Fatima Mernissi 1940-
(Also transliterated as Fatema Mernissi) Moroccan nonfiction writer, memoirist, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Mernissi's career through 2001.
An internationally distinguished Moroccan feminist and sociologist, Mernissi has written extensively on the status of women in Islam and the Arab world. In her first work, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (1975), Mernissi examined the differences between traditional Western and Muslim notions of female sexuality, drawing attention to the cultural roots of women's oppression in the Islamic world. In this and subsequent studies, including Le Harem politique: Le Prophete et les femmes (1987; The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam) and Sultanes oubliées: Femmes chefs d'Etat en Islam (1990; The Forgotten Queens of Islam), she has explored the historical links between the religion of Islam, the societal oppression of women, and the suppression of democracy in predominantly Muslim nations. Mernissi's unique feminist perspective is informed by her own upbringing in a traditional harem, an experience recounted in her memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994). As a leading advocate for women's rights in the Muslim world, Mernissi is praised for her insightful commentaries on the complex social and political realities of Islamic culture.
Born in Fez, Morocco, Mernissi belonged to a family of wealthy landowners and agriculturalists. Though raised in privileged surroundings, removed from the poverty experienced by most Moroccans, her childhood was spent in the confines of the harem structure. As a young girl, Mernissi lived in the more formal harem of her home in Fez as well as the rural harem of her maternal grandmother. Contrary to Western notions of the harem as an exotic place in which women are kept for the erotic pleasure of men, Mernissi was raised in a traditional domestic harem, which consists of extended family and is designed to keep women sheltered from men outside of the family and the public sphere in general. At times, this highly circumscribed upbringing prompted feelings of frustrating isolation—at others, the intimate connections fostered among the women created solidarity. Mernissi's upbringing in this environment impacted her later development as a scholar. She received her early education at Koranic schools and, after completing a degree in political science at University Mohammed V, Mernissi was awarded a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. She later moved to the United States to attend Brandeis University, where she earned a doctorate in sociology. After completing her education, Mernissi returned to Morocco, where she became a professor of sociology at University Mohammed V in Rabat. Mernissi has served as a visiting professor at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley.
In Beyond the Veil, Mernissi examines differences between Western and traditional Muslim conceptions of female sexuality and gender, a subject that she revisits in many of her later works. In stark contrast to traditional Western views of women as inferior and passive, Mernissi argues that many Muslim scholars have historically portrayed women as active and in possession of an aggressive sexuality. She asserts that such traditions as veiling and domestic isolation arose from a desire to control the potential threat posed to the social order by women's sexuality. Mernissi's research for Le Maroc raconte par ses femmes (1984; Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women) involved conducting extensive interviews with eleven Moroccan women, which she transcribes and edits in the book. Speaking about their daily lives, Mernissi's interviewees discuss the challenges they face in the domestic sphere as well as the sense of empowerment they gain from working to provide for their families, whether as maids or teachers. In The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi turned to the Koran and other traditional Islamic texts to examine how the emancipatory aspects of early Islam were overridden or forgotten due to the efforts of Mohammed's critics. Mernissi emphasizes the prominent strategic roles played by Mohammed's wives and other women in the early years of Islam, as well as the property rights and spiritual equality accorded to women during this period. She asserts that the egalitarian potential of Islam at its founding was lost in the face of opposition from the Amale elite, companions of Mohammed who resisted the social change arising from women's new status, preferring that women lead private lives under their veils.
Building on her efforts to recover the vital role of women in early Islam, Mernissi profiles a number of notable women in The Forgotten Queens of Islam—queens, wives, and mothers—from the eighth century to the present who attained considerable political power within predominantly Muslim states. Spurred by opposition to the 1988 democratic election of Benazir Bhutto, a woman, as prime minister of Pakistan, Mernissi documents the lives of these remarkable women and argues strongly against the common misconception that Muslim women have never played meaningful roles in the political arena. Instead, she maintains that the history of women's political participation has been conveniently forgotten by both Muslim and Western scholars, especially as embodied in historian Bernard Lewis's flat contention that “there are no queens in Islam.” Mernissi highlights the dual nature—both sacred and secular—of Muslim conceptions of power and advocates for a secular approach to political legitimacy that would acknowledge women's rights in all spheres. Unlike her previous studies, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (1992) focuses not only on women's issues, but also addresses the broader issue of the role of democracy in Muslim nations. She draws connections between movements for women's rights and those campaigning for greater democracy by insisting that both face resistance because they pose profound threats to the established social order. For the Muslim world to truly embrace democracy, Mernissi suggests that Muslims must reexamine their values and perspectives on the West—a task that Mernissi herself begins through a deconstruction of Muslim myths and the roots of Islamic fundamentalism.
