Set against the backdrop of occupied French Morocco, Fatima Mernissi’s book Dreams of Trespass, illustrates how the harem structure affects women through her various dynamic characters and their coping methods. The author uses the development of her child-self as a tool that accompanies the reader in their evolving understanding. “In a harem,” young Fatima states, “you don’t necessarily ask questions to get answers. You ask questions just to understand what is happening to you” (Mernissi, 22). The bright heroine asks the essential questions as the reader asks them and major issues are analyzed through the - generally - objective eyes of a child. The author’s characters are not wholly submissive, nor do they quietly accept their restrictions. Rather they find empowerment through the art of storytelling, and, at times, the patriarchal structure that has restricted them to begin with.
For many of the women who found themselves powerless, storytelling existed as a medium for emancipation. Mernissi’s mother emphasized the power of words, going so far as to say that, “[Fatima’s] chances of happiness would depend upon how skillful [she] became with words” (Mernissi, 16). Even the powerless divorcée Aunt Habiba, “makes her frontiers vanish” with her stories. “Liberation,” Habiba says, “starts with images dancing in your little head, and you can translate those images in words. And words cost nothing” (Mernissi, 114). Stories are cited as a woman’s key to power and source of mobility and freedom. Fatima’s mother illustrates this with the classic story A Thousand and One Nights, and when asked, “how does one learn how to tell stories which please kings?” she answers that that is a woman’s life work (Mernissi, 16). Although oral tradition, which has long been the domain of women, is a large part of Arab and Muslim culture, the matriarch of Fatima’s Fez harem Lalla Mani takes issue with drama as a form. In both the strict urban harem in Fez and Mernissi’s maternal...
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