Fatima Mernissi Essay - Critical Essays

Mernissi, Fatima


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.

Principal Works

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


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Judith E. Tucker (review date May 1989)

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...

(The entire section is 1253 words.)

Marilyn Booth (review date December 1991)

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...

(The entire section is 2133 words.)

Daniel S. Lev (review date 1992)

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...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Nabila Jaber (review date May 1992)

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...

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Grace Halsell (review date 1993)

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....

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Martin Kramer (review date 1 March 1993)

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...

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S. V. R. Nasr (review date spring 1993)

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...

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Marlene Kanawati (review date August 1993)

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...

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Carla Power (review date 6 August 1993)

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...

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Venetia Porter (review date 21 January 1994)

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...

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Mary Ann Tétreault (essay date spring 1994)

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...

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Miriam Cooke (review date May 1994)

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...

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Jonathan Yardley (review 29 May 1994)

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...

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Daniel Brumberg (review date September 1994)

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...

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Saideh Pakravan (review date fall 1994)

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...

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Ruth Bernard Yeazell (review date 8 December 1994)

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...

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Sasthi Brata (review date 24 February 1995)

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]...

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Marilyn Booth (review date spring 1995)

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...

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Haleh Afshar (review date autumn 1995)

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...

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Carole Hillenbrand (review date July 1997)

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...

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Mary Ann Fay (review date August 1999)

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...

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Pamela K. Crossley (review date spring 2000)

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...

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Lisa Suhair Majaj (review date July 2001)

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...

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Further Reading


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....

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