In contrast to her other works, Dreams of Trespass is a memoir that recounts Mernissi's childhood experiences of harem life. In this autobiographical account, the harem is depicted as a sheltered and dull space that allows few freedoms. Mernissi describes the frustration felt by her mother and other women with the restrictions of harem life as well as her own efforts to subvert them, such as listening to a prohibited radio or venturing across rooftops to avoid the scrutiny of the doorkeeper. Although Mernissi managed to leave the confines of the harem, her memoir reveals the extent to which the early harem experiences impacted her later life and writing. Mernissi returned to her sociological work in her next book, Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory (1996), in which she argues that the oppression of women by Arab governments is part of a larger effort to suppress democracy. Mernissi urges Middle Eastern nations to support women's rights to education as well as to turn away from the dangers of militarization. As in her earlier works, Mernissi again takes a forceful and compelling tone in advocating for the rights of women and democratic values as a whole. In Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (2001), Mernissi returns to the theme of the harem and the differences between Western and Muslim views of women, focusing on Western understandings of the harem itself, which tend to emphasize the role of sexual interactions to the exclusion of intellectual exchange. Mernissi argues that the latter is a central feature of Muslim conceptions of the harem and thus reveals how Western relations between the sexes may be no more liberated than those found in the traditional harem. In response, Mernissi calls for greater sensitivity to the importance of cultural differences within feminist analysis and cautions against drawing hasty transcultural assumptions.
Beyond the Veil has been widely regarded as a pioneering work that opened the way for feminist perspectives on Islam and discussion of women's rights in Muslim societies. Published in 1975, the book has been praised as a timely and significant study and it has remained a key source on its subject. Mernissi's efforts to give voice to Moroccan women in Doing Daily Battle have also won critical praise. Though some reviewers have found Mernissi's transcriptions cumbersome, her insight into the lives of such diverse women has been commended for displaying their poignant strength and dignity. The Veil and the Male Elite, however, has received more mixed criticism than her previous analytical works. While critics have lauded Mernissi for her careful readings of principal Islamic texts, some have objected to her optimistic portrayal of Mohammed's views and practices regarding women. Additionally, some reviewers have noted that Mernissi's claims about the emancipatory efforts of early Muslim women are unsupported by the historical record. Questions concerning Mernissi's use of historical evidence have also been raised by critics of The Forgotten Queens of Islam. While several commentators have acclaimed the provocative nature of Mernissi's arguments concerning the political role of Muslim women, others have suggested that Mernissi's lack of historical training resulted in chronological inaccuracies and superficial assertions about women's history. Reviewers have complimented Islam and Democracy for its forceful argument pronouncing the democratic potential of Islam, as well as Mernissi's courageous advocacy for individual freedom. Yet, many of the same critics have faulted Mernissi's arguments for being politically naive and overly polemical. Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory has encountered similar criticisms, with reviewers valuing Mernissi's compelling arguments but finding her claims overly general and too homogeneous to fit the diversity of cultures and traditions comprising the Muslim world. Though many reviewers of Scheherazade Goes West have argued that there is nothing new in Mernissi's call for greater attunement to the symbolic harems of every culture, most have nonetheless appreciated her continued effort to draw attention to the importance of cultural difference within feminist analysis. Unlike her historical and analytical works, Mernissi's memoir, Dreams of Trespass, has attracted almost universal praise for its vivid portraits of harem life and the institutionalized oppression of women in the Arab world, itself serving as testimony to Mernissi's complex Islamic perspective and deeply held feminist convictions.
Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (nonfiction) 1975; revised edition, 1985
Le Maroc raconte par ses femmes [editor; Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women] (interviews) 1984
Women in Moslem Paradise (nonfiction) 1986
Le Harem politique: Le Prophete et les femmes [The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam] (nonfiction) 1987
Sultanes oubliées: Femmes chefs d'Etat en Islam [The Forgotten Queens of Islam] (nonfiction) 1990
Can We Women Head a Muslim State? (nonfiction) 1991
Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry (nonfiction) 1991
Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (nonfiction) 1992
Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (memoirs) 1994; published in England as The Harem Within: Tales of a Moroccan Girlhood
Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory (nonfiction) 1996
Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (nonfiction) 2001
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SOURCE: Tucker, Judith E. “The Voice behind the Veil.” Women's Review of Books 6, no. 8 (May 1989): 16-17.
[In the following excerpt, Tucker evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Doing Daily Battle.]
