A Review of Beauty Rituals of Middle Eastern Women, primarily during childbirth.

Fatema Mernissi’s book, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994) is a memoir; a piece of unchangeable history which describes her own instances of growing up in a harem in the middle of the 20th Century in Morocco. Mernissi is a Sociology lecturer at the Mohammed V University of Rabat. Her writings are mainly concerned with Islam and women’s roles within it and she is respected internationally as an Islamic feminist. Within this essay I will explore ideas of the harem and beauty rituals within the harem. I will then explore Middle Eastern henna use and the symbolic ritual associated with it, specifically during pregnancy. Lastly I will look at how Middle Eastern women fare when giving birth in Western society when these ancient traditions are not acknowledged or respected and what we (Western culture) can learn from the practice to aid new mothers in their rite of passage.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi, has been described as a book that clearly defines the division between the Eastern and Western parts of the world. However, it shows much more than just an east/west division, it shows the power of curiosity, courage and the willingness to change one’s situation, all told within the familiar context of ‘coming to age’. In her essay, “Orientalism and Middle East Feminist Studies” (2001) Lila Abu-Lughod, acknowledges that Fatima Mernissi “brings to life the world of women and patriarchal authority in the enclosed household of her wealthy Fez family” (Abu-Lughod, L. 2001, 108) Essentially saying that Mernissi is discussing the lives of harem women in a man’s world; a sentiment Edward Said echoed in his book, Orientalism. Abu-Lughod continues on to say that the book does nothing more than compare the hopes that the harem will give way to Western culture against the stark reality that their culture wasn’t going to change as rapidly as they hoped. Mernissi does give the reader a detailed sense of life in the harem whilst portraying clear differences between the east and the west but she also demonstrates that all the women have their own opinions, they are not just empty souls walking around with no purpose in life and that most of them want something besides the harem lifestyle. Said’s book detailed the perception of the Middle East by Western civilization and Abu-Lughod points out that Mernissi recreates this difference between the two cultures; “Instead of refusing to reproduce the old Orientalist stereotype of women in harems…” (Abu-Lughod, pg.108) she insinuates that Mernissi instead, only shows how harem women live their lives according to the men who control everything they do. The harem women’s perspective is key in this book and arguably beautifully done, yet Abu-Lughod argues that:

“In the end, despite her celebration of women’s traditional powers of beauty, she unambivalently pits her mother’s strong wish for modernity for a little girl dressed in Western clothes who will attend school, learn French, and become liberated against all the restricting forces of tradition and the harem.”

(Abu-Lughod, L. 2001, 108)

Abu-Lughod believes that Mernissi’s portrayal of a girl searching for meaning and looking to change her and her family’s way of life, to make it more like the French or the Americans  only further emphasizes how big of a difference exists between the two cultures. However I would argue that Mernissi’s search for meaning is no different from any young girls coming of age and in fact highlights the similarities rather than differences between cultures.

The word ‘harem’ (in Arabic, hareem) can be used to simply mean, women’s space. “Hareem is derived from the word haraam meaning ‘sacred’, ‘forbidden’, and ‘inviolable’ and ‘holy’.” (Al-Hassan Golley, N. 522) Hence the section of the house where women and children dwell is figuratively referred to as the ‘harem’. Even today, however, for a Westerner the mere utterance of the word conjures up a whole set of exotic and erotic images, because of “a long history of representing the ‘harem’ through the eyes of the coloniser.” (Al-Hassan Golley, N. p523) The harem or idea of the harem has hypnotized the West for centuries. The idea of private and public space is thought of as a western idea (Ibid) and so, when viewing women in the Middle East it is very important to remember we are coming from a completely different framework of what constitutes ‘space’, both public and private. As Al-Hassan Golley rightly asks, “Do Moslem women really need saving?”

Fatema takes us with her through her childhood exploration of what it means to be a woman, bringing in concepts of beauty, seductiveness, magical rites and relationships. Mernissi presents different viewpoints through the individual characters who enable us to see different perspectives and coping mechanisms of each woman; dependent on background, age and religious values. This tapestry of different perspectives and backgrounds enables the western reader to question their beliefs around Islam, the harem, the veil, relationships with women, with men and fundamentally with oneself. The exploration of private and public space has always been fundamental to feminist works, and with it the issue of choice. As Mernissi points out, counter to Western understanding:

“..both wearing the veil and discarding it in different situations should be seen as symbolising political struggle and women’s political agency.”

 (Al-Hassan Golley, N. 2004, 524)

      According to Mernissi, the veil was already known to earlier civilisations, and was only introduced to Muslim women in the fifth year of Islam. In Arabic, the veil or ‘hijab’, (which linguistically means anything that hides, separates and makes forbidden), was introduced to Islam but went through different stages of meaning. The first refers to “a curtain that separates the Prophet from other men, and the last means the veil that covers women’s bodies and faces.’” (Al-Hassan Golley, N. 2004, 524) Just as the harem changed over time and generations, the veil also took different shapes throughout history, reflecting changing attitudes, beliefs, fashion and dominant ideology.

