Ali. "Beyond Pakistani Harem: Women’s Spaces, Neo-colonial Patriarchy and Agency in My Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani." American International Journal of Contemporary Research 9.2 (2019): 82-87. Google Scholar. 1 December 2019. < http://www.aijcrnet.com/journa... >.

Campbell, Ian. "Grammars of Disguised, Multiple, and Missing Critique in Dreams of Trespass and Tomorrow We’ll Get Our Land Back." Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 11.1 (2015): 80=97. Google Scholar. 1 December 2019. < http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/v... >.

Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. New York: Perseus Books, 1993. E-book. 1 December 2019.