Both of these books [Doing Daily Battle and Women of Marrakech, by Leonora Peets] belong to a new and expanding genre in Middle East women's studies in which women writers seek to capture women's daily lives by giving their interviewees a voice in the telling of their stories. This is insurrectionary literature that contests the “pervasive male discourse,” as Fatima Mernissi terms it, of Moroccan society. In exploring their ideas about love and marriage, work and leisure, the seen and the unseen, both authors make the women of their books come alive, so that we may recognize them as people whose oppression and lack of power neither blur their personalities nor still their tongues. …
Fatima Mernissi brings a radically different background to the task of giving women a voice [in Doing Daily Battle]. A Moroccan, she was born in 1940 into a middle-class home in Fez, “exactly,” she observes, “five-hundred meters from Karaouin University.” She continues, “One could not be better situated to benefit from our heritage and its advantages. Well, I was born there and I was raised by illiterate women who were not only physically confined but intellectually...
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SOURCE: Booth, Marilyn. “Back to Basics?” Women's Review of Books 9, no. 3 (December 1991): 21-2.
[In the following review, Booth notes that Mernissi's historical interpretations are occasionally narrow-sighted and anachronistic in The Veil and the Male Elite, but still offers a generally positive evaluation of the book.]
Over a century ago, there emerged a tradition of scholarship in the Arab Muslim capitals which came to be labeled “Islamic modernism.” In a context of nationalist and anti-colonialist struggle, scholar-activists sought to revive what they saw as their societies' historical strengths, grounded in the events of earliest Islam and the written sources to which they gave rise. The Islamic modernists founded their programs for the future on a return to “the basics” of the faith and its earthly community. Defining those “basics”—a process that continues heatedly today—has never been easy or uncontroversial, especially in the crucial matters of gender and women's status in Islam.
Fatima Mernissi's Le harem politique, published in Paris in 1987 and now appearing in English as The Veil and the Male Elite, can be set within the Islamic modernist tradition. But Mernissi goes further than previous scholars and polemicists in constructing her own revisionist interpretations of Muslim history. She writes deliberately and self-consciously as a...
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SOURCE: Lev, Daniel S. Review of The Veil and the Male Elite, by Fatima Mernissi. Women and Politics 12, no. 1 (1992): 79-81.
[In the following review, Lev asserts that The Veil and the Male Elite is an “impressive exercise in reform exegesis,” claiming that Mernissi provides an interesting alternative interpretation of Islamic laws.]
Among the ideological sources of women's disabilities everywhere none is so intractable as religious doctrine, often enough the first and last case for subjugation, evidently unassailable as the will of God. Yet the walls of this eerie fortress can be (and have been) breached by any with the skill, imagination, and courage to map the architectural foundations. It may not always work, but when it does the rewards are occasionally spectacular, as in Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels and Adam, Eve and the Serpent.
Fatima Mernissi's book [The Veil and the Male Elite] belongs in the same class. Yet this translation is doubly important for a non-Islamic audience that needs to be aware of Islamic debates over women but needs to know more about Islam itself to make sense of them. Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, has written about women in Islam before. This book is not a sociology, however, but an impressive exercise in reform exegesis. It is a deceptively readable study, short and hard to put down, yet it is sophisticated...
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SOURCE: Jaber, Nabila. Review of Women and Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. Sociology 26, no. 2 (May 1992): 358-59.
[In the following review, Jaber praises Mernissi's knowledge of her subject matter in Women and Islam and judges the work important for those interested in Islam and feminist issues.]
Mernissi is a well known Arab sociologist who has written extensively on the position of women in Islam. For Western readers, the paradox of her position is that, unlike orthodox Islam, she claims compatibility between feminism and ‘authentic’ Islam. For Mernissi, authentic refers to the canon of Islam as lived and practised during the Prophet's time in the matrilineal city of Medina. According to her argument the prophet's way of life conformed to the social practices of this city which accorded women a position of power with social and political rights. This contrasted with Mecca, the patrilineal and patriarchal city of the prophet's origin, which was later to play a central role in reshaping Muslim ethics and values against women's interests.
[In Women and Islam] Mernissi employs a liberal feminist framework to reinterpret the relationships between the two religious texts which constitute the source of the present Islamic social Law (Sharia). These are the seventh century sacred Koran or the book of revelation and the eighth century Hadith. The latter is composed of...
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SOURCE: Halsell, Grace. Review of The Forgotten Queens of Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. Middle East Policy 2, no. 3 (1993): 180-82.
