Fatima Mernissi

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Judith E. Tucker (review date May 1989)

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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 mutilated in the name of honor and a female ideal cherished by the male bourgeoisie …” She managed to make it to the university in Morocco; subsequently she received higher degrees in sociology in France and the United States. Urbane, articulate and well traveled, Mernissi also remembers her roots; much of her writing before this has been inspired with a sense of mission. In earlier books she explored the underpinnings of a gender system that oppresses Moroccan women, examining its Islamic and customary roots. In Doing Daily Battle she seeks to allow women themselves to challenge this system simply by talking about the reality of their lives.

The book is composed of interviews with eleven women. From the start we are strongly conscious of Mernissi herself, who reflects in the introduction on the complexities of the interview process. Her own questions often seemed incomprehensible or irrelevant to the women, so she tried, whenever possible, to let the interview flow where the interviewee chose. She tried, she writes, to give up control and cultivate empathy, an empathy based on her “strong sense of belonging to the world of illiteracy in which I was immersed until the age of twenty.” By and large she has succeeded. The women use a relatively unstructured narrative style to tell their stories: what is lost in clarity or focus is more than made up for by the authenticity of the voice. Mernissi herself is sometimes too present. Her fidelity to her texts as she has transcribed them can make for choppy passages in which she intervenes with a question every sentence. On the other hand, these interventions allow us a sense of the interview process, and, I think, help us identify with an educated and privileged woman's struggles to comprehend her very different sisters.

In part, Mernissi's interviewees discuss, as did Peets', their problems with men and with marriage, a key concern. Most of them are married off to men about whom they at first have little knowledge. Their pain is reminiscent of Peets' accounts. But Mernissi's interviewees conceive of marriage utterly differently from Peets'. They constantly make clear that marriage shouldn't be a mere fate but should measure up to their expectations. They want love and understanding and...

(This entire section contains 1253 words.)

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when they don't get it they aren't afraid to call the marriage a failure and press for divorce. Among these women polygynous marriage is rare, and marital problems are likely to be solved through separation.

Rabi'a, for example, was married to an older cousin, but her respect for him gradually waned. He took, she says, to seeing other women and coming home drunk. Their sex life deteriorated. He threatened her repeatedly with divorce. But it was she who finally decided she “had become allergic to his way of eating, of drinking, of walking, of laughing, of joking,” and it was she who demanded a divorce. Habiba, a female psychic, left a husband who mistreated her. Eventually she married a man who believed in her vocation and helped her in her intercessions with the spirits. While these women have been victimized by the gender system, we get a clear sense that they can and do fight back.

Indeed, Mernissi emphasizes that her interviewees don't see themselves as weak or helpless, but rather as “a race of giants doing daily battle against the destructive monsters of unemployment, poverty, and degrading jobs.” They work as field laborers, textile factory spinners, carpet knotters in workshops, and maids. They describe themselves not only as workers, but also as money managers who must make insufficient incomes stretch to provide food and shelter for their families. “Instead of drinking coffee with milk for breakfast,” says Tahra Bint Mohammad of her own complex strategies, “I drink tea, even though I don't like tea. We eat meat twice a week, we never eat sardines … In the afternoon, we never drink coffee. Doughnuts cost 80 centimes a pound, so we don't buy them. Fruit? Don't mention bananas or apples, we don't even buy oranges.” With such economies Tahra adds a little money each month to the house fund which, she hopes, will let her and her husband buy the house that will finally ensure them freedom from the threats of eviction and rising rents.

The opulent harim world isn't altogether absent from Mernissi's pages. Three of her older interviewees were raised in harims, and their accounts of the jealousies and intrigues of their youth are strongly reminiscent of the world Peets evokes. The seamier side of the harim is graphically illustrated in an interview with Mariam, the poor servant of a great household, who was made pregnant by her master. Because he refused to accept his responsibility, she tried to hide her pregnancy and finally gave birth secretly to a dead infant, sheltered in a sympathetic harim slave's room. “Then I took the child,” she remembers,

wrapped it in a towel, and carried it outside in my arms. I walked down to the river and threw it in. I had no choice. I slept for a few hours beside Selwa [the slave] until dawn. Then I started again, scrubbing other people's floors, doing their laundry, and serving them.

(p. 35)

The horror of this account is blunted by our sense that Mariam's world—a world where masters exercise unbridled power over slaves and servants—is a world of the past. The other interviews here suggest that the vast majority of Moroccan women are not victims of such relentless abuse; they are fully active in securing the best possible lives for themselves despite tremendous odds.

The differences in tenor in these two books reflect changing times. Peets' stories take place from 1930 to 1970, while Mernissi conducted her interviews in the 1970s and early 80s. Morocco itself has changed. And while the harim with all its trappings is all but vanished, Mernissi's book tells us it was never the quintessential Moroccan female experience. Both books also redress wrongs of perception. Arab women have been cast by writers, photographers and other Western “experts” as passive, silent and exotic victims. Their own culture has cast them as weak vessels. By allowing their subjects to speak for themselves, Peets and Mernissi help their readers understand how false such stereotypes are.

Marilyn Booth (review date December 1991)

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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 Muslim—which she defines first and foremost as “belonging to a theocratic state.” But drawing on Islam as a belief and a code of conduct, she repeatedly invokes the believer's duty to seek knowledge through looking critically at the codified sources of Muslim practice. This is crucial, she argues, to counter efforts to bolster today's misogyny with manipulative readings of the sacred texts.

