Dreams of Trespass Summary & Study Guide

Fatema Mernissi

Dreams of Trespass

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Dreams of Trespass Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 67-page guide for “Dreams of Trespass” by Fatema Mernissi includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 22 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like How Words and Storytelling Give Power to the Powerless and Visible and Invisible Boundaries in Islamic Morocco.

Plot Summary

First published in 1994, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood is Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of her experience growing up in a harem in Fez, Morocco, in the 1940s. Mernissi, who received her PhD in political science from Brandeis University and won the Prince of Asturias Award and the Erasmus Prize for her feminist writing, was the author of several nonfiction works examining women’s place in the Islamic world. 

Dreams of Trespass encompasses Fatima’s life from birth to 9 years old, but the memoir is told as a series of musings and recollections rather than a linear narrative. For most of the book, Fatima and her cousin Samir, who were born on the same day, team up to visit the adults of their world and try to understand mysterious concepts, such as the true meaning of the word “harem.” At the same time, Fatima is increasingly inspired by her aunt Habiba’s storytelling and her cousin Chama’s plays, and she receives a different perspective on harem life during her yearly visit to her grandmother Yasmina’s farm.

Fatima, along with her parents and siblings, live in a harem headed by her father and uncle. Fatima can’t leave the harem without permission, and she knows that as an adult woman she will barely be able to leave at all. She witnesses how the harem’s imprisoning walls leave her mother and aunt Habiba deeply unhappy, while at her grandmother Yasmina’s farm harem, the women live closer to nature and experience a greater sense of freedom. However, Yasmina teaches Fatima that while the farm’s walls may be invisible, they are still “carried within” (61) in the form of laws and customs that restrict women. Fatima learns that as long as these restrictions continue, she, like her female mentors, will be unable to pursue her dreams and live a life of happiness and fulfillment.

Fatima also lives at a time of great political upheaval, when French colonists have set up camp not far from the harem gates, and Moroccan nationalists are fighting for independence and promising equal rights for women. Fatima’s mother and grandmother tell her that she’ll grow up to experience many opportunities they haven’t—they hope she’ll have the ability to travel, receive an education, and work to break down barriers against women—and Fatima herself dreams of a world where men and women aren’t separated, and “the difference needed no veil” (111).

Throughout the memoir, Fatima’s dreams develop as she listens to the powerful storytellers of her world, her aunt Habiba and cousin Chama. Aunt Habiba, who was abandoned by her husband, is one of the most powerless women in the harem, yet her stories take listeners to distant lands and present them with new ideas. Through Habiba’s stories and Chama’s plays, Fatima learns about mythological heroines who overcome oppression, historical feminists who fight for equality, and tragic real-life figures who die in their pursuit of freedom and fulfillment. While Fatima is inspired by all these women, most important is the power of storytelling itself, which can “create” (111) a new world and break through limiting frontiers. Fatima sees that through storytelling, powerless women have managed to “hang onto wings” (154), to preserve their dreams and their dignity, and she is determined to follow in their footsteps and become a skilled storyteller herself.

In the second half of the memoir, the societal changes Fatima’s mother and grandmother have hoped for begin to occur, as Fatima is allowed to attend a modern school and thrives in her studies. While Fatima’s older relatives cannot share in her new freedom, Fatima understands she has a responsibility to “create a planet without walls and without frontiers” (201), for previous generations of women as well as for herself. At the same time, Fatima’s entrance in school is part of her greater maturation, as she also drifts away from her male childhood friend, Samir, and participates in the women’s beauty rituals. The final two chapters of the memoir focus on these beauty treatments as a way women can renew themselves, and become “the agent” of their own “rebirth” (226). As Fatima’s mother says, beauty rituals are the only thing she can “still control” (233)—and thus the memoir ends with an affirmation that despite their limited freedoms, Islamic women can take pride in and ownership of their own bodies.

However, the final page of the autobiography takes a darker view. Samir has been thrown out of the women’s bath, and one of the harem’s residents, Mina, tells Fatima she’s reached the age where the differences between males and females lead to inevitable separation. According to Mina, this division also creates a “line of power’” (242), with one side holding all the power and the other none. Fatima, like other women within the harem, is on the side that “can’t get out”—and thus, as the last words of the memoir state, she is “on the powerless side” (242). The book ends with a reminder that restrictive borders still exist, and Fatima will have to contend with them as she continues to mature toward adulthood. As Fatima has grown up to write Dreams of Trespass, readers know that she will continue to speak out against oppression, using the skills previous generations of women have taught her—the power to express truths and dreams in the form of “magic words” and stories (111).

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