[In the following review, Halsell praises Mernissi's examination of the lives and reigns of numerous Islamic women governors, sultanas, and rulers from 1000-1800 A.D. in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, and notes Mernissi's distinction between “political Islamic history” and what she terms Risala Islam—or the true Islam of the Quran.]
When Benazir Bhutto first became prime minister of Pakistan after winning the elections of 1988, all who monopolized the right to speak in the name of Islam raised the cry of blasphemy. Invoking Islamic tradition, they decried this event as “against nature.” Political decision-making among their ancestors, they said, was always a men's affair. Those who claimed to speak for Islam alleged that no woman had ever governed a Muslim state between 622 and 1988, and thus, Benazir Bhutto could not aspire to do so either.
In The Forgotten Queens of Islam, Fatima Mernissi proves that these defenders of Islamic tradition were not only misguided, but wrong. In her absorbing exploration of Islamic history, Mernissi documents the lives and reigns of 16 women who ruled from 1000 A.D. to 1800 as governors, sultanas and queens throughout the Islamic world. Some received the reins of power by inheritance; others...
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SOURCE: Kramer, Martin. “Politics and the Prophet.” New Republic 208, no. 9 (1 March 1993): 39-41.
[In the following review, Kramer praises the courage of Mernissi's polemic in Islam and Democracy, but finds her appeal for Western-style liberalization in the Arab world naïve and unrealistic.]
Can Islam and democracy be reconciled? The vexed old question has enjoyed a revival since January of last year, when Algeria's ruling party voided the results of that country's first free parliamentary election. The election gave an overwhelming mandate to the party of Islamic fundamentalism, whose most outspoken leader affirmed that “it is Islam which has been the victor, as always, not democracy. We did not go to the ballot boxes for democracy.”
There are some in the West who have tried to sweep such fundamentalist disavowals of democracy under the rug. They include not only apologists for Islam, but also engineers in the democracy foundations, for whom no job is too big. The masses vote for Islam, they admit, but really they want democracy; the leaders talk revival, but really they mean reform. Yet the fundamentalists continue to spin their indictments of dimuqratiyya as a foreign and superfluous innovation. “One does not vote for God,” declared the same Algerian fundamentalist. “One obeys Him.”
Unlike many of the West's democracy doctors, Fatima...
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SOURCE: Nasr, S. V. R. Review of Islam and Democracy, by Fatima Mernissi. Political Science Quarterly 108, no. 1 (spring 1993): 205-06.
[In the following review, Nasr asserts that Mernissi attempts to deconstruct longstanding Muslim myths in Islam and Democracy by focusing on the highlights of Islamic history, theology, and law and suggesting ways Muslims can embrace democracy.]
[Islam and Democracy] is a well crafted and well written book on an issue of primary concern for the Muslim world. Mernissi, a prominent Moroccan feminist, has been known for her incisive and iconoclastic critiques of the normative basis of Muslim society and its attitude toward women. This book is a departure from her earlier endeavors. Although still concerned with the plight of Muslim women, Islam and Democracy goes beyond gender relations to address the larger question of democratization. What makes this book all the more interesting is that it has been inspired by the Persian Gulf war. It exemplifies the new thinking in the Muslim world on social issues—thinking that grapples with the consequences of Desert Storm and yet gropes for a new democratic and just order in the wake of war.
For Mernissi the Gulf war is both a tragedy and a metaphor. A tragedy because it has complicated relations between Muslims and the West at a time when mutual understanding is crucial for both, and...
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SOURCE: Kanawati, Marlene. Review of The Veil and the Male Elite, by Fatima Mernissi. International Journal of Middle East Studies 25, no. 3 (August 1993): 501-03.
[In the following review, Kanawati alleges that there are flaws in several of Mernissi's arguments in The Veil and the Male Elite, but overall provides a favorable evaluation of the book.]
After moving toward emancipation for most of the 20th century, many women in the Islamic countries are returning to the veil and are being sent back to the home. Whether this trend is part of a general Islamic revival or part of the so-called fundamentalist movement, the revival of these two customs has become the subject of debate in the media and among both secular and religious groups. Feminists, aware of the earlier struggle that led to education and the rights of women to work and vote, have become very concerned about this reactionary trend and have been trying to grapple with it. However, most feminists usually limit their efforts to asserting that Islam has always given women the right to a public life, and has never meant to impose the veil. Now their assertions are being attacked as counter to Islamic injunctions, and Muslims, both women and men, are anxious to find the “truth.”
Fatima Mernissi, a Muslim, Moroccan sociologist, and a well-known committed feminist has written a book [The Veil and the Male...
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SOURCE: Power, Carla. “Unveiled.” New Statesman and Society 6, no. 264 (6 August 1993): 40-1.
