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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1674

Fatima Mernissi 1940-

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(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...

(The entire section contains 1674 words.)

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Principal Works