Top critical review
She thinks she understands Western culture. She's wrong!
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on February 9, 2002
Fatema Mernissi, a professor of sociology in Morocco wrote a wonderful book entitled "Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood", which I thoroughly enjoyed. Therefore, I was delighted to hear about her newest book "Scheherazade Goes West", and purchased it as soon as it came out. In this book she describes her experiences in Europe during a book tour and comes to some conclusions about the way that Western men view women. Based on the opinions of a few European and French acquaintances, reading some Immanuel Kant and viewing art by Ingres and Matisse, Ms. Mernissi thinks she understands enough to write a whole book about the subject. She surmises that Western men like to see their women submissive and silent but in the Middle-Eastern world, men admire intelligent women even though they keep them locked up. She uses literary references to support this premise and tries to sound scholarly with many pages of footnotes to beef up the scant 220 pages.
I couldn't help smiling at her naivety and her preconceived notions and then I remember that, even though she was a professor, she led a very sheltered life. This was her first trip to the West and it was all brand new to her. She just didn't get it, even though she made a couple of good points about a later trip to the United States where a thin and perfectly groomed salesclerk told her that any size larger that a 4 or a 6 was "deviant". Based on this one incident she immediately jumped to the conclusion that by slavishly following these fashion dictates, American women were in their own kind of harem. Give me a break! All Ms. Mernissi had to do was open her eyes and look around her and she'd see that women in the U.S. come in every size and color. There are no laws of the land that force women to diet down to skin and bones.
The book might have been better if Ms. Mernissi would have simply observed the differences, but her value judgments are just too strong to be ignored and her mind too closed. Of course she's entitled to her opinion and in a way I find it refreshing. But the young girl who was the central character in "Dreams of Trespass" and who looked at the world with wide-eyed wonder was certainly gone. Through that book I DID learn about her culture and I DID learn to appreciate some of the richness of the lives of Middle-Eastern women. Certainly, she has the ability to take a reader into her own world; she should just stay away from judging others. I'm certainly not one to say all is right with my own culture; indeed, I'll be the first to criticize our foibles. But a short book tour certainly can't give her more than a glimpse of our way of life, and a whole book devoted to the interpretation of her impressions is a bit too much.
I wish she had told us a bit more about herself too. She's now in her fifties or sixties but she never mentions whether she is married or has children or grandchildren. Her descriptions of her own family life seem to stop when she is about ten-years old. She gives the impression that she is single, but never comes out and says that directly. And her descriptions of men she knows in Morocco are always her male colleagues and never a husband or son or brother or father, thereby making men of her family conspicuous by their absence. Sorry, but I can't recommend this book. It doesn't even make it to the same playing field of her rich descriptions of her childhood in "Dreams of Trespass", a book which definitely does gets my unconditional recommendation.