[In the following review, Power praises the quality of research in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, stating that the book serves as a manifesto for the Islamic world in the 1990s.]
Islam's treatment of women is an easy target for western outrage. Rather like Messrs Bush and Clinton before they bombed Baghdad, we can convince ourselves we have the tools and the clarity of vision to condemn. More resonant than critiques from a western viewpoint, however, are the writings of the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi.
Mernissi trained at Koranic schools as well as western universities, and her work draws on traditional Islamic sources and methodology to come to feminist conclusions. She argues less for a break with Islamic tradition than for an uncovering of it. In Women and Islam, Mernissi used key religious texts to show that the Islam of the Prophet's day endorsed women's rights. In her latest book [The Forgotten Queens of Islam], she turns to Muslim histories to refute the contention that women have never played a political role in Islam.
After Benazir Bhutto won Pakistan's 1988 election, members of the opposition party, citing Islamic law, claimed a woman ruler of a Muslim state was both unprecedented and unnatural. Mernissi uncovers a number of such...
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SOURCE: Porter, Venetia. “Buried in the Sand.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4738 (21 January 1994): 21.
[In the following review, Porter commends Mernissi's passionate and forceful arguments in The Forgotten Queens of Islam and Islam and Democracy, but finds flaws, notably errors of omission and overemphasis, in both books.]
Forgotten Queens of Islam is inspired, partly, by the condemnation by Muslim clerics of Benazir Bhutto's election in Pakistan on the grounds that she is a woman. It also seeks to take issue with the surprisingly ignorant statement by the historian Bernard Lewis that “there are no queens in Islam, and the word queen where it occurs, is only used of foreign rulers”. Fatima Mernissi—a prominent Moroccan sociologist—brings to our attention an array of women throughout Islamic history who ruled in a number of ways. Only a small proportion were fully legitimate monarchs (with their names mentioned in the khutba or Friday sermon and on the coinage); others had real enough power but were not officially acknowledged. There was a third category whose power lay in their ability to manipulate their men. The last were evidently the slave women, of which the harems were full. Mernissi has dug amusing and scurrilous anecdotes about rulers such as the tenth-century Buyid prince Adud al-Dawlah, who had his slave girl thrown down a well because her sensuality...
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SOURCE: Tétreault, Mary Ann. “The Family Romance of Islam.” Middle East Journal 48, no. 2 (spring 1994): 357-62.
[In the following essay, Tétreault draws upon the psychoanalytic notion of “family romance” to elucidate Mernissi's analysis of Islamic culture, political organization, and women's oppression in Islam and Democracy.]
Islam and Democracy is an artfully forged argument for the necessity of nations in the Middle East to introduce democratic processes and the readiness of their peoples to participate. It is also an analysis of why governments and religious elites in Middle Eastern states are so opposed to democratization, and how they ally themselves with elites in the developed world to prevent political reform. Even more than in her previous books, which address the problems of realizing human freedom in modern Islamic societies,1 Fatima Mernissi relies in this work on the literary techniques of poets and prophets. Parables and emblematic events run like silk threads through her work, providing the warp that sustains a rich and highly textured picture of the mutual, interdependent construction of human beings and a world civilization.
Two equations occupy the center of Mernissi's analysis. One is familiar to readers of her other works—the position of women in a society is a measure of the rights of the individual in that society. This is an...
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SOURCE: Cooke, Miriam. Review of Islam and Democracy, by Fatima Mernissi. International Journal of Middle East Studies 26, no. 2 (May 1994): 356-58.
[In the following review, Cooke evaluates the strengths of Islam and Democracy, but finds minor shortcomings in Mernissi's assertions about Western time and her rhetorical point of view.]
This reinterpretation and re-presentation of Islam [in Islam and Democracy] by the controversial Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi is at once affectionate and angry. She presents a picture of a beautiful, flexible, self-renewing religion in conflict with its despotic and corrupt political superstructure from the perspective of an insider who as a girl attended Qur'anic school.
Like several recent studies, this one uses the Gulf War as context. Mernissi regards this confrontation between East and West as a turning point because it emphasized the debilitating division that has characterized Islamic history: “an intellectual trend that speculated on the philosophical foundations of the world and humanity, and another trend that turned political challenge violent by resort to force” (p. 21). This division appeared in an Islam that was already polarized between communal practices—religion, belief and obedience—and individual behavior—personal opinion, innovation, and creation. She asserts that if Islam is to survive as a viable...
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SOURCE: Yardley, Jonathan. “Behind the Harem Walls.” Washington Post Book World (29 May 1994): 3.
