Prominent Middle Eastern scholar Mernissi's (Beyond the Veil, not reviewed) childhood memoir should be titled ``The Making of a Muslim Feminist.'' Readers expecting a narrative about a sultan's harem where voluptuous Venuses loll in silk-draped palaces will be disappointed; Mernissi's subject is the domestic harem of her extended family. After outlining the restrictive domestic hierarchy and Muslim decorum that literally imprison women, Mernissi reveals how her relatives find escape and rebellion in daily chores. A battle for women's rights is waged in her grandmother's fight to wash dishes in a river, her cousin's march to the movies, her aunt's expressive embroidery, and her mother's refusal to use modern French beauty products made by men. But rather than weave an intimate tale of growing up in 1940s Morocco, Mernissi has forged the incidents of her childhood into neat feminist lessons, each taught by a relative who is fashioned into an archetype: her aunt advocates escape into dreams; her mother says knowledge is the way out. Despite this and other flaws, Mernissi does offer a rare glimpse of Muslim women's home life—from co-wives' bickering to communal bath joys. Ultimately, her title proves ironic because, while Westerners associate the word harem with sensuality, that is precisely what is absent from these women's lives. As Aunt Habiba says: ``Why rebel and change the world if you can't get what's missing in your life? And what is most definitely missing in our lives is love and lust.'' So while not a balanced autobiography, this book does offer valuable insight. As fundamentalism grows in the Middle East and more women return to the veil, the repressive lifestyle Mernissi depicts may not be just a sad relic of the past but an ominous sign of the future.
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