“The skin is political.” (Mernissi, F. 1994, 222).


     Beauty rituals are presented as very important for the women of the harem. With secret, natural recipes only passed on through ritual of the ‘hareem’ they create different preparations for each woman. Beauty is an aspect of female life that spans across cultures and religions. Making and preparing your own tinctures is relatively uncommon in the Western world, limited to a few herbalists and natural practitioners who work with the earth as the women of Mernissi’s childhood depict. However, the idea of facemasks, hair dye and time away from men to beautify yourself is not uncommon at all, albeit a far more consumerist means of attaining it and less in conjunction with groups of women. One of the face masks which Mernissi describes is made by the character, Chama. Used to help fade freckles, pimples, and other blemishes. Chama’s formula which is noted, should be used for oily skin only, went like this:

“first take a fresh egg, the only way you will know for certain that it is fresh is to have a little hen as a guest on your terrace for a few weeks but it proves to be too difficult, pick up an egg at your nearest grocery store….Take a good piece of clean white shebba (alum) …rub it vigorously into the white of the eggs until it becomes full of lumps. Then put a generous layer of this white lumpy mixture onto your face. ”

(Mernissi, F. 1994, 291)

Mernissi’s beautiful description of the self-made face mask not only shows the knowledge which Moroccan women have in regards to beauty but also a deep respect for nature and working with the rythyms of the earth. Innately understanding the how’s and whys of ‘eco-living’ and whether for political or traditional reasons or a mixture of both their way of life highlights the togetherness of the women within the harem, something which has arguably become lost within Western culture.

Besides skin treatments, Mernissi displays the same philosophy of working in line with what nature offers through the tradition of henna use. Mernissi’s impressive description of the array of earth and natural dyes such as dried pomegranate, nut bark, saffron and all kinds of fragrant herb and flowers “stood stored in sea shells, sheltered in crystal containers for extra protection and dozens of earthen bowls filled with mysterious mixtures which sat waiting, begging to be transformed in to magic pastes.” (Mernissi, F. 1994, 286) is food for the senses.

Apart from presenting a deep understanding of the plant world it also shows how Moslem women used the tradition to boost the economic aspect in their life, while also making a political statement against using factory produced products from the West. The skin as a political agent had more than one aspect, it was political in the sense that under the veil one could always look beautiful and also that it was an age old tradition and part of their culture and history. So in this sense these rituals can be seen to be gender based, identity driven as well as of cultural significance. Feminism, in this sense within the Arabic world is many layered and cannot be said to be purely about gender dynamics. In this way we gain an insight into the social, political and economic aspects that constitute the power of women behind seemingly closed doors.

To expand on Mernissi’s description of henna use I will look at Catherine Cartwright Jones work on the ancient traditions employed. Cartwright Jones states that hennaing a woman after she gives birth is a “traditional way to deter malevolent spirits that cause disease, depression, and poor bonding with her infant.” (Cartwright Jones, C. 2002, 5).  It is a way that a woman is ensured the adequate rest which her body requires in the sensitive period post-natally. Henna patterns on her feet mean that she is ‘off duty’ for housework tasks and she must accept the help from a relative or friend who cares for her well-being. Similar traditions have been created in Western society with post natal doulas or mothers aids who use massage, herbs and practical tasks to enable the mother to spend the crucial time she needs with her baby without the added stresses of daily living. Cartwright Jones notes that in the Middle East where these traditions are prominent there is very low rates of post natal depression, most likely due to the amount of rest taken and social support networks from women who have had children. The ritual actions serve to support her physically and emotionally after birth and reintegrate her back into the community after recovery. Henna traditions are a part of the management system for post natal depression (Cartwright Jones, C, 1994, 6), integrating the social status and change of becoming a mother and the subsequent relationship changes which take place. “Malevolent spirits or the Evil Eye may be conceptualised as the bringer of depression.” (Ibid) of which the application of henna in its varying symbols and design and ritual of application help to buffer the ‘spirits’ and in turn deter the biological effects. Western society and neonatal practice recognises postpartum depression as a serious condition and mandatory screening via the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale is routine. Traditional Middle Eastern culture also recognise the fragility and use ritual actions as described through henna painting to ease the transition. This is a fundamental difference in view point, western belief that postnatal depression is psychobiological whereas ritual performance views it as a socio-magical phenomenon. Westermarck and Legey recorded meticulous descriptions of henna traditions and other ritual used around childbirth in Morocco in the 1920’s, Cartwright Jones says that these practices are considered as “country” in areas becoming more westernised but they are still practised widely within rural settings.