[In the following review, Yardley praises the characterizations, messages, and lessons of tolerance and strength presented in Mernissi's memoir Dreams of Trespass.]
Fatima Mernissi was born 54 years ago in Fez, “a ninth-century Moroccan city some five thousand kilometers west of Mecca, and one thousand kilometers south of Madrid.” Her father was a member of the fellah, “rich landowners and sophisticated agricultural developers,” as a result of which she grew up amid considerable privilege, comfortably isolated from her country's widespread poverty. But isolation, however comfortable, was not without its price, for Mernissi was reared as a resident of a harem.
The mere mention of the word immediately conjures up in the Western mind images of sultans having their way with concubines recumbent upon divans. Mernissi is at pains to correct that misapprehension. Though such “imperial harems” indeed existed in the Ottoman empire, they vanished early in the 20th century with the Western occupation of Turkey. Mernissi and her family lived in a “domestic harem,” to wit:
One could define domestic harems as extended family arrangements, where a man and his sons and their wives lived in the same house, put resources together, and requested...
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SOURCE: Brumberg, Daniel. Review of Islam and Democracy, by Fatima Mernissi. Contemporary Sociology 23, no. 5 (September 1994): 680-81.
[In the following review of Islam and Democracy, Brumberg commends Mernissi's analysis of Islamic culture and political power, but objects to her assertion that the West must enforce democratization in the Arab world.]
Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan sociologist who has written widely on the role of women in the Arab Islamic world. She is also an Islamic liberal who believes that the values of liberal democracy can be reconciled with those of Islam. In Islam and Democracy, she has brought her interests together in one of the most thought-provoking books to be written on Islam in many years.
In the first half of her book Mernissi tries to account for the antagonism of Arab youth to democracy by tracing the historical development of Islam. During the first decades of Islamic history, she argues, the notion of ta'a (obedience to God) was balanced by the ideals of rational free will ('aql) and personal opinion (ra'y). The early caliphs based their rule on a contract which held that the people could remove the leader if he abused his powers or acted outside the law. But eventually the Abbasids caliphs replaced this contract with the notion of blind obedience to the ruler, a concept that then became the norm....
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SOURCE: Pakravan, Saideh. Review of Dreams of Trespass, by Fatima Mernissi. Belles Lettres 10, no. 1 (fall 1994): 80-1.
[In the following review, Pakravan lauds the “compassionate and intelligent” writing in Mernissi's memoir Dreams of Trespass.]
The nonjudgmental, politically correct stance often adopted by some Westerners toward the Islamic fundamentalist resurgence calls for a respectful endorsement of the traditional veiling of women. Some benighted souls actually don the garb (imagine shackling your own feet), presumably out of the same romantic notion that made T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) wear long, loose robes as he trekked Arabian deserts. In Dreams of Trespass, more charmingly but just as forcefully as she did in The Veil and the Male Elite, Fatima Mernissi gives an incisive retort to anyone still harboring illusions about conservative Islam. Not only does it not represent a liberating force, but it enforces the veil, a symbol of oppression, and harem life, an abominable restriction.
The word harem generally evokes the part of a palace where in 9th-century Baghdad, for instance, a ruler such as the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid kept thousands of jaryas or slave girls for his pleasure. But in most Moslem countries, it is—or was until recently—simply the part of the house where women and children reside and no males except close relatives are...
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SOURCE: Yeazell, Ruth Bernard. “Ructions in the Seraglio.” London Review of Books 16, no. 23 (8 December 1994): 16-17.
[In the following excerpt, Yeazell offers a positive assessment of Mernissi's memoir The Harem Within, published as Dreams of Trespass in the United States.]
In a little-known film of 1985 called Harem, a yuppie female stockbroker (Natassja Kinski) is drugged and kidnapped on the streets of New York, only to wake up in the harem of an enigmatic oil tycoon (Ben Kingsley) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Given its wildly implausible plot and clumsy editing—not to mention Kinski's permanently drugged performance—the movie more than deserves its present obscurity. But as a testament to the shifting status of the harem in the Western imagination, this particular work of fantasy has much to recommend it. Harem begins with a shameless exploitation of all the old clichés of the menacing and lustful East, from the smoothly sinister black eunuch who welcomes the heroine to captivity to the impassive and vaguely threatening faces of the other women, their exotic caged birds serving as familiar symbols of their confinement. Yet even as Kinski wanders the maze-like corridors and anticipates her rape by the unknown despot who has abducted her, both heroine and audience come to realise that this place has little in common with the erotic prison they have...
