Dreams of Trespass

Power Vs. Passion in Viewing Scheherazade's Character

Different women react differently towards Scheherazade based on what they value in a woman. In Hisham Mattar's, In the Country of Men, Najwa values a woman who controls sexuality, wealth, and shows strength at all times. She views Scheherazade as a harlot, coward, and slave because Scheherazade does not represent these three characteristics. In Fatima Mernissi's, Dreams of Trespass, however, the harem women value a woman who is confident, persuasive, and humanitarian. They view Scheherazade as such for representing these characteristics. The same character, Scheherazade is portrayed as being powerful in one book because of the characters' values, whereas she is viewed as submissive in another book for the different values.

The first reason for Najwa, the main protagonist in, In the Country of Men, for condemning Scheherazade is due to Scheherazade's lack of control on her sexuality. "The complete stranger was now my husband," Najwa says to Suleiman, referring to Faraj whom she was forced to marry, "[He] was going to walk in alone and, without introduction, undress me and do filthy, revolting things" (Mattar, 12). Najwa is sensitive towards sexual matters because she has been forced to marry Faraj and sleep with him. She views Scheherazade as a harlot for not controlling her sexuality. "I wonder what would have happened if they were three harlots like her," Najwa says to Suleiman, claiming that Scheherazade's sexual submissiveness to the king makes her, and any daughters she may have, as harlots (Mattar, 15). Therefore, Najwa views Scheherazade as a harlot for sleeping with the king beyond her control.

Another reason Najwa condemns Scheherazade is due to Najwa's belief in the importance of ownership and wealth, while Scheherazade lacks this ambition. Najwa voices her frustration of her father and brothers - the high council - for halting her ambitions, by saying to the wind, "What do you want her to do? Die? Disappear into the face of the earth? You forbid her school, lock her away for thirty days and now want to marry her to a complete stranger with a big nose?" (Mattar, 172). Najwa had ambitions of going to school, and being independent in choosing her husband. Instead, she gets betrayed by Khalid, her brother, whipped by, el-haj Muftah, her father, and forcedly married to Faraj. She is angry with herself for not reaching her ambitions to possess education, an independent marriage, and ultimately happiness. She calls Scheherazade a “coward” and in the same page condemns her for not seeking to own or possess wealth (Mattar, 16). She says:

Was it to rule one of the corners or even a dirty little cave in his kingdom? Was it to be given one of the ministries? Perhaps a school? Or was it to be given a writing desk in a quiet room in his palace of endless rooms, a room the woman could call her own, to write in secret the truth of this monster Shahryar? (Mattar, 16).

Najwa views Faraj as "an executioner" (Mattar, 13); she views king Shahryar as "a monster" (Mattar, 16). She sees her weaknesses in Scheherazade and views Scheherazade as coward for being passive in seeking ownership and controlling wealth.

A third reason Najwa criticizes Scheherazade is due to her belief in the importance of appearing strong at all times and Scheherazade does not display this. Najwa experiences forced marriage and has to leave school because she is submissive and powerless in front of her father who beats her up and shouts at her if she does not not obey him (Mattar, 15). Therefore Najwa learns to value the character that displays loud voice and strength at all times. She condemns Scheherazade, calling her a “slave,” because Scheherazade appears weak, telling the king, "May I be so bold as to ask a favor of your highness?" (Mattar, 15) Then she asks him to be allowed to, merely, live. Najwa would have wanted Scheherazade to shout, fight, and die for her independence, rather than live under the sword. Since Scheherazade did not do this, Najwa views her as a slave. Therefore, according to Najwa, Scheherazade is a coward, harlot, and slave.

On the other hand, the harem women, in Fatima Mernissi's Dreams of Trespass, value a woman who is beautiful and confident, as well as persuasive and humanitarian. For the harem women, a woman has to strike a balance between beauty and confidence. Fatima describes the "hammam beauty" as “magic,” that makes women reborn (Mernissi, 226). Therefore, they liken the hammam where they get skin care to freedom and happiness. They support Scheherazade for being confident in her beauty. "Scheherazade was confident of herself," Douja explains to Fatema, "she was sure to persuade the king, and bring him to be able to see the strangeness in himself by taking him through faraway lands" (Mernissi,14). Therefore, in Mernissi's book, the harem women view Scheherazade as being confident from her sense of beauty.

The harem women's second incentive for idolizing Sheherazade is because they value a woman who masters the art of speech, the skill of persuasion. In Mernissi's novel, Douja reproaches Fatema because she tells her father that the women have a secret key with which they gain access to the radio cabinet behind the men. Douja tells her daughter to chew words well before speaking (Mernissi, 5). In the following chapter, Fatema gets fascinated by how Scheherazade is able to choose her words skillfully so that the king does not “call in the siaf" (Mernissi, 6). Therefore, Douja and Fatema value the skill of persuasion and they view Scheherazade as being persuasive. Douja proudly tells Fatema, that the king, after spending too much time listening to Scheherazade's stories, could not imagine himself living without her; Scheherazade changed the king's mind to renounce his habit of chopping off women's heads (Mernissi, 9). Therefore, Fatema and Douja view Scheherazade as an avid persuader. Unlike Najwa, they put less emphasis on the woman's ownership and the control of wealth and more on her power to persuade.

Another reason, the harem women idolize Scheherazade is due to the value they have for humanitarian ends. Douja goes to her mom, Yasmina, to take her advise on teaching Fatema to defend herself instead of relying on Samir. As a means, Yasmina advises Douja to instill in Fatema the responsibility of caring for the younger (Mernissi, 6). Therefore, the harem women put emphasis on humanitarian ends, using their femininity to save the younger, the weaker. They view Scheherazade as a savior, for sacrificing herself for weaker women. "Scheherazade insisted on facing the king," Douja says to Fatema, "Either I shall live [she said to her father] or I shall be a ransom for the virgin daughters of the Muslims, and the cause of their deliverance from his hands and thine" (Mernissi, 8). Therefore, the harem women view Scheherazade as a savior for sacrificing her life for the Muslim women.

Scheherazade's story does not change. Different women, at different time periods, circumstances, and life experiences, view Scheherazade in different perspectives. Najwa, who is surrounded by her father and brothers - the high council - who betray her, impose their power on her and force her to leave school and get married, thinks of Scheherazade as a coward because Scheherazade does not ask to rule a ministry or own an entity, a harlot because she does not make the decision of when to sleep with the king, and a slave because she does not express strength at all times. The harem women, however, who put great effort into their skin care and facial masks, listen to the radio, and value humanitarian ends, think of Scheherazade as a brave and beautiful woman because she faces the king confidently, a persuader because she makes the king renounce the habit of cutting off women's heads, and a savior because she uses her femininity to suffice humanitarian ends. The harsh circumstances that Najwa has lived in force her to view Scheherazade in a negative view, while the lavish life circumstances that the harem women lived in lead them to idolize Scheherazade.


Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. New York: Basic Books, 1994. Print.

Mattar, Hisham. In the Country of Men. New York: The Dial Press, 2006. Kindle file.