Fatima Mernissi Critical Essays

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.