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SOURCE: Brata, Sasthi. “The Veiled Mind.” New Statesman and Society 8, no. 341 (24 February 1995): 54.
[In the following excerpt, Brata praises The Harem Within, but expresses misgivings over Mernissi's privileged perspective.]
The two women who cry their hearts out in these books do not belong to the proletariat, nor to the bourgeoisie as the Marxists understood it. Both come from the upper crust of their respective Islamic societies, Moroccan and Pakistani. Their greatest childhood deprivations were in the realms of diamonds, pearls, chiffons and silks; not food, clothing and shelter.
Mernissi is a respected feminist academic; [Tehmina] Durrani an erstwhile housewife who has launched a crusade, with this first autobiographical excursion, on behalf of Islamic women [My Feudal Lord]. But there is something cloying in their pleas for the three great words of the French revolution, coming as they do from hugely privileged mouthpieces. Tugged on the one hand (Mernissi) by the end of French colonial rule and on the other (Durrani) by indigenous male oppression, the authors flounder in their political and philosophical exegesis.
These caveats aside, the fables themselves are riveting. Mernissi's book [The Harem Within] is the story of a child (herself) between the ages of four and nine. Quotation marks abound: conversations with her illiterate...
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SOURCE: Booth, Marilyn. Review of Dreams of Trespass, by Fatima Mernissi. World Literature Today 69, no. 2 (spring 1995): 419.
[In the following review, Booth praises Mernissi's stark honesty and unique perspective in Dreams of Trespass.]
The word harem—like veil—has long served to enclose Arab and other predominantly Muslim societies in Euro-American stereotyping. Although recent scholarship has attempted the dispassionate analysis of “the harem” within specific historical and discursive contexts, popularly the word still connotes a vision of “the East” as exotica and erotica. Now the Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi offers a re-vision of the harem that is both passionate and analytical, and wonderful to read.
As autobiography, Dreams of Trespass could be subtitled “The Making of a Feminist,” for its prescient young narrator, growing up in an aristocratic urban traditional household, is weaned on the desires of her female elders to overcome and subvert the barriers of their familiar, constrained world. As scholarship, it supplements Mernissi's investigations into the meaning of spaces and boundaries in Islamic discourses and social settings, whether that of early Islam (The Veil and the Male Elite, 1987; Eng. 1991), contemporary Morocco (Beyond the Veil, 1975), or the medieval and the post—Gulf War Middle East...
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SOURCE: Afshar, Haleh. Review of The Forgotten Queens of Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. Signs 21, no. 1 (autumn 1995): 205-08.
[In the following excerpt, Afshar compliments Mernissi's analysis of Islamic history in The Forgotten Queens of Islam.]
These volumes [Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam and Julie Marcus's A World of Difference] represent two very distinct approaches to understanding Islam and gender hierarchy. They both attempt to explain the apparent absence of Muslim women from the public sphere and the historical construction of unequal gender relations. But whereas Fatima Mernissi blames the veil and the “architecture” of separatism, Julie Marcus sees the laws of “purity and pollution” as the villain. Mernissi provides an in-depth analysis of the social, religious, and historical factors that have contributed to making the women ruling over Islamic countries invisible through history. This illuminating volume engages critically with the ascribed characteristics attributed by Western academics and historians to Muslims, Arabs, and/or Middle Eastern cultures for barring women's access to power. Both authors note Muslim men's fear of women's ability to create chaos and rebellion through disobedience as the main barrier to women's access to power in the region. Both single out particular Islamic rituals that have been created and enforced to control the disruptive...
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SOURCE: Hillenbrand, Carole. Review of The Forgotten Queens of Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. History 82, no. 267 (July 1997): 463-64.
[In the following review, Hillenbrand commends Mernissi's passionate denunciation of Muslim misogyny in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, but asserts that the arguments are undermined by factual errors and abrasive rhetoric.]
Fatima Mernissi is one of the best-known female intellectuals in the Arab world. This book [The Forgotten Queens of Islam] arose in response to the claims made in some circles in Pakistan when Benazir Bhutto became prime minister that ‘no Muslim state has ever been governed by a woman’. Mernissi argues that this is patently false and provides proof in the form of the biographies of fifteen ‘queens’ who ruled in various Muslim states, in India, Egypt, Iran, the Maldives, Indonesia and Yemen. The wide range of time and space here forces Mernissi to rely on the work of other scholars; but it is very useful to have these brief biographies gathered together in one volume. The tone of this book is often impassioned, sometimes ironic, and always scathing at the way in which women are under-valued and marginalized in the Islamic political arena and their role ignored by scholars, both Muslim and western. In her own words, the ‘history of women in Islam is doomed, like that of peasants and the poor, never to be reflected in the...
