Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi



(taken from Publishers Weekly): This rich, magical and absorbing growing-up tale set in a little-known culture reflects many universals about women. The setting is a "domestic harem"in the 1940s city of Fez, where an extended family arrangement keeps the women mostly apart from society, as opposed to the more stereotypical "imperial harem," which historically provided sex for sultans and other powerful court officials. Moroccan sociologist Mernissi (Islam and Democracy) charts the changing social and political frontiers and limns the personalities and quirks of her world. Here she tells of a grandmother who warns that the world is unfair to women, learns of the confusing WW II via radio news in Arabic and French, watches family members debate what children should hear, wonders why American soldiers' skin doesn't reflect Moroccan-style racial mixing and decides that sensuality must be a part of women's liberation. With much folk wisdom--happiness, the author's mother told her, "was when there was a balance between what you gave and what you took"--this book not only tells a winning personal story but also helps to feminize a much-stereotyped religion.


Dreams of Trespass outlines the story of Fatima Mernissi and her reflections of growing up in a harem. The story starts out when Mernissi is quite young, and ends when she is around nine years old. She discusses the members of her family and their personalities, dreams, and hopes. Her work is quite descriptive and contains many cultural allusions that are well described within the context of the story. In particular the incidents in the story are connected with outlying concepts of freedom, feminism, and the purpose of barriers, separation, and frontiers pertaining to harem life. Mernissi weaves her stories together beautifully and there is a real sense of continuity between chapters and a reflective sense of her own ideals. Highly recommended.

Challenge: Orientalism and Popular Misconceptions About Islamic Culture

According to Wikipedia, Orientalism "has come to acquire negative connotations in some quarters and is interpreted to refer to the study of the East by Westerners shaped by the attitudes of the era of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. When used in this sense, it implies old-fashioned and prejudiced outsider interpretations of Eastern cultures and peoples." Many people labor under misapprehension regarding Middle Eastern culture, particularly Islam, and have no real idea about the many layered customs, traditions, and beliefs of its makeup. In addition, there is a real danger in allowing students to have only the limited understanding of history and politics in the Middle East that most books by American and European authors afford. It is necessary to study these concepts in order to foment a true understanding of Mernissi's text. An excellent place to start is the book by Edward Said, Orientalism. In addition, I have listed some sources on Orientalism below; the main idea of this is to get a sense of the perspective of the people in the Middle East.
A critique of Said's Orientalism.
An outline of Said's Orientalism, by Amy Yeh.
A really excellent link that breaks down Said's Orientalism, including history and terms. Provides perhaps the most concise overview in this list.
This link contains an article by Amardeep Sing introducing concepts regarding Postcolonial literary studies and Edward Said's book, Orientalism.
This link includes a great deal of very pertinent information for instructors on Said's Orientalism, including discussion questions.
Orientalism (Introduction) by Edward Said
Gives an overview of Said's book and its concepts.

Teaching Suggestions:

I have found that no matter how beautiful or absorbing an assigned book is, it is necessary to include homework or quiz questions pertaining to the reading in order to ensure students really read their assigned work and do not merely skate through in class discussion. I am including here sample questions for each chapter of Dreams of Trespass: they could be utilized in either context but the method I prefer is to ask one question per chapter per class session as a quiz at the beginning of the hour. This way, students can verbalize to themselves what they have found within the text and it is difficult for them to avoid assigned reading if they want credit. Mernissi's book contains 22 chapters, which gives leeway during the course of the semester both at the beginning and the end to incorporate further material as part of the study of the book. The following questions are samples that could be utilized in this manner:
  • Chapter One: Mernissi defines hudud immediately in Dreams of Trespass as the "sacred frontier". She goes on further to give her father's idea of how hudud is significant: "Harmony exists when each group respects the prescribed limits of the other; trespassing leads only to sorrow and unhappiness." If this is so, how is this significant in understanding the text? Why would women, Mernissi among them, dream of trespass when trespass leads only to sorrow and unhappiness?
  • Chapter Two: What is hanan? What is its purpose and significance? Which character exhibits both hanan and respect for hudud? Is she happy?
  • Chapter Three: Mernissi writes, "And these grownups who were afraid were on the outside, supposedly free. The powerful ones who had created the frontier were also the fearful ones. The Ville Nouvelle was like their harem; just like women, they could not walk freely in the Medina. So you could be powerful, and still be a prisoner of a frontier." In light of this quote, how are frontiers created?
  • Chapter Four: In Chapter Four, Mernissi discusses the difference between imperial harems and domestic harems. As Mernissi writes, "What defines it as a harem is not polygamy, but the men's desire to seclude their wives, and their wish to maintain an extended household rather than break into nuclear units." Given this distinction what are the possible political and social dimensions of domestic harems?
  • Chapter Five: There are different stories told about the origins of harems by the women in Mernissi's family in Chapter Five. Of what significance are the stories of origin?
  • Chapter Six: Compare and contrast the ideas of life in a harem on the farm as described by Mernissi's grandmother and life in the harem in Fez. How are they different? Why did they change?
  • Chapter Seven: Mernissi's grandmother, Yasmina, states in Chapter Six: "Words are like onions....The more skins you peel off, the more meanings you encounter. And when you start discovering multiplicities of meanings, then right and wrong becomes irrelevant." She goes on to state that the word harem was a slight variation of the word haram, the forbidden, or proscribed. Why are meanings so much more important than words here?
  • Chapter Eight: What is the relevance of women washing dishes in the river in Chapter Eight? Would this variation of tradition most likely been allowed to the women in the harem in Fez? Why or why not?
  • Chapter Nine: Of what significance is the serving of meals in the harem?
  • Chapter Ten: Of what significance is the manner in which men and women wear their clothing?
  • Chapter Eleven: Mernissi learns in this chapter that in Germany, the government is requiring Jews to wear clothing with a yellow star on it to distinguish and separate them from other Germans. The natural parallel she draws is the manner in which women are secluded from men in a harem. Of what significance is this parallel?
  • Chapter Twelve: In this chapter, Mernissi describes two popular women singers whose songs are often played on the radio: Princess Asmahan and Oum Kelthoun. Describe the differences between these two singers. Which is Mernissi's heroine? Why?
  • Chapter Thirteen: The veil is a significant factor in many discussions on the Middle East and Islamic culture. What is the significance of the veil for the women in the harem here?
  • Chapter Fourteen: Mernissi writes in reference to Princess Burdur, a heroine in the collection of stories A Thousand and One Nights, "....when your situation is hopeless, all you can do is turn the world upside down, transform it according to your wishes, and create it anew." What is Mernissi calling for in this passage?
  • Chapter Fifteen: How does Mernissi illustrate the importance of women's solidarity in Chapter Fifteen? How does Mernissi relate this ideal in reference to traditions?
  • Chapter Sixteen: Mernissi discusses harems with her family members on the terrace. In what way is this significant?
  • Chapter Seventeen: How has Mina, a slave who has become a member of the household, shaped Mernissi's attitude toward courage?
  • Chapter Eighteen: Mernissi writes, "I thought that Samir was very clever....and wished that I could travel like he did. It was his wandering around with Uncle and Father which made him so clever. I knew that if you moved around, your mind worked faster, because you were constantly seeing new things that you had to respond to." If this is so, then what is the significance of being confined for women in the harem?
  • Chapter Nineteen: What is the turning point in Mernissi's relationship with her mother? Why is this so?
  • Chapter Twenty: Mernissi relates what her Aunt Habiba told her in Chapter Twenty regarding dreams: "Mothers should tell little girls and boys about the importance of dreams," Aunt Habiba said. "They give a sense of direction. It is not enough to reject this courtyard -- you need to have a vision of the meadows with which you want to replace it." Is this true? How so?
  • Chapter Twenty-One: Describe the reasoning for the split that takes place between Mernissi and Samir.
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: Mernissi confides in Mina at the end of the book how she and Samir do not play together any longer. Mernissi asks why they have to be separated. Mina does not immediately respond, merely stating that men and women "live miserable lives because of the separation....separation creates an enormous gap in understanding." She goes on to state how separation creates a frontier with the powerful on one side and the powerless on the other. Mernissi asked Mina how she would know on which side she stood, and Mina replied, "If you can't get out, you are on the powerless side." How is this significant to the idea of harems, and the ideals expressed in Dreams of Trespass?

Further Information on Harems and Feminism in Islam

A paper by Nadia Masid on feminism in Morocco.
A brief explanation of the difference between domestic and imperial harems.
A database including numerous articles pertaining to Fatima Mernissi and feminism in Islam.
An article on feminism and the hijab.
Quotes on feminism in Islam by Fatima Mernissi: these quotes are directly relevant to the concepts expressed in Dreams of Trespass.
A database that gives information on Islam.

Other Resources on Fatima Mernissi

The Wikipedia entry for Fatima Mernissi.
An article on Mernissi from the Liberal Islam Network.
Fatima Mernissi's homepage; includes a list of books and articles.