Friday, January 06, 2012

Shine like the moon

Over Christmas I read Dreams of Trespass, a memoir by Islamic feminist Fatima Mernissi. It's about her childhood in a harem in 1940s Morocco. This was a family harem, as opposed to the imperial harems that caught the Western imagination. Mernissi grew up in a big family compound full of cousins and aunts, which the women were rarely allowed to leave.

One scene that especially interested me was the women's elaborate preparations for the weekly trip to the bathhouse. Mernissi describes the drying of herbs and clay, the steeping of leaves in oil, the application of face masks and henna paste, and then soaking it all off in the baths and emerging clean and new.

Mernissi's father dislikes the smell of henna and pleads with his wife not to participate:

“I love you as natural as God made you,” he would say. “You needn't go through all this trouble to please me. I am happy with you as you are, in spite of your quick temper. I swear, with God as my witness, that I am a happy man. So, please, why don't you forget about the henna tomorrow.” But Mother's answer was always the same. “Sidi (my lord), the woman you love is not natural at all! I have been using henna since I was three. And I need to go through this process for psychological reasons too – it makes me feel reborn.”

Mernissi's beloved cousin and playmate Samir also tires of her participation in these female rituals:

He explained to me that if I kept dropping out for two days in a row to take part in the grownups' beauty treatments, and attended our terrace sessions with smelly, oily masks all over my face and hair, he was going to look for another games partner. Things could not go on as they were, he said; I had to choose between play and beauty, because I surely could not do both.

Her response surprised me:

“Skin first! Samir,” I said, “a woman's fate is to be beautiful, and I am going to shine like the moon.”

This strikes me as braver than anything I said on the topic in adolescence. I understood that while being pretty would attract boys, appearing to care about beauty would not. I was looking for a geeky boy, and such boys did not like fussy girls, hobbled in high heels and always disappearing to the bathroom to fix their makeup. The praise I most remember from my first boyfriend was when we went sledding, clad in long underwear and old clothes. He said he liked when I looked “simple.”

Meanwhile, most girls love to preen. At twelve, my sister used so many fruity bath gels and sprays that she attracted wasps when she went outside. I grew my hair long and braided it in elaborate Princess Leia updos, though I never wore them outside the house. In college, one of the pleasures of a women's dorm was helping each other pick out clothes for dances or shabbats. There were no men to know we cared about clothes or complain that we took too long to get ready. Preparation was a pleasure in itself, sometimes more fun than the actual event.

I'm sad Mernissi couldn't keep her friend and her henna, and that women's beauty was used as an excuse to lock them up. But I admire her bravery in siding with her mother and aunts instead of capitulating to Samir's demand.

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