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SOURCE: Fay, Mary Ann. Review of The Forgotten Queens of Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. International Journal of Middle East Studies 31, no. 3 (August 1999): 453-55.
[In the following review, Fay compliments Mernissi's perspective in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, but considers the book marred by numerous historical inaccuracies.]
Fatima Mernissi's The Forgotten Queens of Islam is a flawed but provocative and, at times, insightful study of the nature of power in Islamic history and contemporary Islamic society. Ostensibly, Mernissi is conducting a historical investigation into the question of whether women were ever heads of state. However, she uses her subject matter to assert that political Islam or Islam as the practice of power is fundamentally anti-democratic. Thus, her book is both a historical inquiry and a powerful critique of the state in contemporary Islamic societies.
This is not the first time that Mernissi, a sociologist, has turned to history for her subject matter or to answer a question that has contemporary relevance. She did so in the book that first brought her to the attention of the West, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, and in Women in Islam: A Historical and Theological Inquiry. In the latter book, Mernissi turned to history in order to refute the remark of her grocer who quoted a hadith as evidence...
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SOURCE: Crossley, Pamela K. Review of The Forgotten Queens of Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. Journal of World History 2, no. 1 (spring 2000): 122.
[In the following review, Crossley recommends The Forgotten Queens of Islam as a valuable introductory work for students of Islamic history, but believes that advanced scholars will find shortcomings in the book's generalizations and omissions.]
In The Forgotten Queens of Islam, a short and very readable volume, Fatima Mernissi, perhaps the best known writer on women and Islam, establishes a historical foundation for women's political independence and their legitimacy as rulers in the Muslim world. In the course of her exposition she proposes a radically democratic orientation in early Islamic teaching, and so in the best fashion of feminist scholars progresses from a fairly narrow perspective to a very inclusive one, using the problem of “women's history” to open up critical perspectives on the history of an entire culture.
The introductory narrowness could hardly be more narrow, as Mernissi begins with the problem of Benazir Bhutto's novelty as political leader of Pakistan. The author reviews the received wisdom that in all of Islamic history no woman had ever before led a polity, then proceeds to explore the “forgotten” history of women leaders in the Islamic world. The wrenching leap backward in time from the...
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SOURCE: Majaj, Lisa Suhair. “West Side Stories.” Women's Review of Books 18, nos. 10-11 (July 2001): 25.
[In the following review, Majaj comments on Mernissi's observations and tactics in Scheherazade Goes West, lauding the author for raising important questions about the ways women are marginalized and controlled in both Eastern and Western societies.]
In her 1994 memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi recalled her upbringing in a Moroccan harem. Although the women in the harem had limited physical mobility, they could go anywhere their imaginations could take them. Storytelling occupied a central role, and tales from the Thousand and One Nights—largely about women who took charge of their own liberation—were prominent. Through these tales, Mernissi came to see Scheherazade, the feisty storyteller who used her narrative prowess, intellect and courage to thwart her husband's murderous intentions, as a feminist role model. From Scheherazade's stories, and from the harem women who retold them, Mernissi learned that women have many intellectual resources with which to challenge life's difficulties. By daring to imagine the impossible, they can transform the world.
When Mernissi went on a book tour publicizing Dreams of Trespass, however, she discovered that her Western interviewers' understanding of...
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Amirrezvani, Anita. Review of Beyond the Veil, by Fatima Mernissi. Whole Earth Review, no. 75 (summer 1992): 73.
Amirrezvani offers a positive assessment of the revised edition of Beyond the Veil.
Burchard, Hank. “Out of the Harem into Feminism.” Washington Post (26 November 1993): N74.
Burchard discusses Mernissi's feminist perspective and her mixed-media collaboration with Ruth Ward and Mansoora Hassan.
D'Erasmo, Stacey. “Behind the Veil.” Newsday (17 July 1994): 39.
D'Erasmo evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Dreams of Trespass.
Friedman, Jane. “A Woman's Place.” Washington Post (30 December 1993): T9.
Friedman examines Mernissi's presentation of harem life in the museum exhibit “The Harem Within.”
Guppy, Shusha. “Women with the Whole Empire at Their Feet; Benazir Bhutto Was Not the First.” Independent (4 September 1993): 26.
Guppy cites shortcomings in The Forgotten Queens of Islam, noting the book's muddled chronology and disparate historical information.
Jaber, Nabila. Review of The Forgotten Queens of Islam, by Fatima Mernissi. Sociology 28, no. 2 (May 1994): 631-32.
Jaber offers a positive...
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