In most tribal communities women are “routinely hennaed and ornamented with kohl (a traditional black make up made of antimony) and swak (a traditional dark lip stain made of walnut root) as if they were brides before they go into labour.” (Cartwright Jones, C. 1994, 11). These, according to Cartwright Jones not only deter the ‘Evil Eye’ but also prepare the woman for the possibility of death. “If a woman dies in childbirth, she is believed to enter paradise as a bride.” (Ibid). Although childbirth is viewed as a wonderful event in the west, an immigrant woman is unlikely to feel very special, in line with her beliefs which may even be actively frowned upon by understanding of health professionals. There are various rituals surrounding the umbilical cord of the new-born, where by it was anointed with henna to ward off evil spirits and buried along with the placenta. Without these rituals being adhered to (Western society, generally, keeps the placenta and cord for research purposes) she is more prone to postnatal depression. Along with the tradition of hennaing the infant and mother postnatally with various symbols, massage is also practiced on both mother and new-born, with scientifically proven benefits for both mother and new-born. (Field, T. 1996, 8) The Moroccan mother is traditionally kept secluded after the birth with only the midwife in attendance. Apart from tending to the physical wellbeing of mother and new-born the midwifes role would include hennaing and massaging her for seven days. This would ensure psychological wellbeing as well as the adequate rest needed to re-cooperate. At the time of birth the “Women in the house trilled a zgrit[1] several times at the birth of a son, fewer at the birth of a daughter.” (Cartwright Jones, C. 2001, 15) to welcome the new life and ward off unwanted entities. On the seventh day postpartum female visitors are allowed and the women would adorn the new mother in intricate henna patterns. It is thought that because of the (40 day) hennaing ritual of the body of both mother and infant that they would be protected from spirits. Similarly in western culture midwives recommend the ‘baby-moon’ period of at least 6 weeks (40 days) of proper rest and the accepting of help which concurs cross culturally. Women who have recently immigrated to western society have “up to ten times the incidence of postpartum depression in comparison to their peers” (Cartwright Jones, C. 2001. 18). In part this is believed to be due to the misunderstanding which Western Doctors have around certain rituals, hennaing specifically, has had varying reactions. Some doctors are wary of the dye and tell the mother she must remove it, some have “mistaken henna for skin disease, and may dismiss other traditional rituals as unhygienic or medically useless.” (Cartwright Jones, C. 2001, 18)  However the psychological benefits are of significant importance and education is needed to be provided in this area for greater understanding. As we have seen these rituals could potentially reduce the medication given for post natal depression which effect breast milk, feeding possibilities and therefore bonding.  This not only has significance for the mother and new-born but studies show that this is important for society as a whole. (Field, T. 1996).

The lack of the usual support network to perform popular rituals postpartum has also been associated with post natal depression but with the advent of doulas (mothers-aids) and a growing network of women who support others and a deeper understanding of other cultural practice creative solutions have the potential to be reached.

From taking a look into Mernissi’s world and exploring the use of henna along feminist perspectives I have a gained a rich understanding of rituals which portray not submission but strength and togetherness. The basic tool which social scientists use, dividing the social sphere into ‘public’ and ‘private’ for me does not relay here. It seems to me that these traditions of ritual show the multiplicity of roles that Arab women actually play in their societies. Instead of looking at the harem as an enclosed space within which women are locked up and domesticated, I see the rituals displayed here as a source of women’s mobilisation. Maybe I am still coming from an Orientalist western perspective, however if one of the variants of the term ‘harem’ is haraam, meaning ‘forbidden’ I suggest that it is the women doing the forbidding, excluding men from their society.






Al Hassan Golley, N. “Is Feminism Relevant to Arab Women?” Third World Quarterly, Vol 25, No 3, pp 521-536, 2004. Print.

Cartwright-Jones, C. The Functions of Childbirth and Postpartum Henna Traditions. Tap Dancing Lizard LLC. Stow, Ohio. 2005. Print.

Field, T., Grizzle, N., Scafidi, F. Abrams, S., Richardson, S., Kuhn, C., & Schanberg, S. “Massage therapy for infants of depressed mothers.” Infant Behaviour and Development, 19, 1996. Pp. 107-112. Print.

Lila Abu-Lughod. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”.American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 104, No. 3. (Sept., 2002) pp. 783-790.  Print.

Lila Abu- Lughod. “Orientalism and Middle Eastern Feminist studies.” Feminist Studies 27, (Spring No 1). 2001, pp. 101-113.  Print.

Mernissi, F. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Perseus Books. Cambridge, Massachussets. 1994. Print.


[1] A Zgrit is a loud, shrill celebratory ritual done by the women, specifically in Moroccan tradition. It’s intention is to ward of evil spirits.


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