Mernissi’s Dreams of a trespass: Best feminist work I have read yet 1


Dreams of trespass : Tales of a harem girlhood

Rating: 5out of 5

Author: Fathima Mernissi

Year: 2002

Category: Feminism, Auto-ethnography, Institutions

Publisher: Perseus Books

Moroccan feminist and author weaves pure magic

“Dreams of a trespass: Tales of a harem girlhood” is an auto-ethnography written from the perspective of a eight year old child brought up in a harem as she learns the rules of the game in her society. As she learns the rules that would govern her life she questions them with a childish innocence, and through these she makes the reader realise the absurdity of many a rule that govern our own lives.

Boundaries that govern our lives

Mernissi characterises these rules as ‘boundaries’ that govern the space within which we are allowed to operate. To create a frontier, all you need is soldiers to force others to believe in it…the frontier is the mind of the powerful. An important part of education is to learn the frontiers. The frontier is not merely physical. It is a code of behaviour that regulates our lives, and all that is necessary is to internalise the rules i.e it is “a law tattooed in the head”. She argues that unfortunately many of these rules go against the interests of women.

Happiness & Boundaries

The eight year old constantly questions why things are different in one harem from another, why they are different for different people, etc. Using these questions, Mernissi cleverly demolishes any notion that these rules are ‘natural’, divine, rational or even beneficial. Through stories of the frustrations of her mother in sharing an intimate space with her husband, of her widowed aunt in even expressing opinions, etc. she argues for breaking  traditions that bring misery and prevent the pursuit of happiness. As one of the characters argues, “What is more important anyway, tradition or people’s happiness?” Fatima Merinissi strikes a fine balance in arguing against restrictions that affect our happiness while emphasising constantly the possibility of pursuing happiness to some extent within our boundaries.

Women’s agency and everyday resistance

A striking feature of the book is its presentation of women’s agency at all odds and under all circumstances. The crux of the book deals with women’s struggles in their day to day lives to subvert these rules. It is every woman’s dream to trespass the boundaries made for her by others. The lives of the child’s mother, aunt, grandmother and others bring out the importance of every day resistance and its role in woman’s liberation.

Saying it as a story

By narrating her agenda in the form of a story, she is able to put a large number of factors into it such as desires, agency, frustrations, frontiers, etc. This would have been impossible in a work written in a typically academic style. The enchanting story and her sense of humour never drown the message – a call to annihilate those absurd restrictions that prevent us from intelligently pursuing happiness in our lives. I have only one final thought on this book: if I can write one like this, I shall retire with a great sense of accomplishment.


About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.


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