Scheherazade’s Achievement(s): Practices of Care in Fatema Mernissi’s Memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, and her Creative Non-Fiction, Scheherazade Goes West
The Moroccan feminist sociologist Fatema Mernissi (1940–2015) is probably best known for her pioneering scholarly work on gender equality in Islam. This paper, however focuses on her life writing: her memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, published in 1994 and her reflections on its Eurocentric reception, which culminated in the publication of her work of creative non-fiction Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems in 2001. Written in popular genres in accessible registers, Mernissi’s texts translate her scholarly feminism into stories of the everyday in order to encourage her readers to see possibilities of feminist practices within and against oppressive social structures. Both texts deal with the way in which women’s agency is circumscribed by particular horizons of constraint determined by their social contexts and thus the texts contrast local, particular forms of constraint with more diffuse forms of oppression that characterise western modernity. This paper offers a reading of her harem childhood to trace some of the alternative modes of enacting small freedoms that the memoir documents. As becomes apparent in Mernissi’s reflections on the memoir’s reception, these achievements seem to be largely illegible within meritocratic scripts of success. In contrast, Mernissi asserts that care for self and other – via modes of storytelling, performance, artistic production and looking after one’s physical wellbeing – mark direct, albeit subtle, forms of resistance even if they are not recognised as such. Drawing on a popular cultural repertoire, the well-known figure of Scheherazade emerges in Mernissi’s texts as a central role model for women crafting pockets of resistance and webs of care. In this way, Mernissi’s texts offers a Moroccan perspective on the debate of the conditions of possibility of ordinary feminist practices inspired by popular artistic forms.
Keywords: Fatema Mernissi, life writing, Scheherazade, ethics of care, storytelling, Moroccan feminism