Like many scholars of gender in Muslim societies today, Mernissi rejects essentialist, ahistorical visions of “Islam.” The Veil and the Male Elite can be seen as a sequel to this prominent Moroccan sociologist/feminist activist's groundbreaking work, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Indiana University Press, 1975). In both works Mernissi's scholarship is framed by her political, feminist involvement with the present. The first book focuses on contemporary Morocco. The present one spotlights the earliest Muslim community—Mecca and Medina in the seventh century CE, the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

Looking at key events and utterances that occurred—or are said to have occurred—as the Prophet was consolidating his community, Mernissi finds there was a battle over women's sexual and political agency, a battle that became central in the power struggles of Muhammad's last years. The Prophet, she argues, tried to realize a spiritual-political community based on equality, autonomy and self-regulation; he urged women's full, free and public participation in the new community: “Islam as a coherent system of values that governs all the behaviors of a person and a society, and Muhammad's egalitarian project, are in fact based on … the emergence of woman's free will as something that the organization of society had to take into account.” The Prophet, according to Mernissi, “could only conceive of the sexual and the political as being intimately linked,” and “insiste[d] on putting his private life and his public life on the same footing.” He consulted women on strategic concerns, listened and tried to legislate on their behalf, and resisted men's opposition to his “egalitarian project.”

Pitted against the women of the community and the Prophet in Mernissi's scenario are some real villains. Chief among them is 'Umar, one of Muhammad's closest advisers and fiercest adherents, later his second successor as head of the Muslim community (or caliph). 'Umar, traditionally one of the heroes of Islamic history, is presented here as the leader of the opposition to many of Muhammad's ideas:

For ['Umar,] as for the many Companions that he represented, the changes that Islam was introducing should be limited to public life and spiritual life. Private life should remain under the rule of pre-Islamic customs … The men were prepared to accept Islam as a revolution in relations in public life, an overturning of political and economic hierarchies, but they did not want Islam to change anything concerning relations between the sexes.

(p. 142)

Looking closely at the chronological ordering of the revelations Muhammad received from God (which differs from their ordering in the Qur'an), Mernissi suggests that the women of the first Muslim community—certain wives of the Prophet chief among them—engaged in debates and made demands touching on equality and autonomy not only in religion but also in economics and sexuality. Had they been granted, those demands would have gone a long way toward abolishing practices that had governed women's lives earlier. And at first, women's queries received encouraging responses: certain revelations came to Muhammad that made clear women's spiritual equality and commensurate responsibilities. Others stipulated new legal rights and protections. When women complained to the Prophet that the men were ignoring the new society's regulations and continuing to follow pre-Islamic practices—such as refusing to let women inherit property, and continuing to treat women as property that could be inherited—Muhammad supported the women with further revelations that underscored their new status.

But, says Mernissi, as the women pressed for increased economic power (such as the right to take booty after raids), limits on men's authority in sexual relations (such as the right to command their choice of positions for sexual intercourse), and a stop to men's violence against women (such as the right to beat one's wife), these issues posed a fundamental threat to the young community's unity. Says Mernissi, “[T]he very survival of monotheism was threatened.” She sees in this the impetus for a new series of revelations to Muhammad, revelations that

temporized on the principle of equality of the sexes and reaffirmed male supremacy, without, however, nullifying the dispositions in favor of women. This created an ambiguity in the Koran that would be exploited by governing elites right up until the present day.

(p. 129)

For example, in certain verses of the Qur'an women are described as full and equal members of the religious community, who cannot be treated as possessions, yet elsewhere in the Qur'an women are said to be under men's control. Women are clearly given the right to inherit property, yet limits are placed on the shares they can claim; some scholars have argued on the basis of the text that these limits apply only to certain situations. Such pronouncements, if not contradictory, allow for multiple legislative possibilities.

These confrontations took place in a period of instability and insecurity, years three to eight of the Islamic calendar (624/25 to 629/30 CE). During this brief period, Muhammad failed to triumph over the powerful clans of Mecca who had refused to accept his project. At the same time his own community, based in Medina, was riven by doubt and dissension. When certain Medinans tried to undermine the Prophet by spreading rumors about his personal life and harassing his wives, the result was revelation from God that became the basis for women's seclusion. This practice, Mernissi argues, did not exist among the earliest Muslims, although it seems to have been prevalent to a greater or lesser degree in the pre-Islamic Arabian peninsula.

Interwoven with Mernissi's analysis of the Qur'an's pronouncements on women in the political context of Islam's birth is another, related investigation: that of the hadith literature, the sayings and actions of the Prophet, as reported by his close associates, which form a source of Muslim law and practice second only to the Qur'an. As Mernissi emphasizes, hadith literature has been a much-contested ground. A great deal of spurious hadith were generated as conflicting interest groups and multiple claims to political power emerged in the young community. Hadith scholarship, which began in earnest soon after Muhammad's death, sought not only to compile hadith but to verify every report of a hadith and the route of its oral transmission.

Mernissi cites some leading examples of hadith that have been used to put women in their place, nicely showing how these pronouncements are part and parcel of contemporary discourse. “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity” is used to reject women's access to political leadership. Other hadith, which assert that women are essentially impure or ascribe to them animal-like features, have been used to limit or degrade their activities as religious beings: “The Prophet said that the dog, the ass, and woman interrupt prayer if they pass in front of the believer, interposing themselves between him and the gibla [orientation toward Mecca; necessary for prayer].”

Mernissi examines the political interests of the first transmitters of these and other hadith, and questions their veracity. She's not the first to do so, but her rejection of the large body of hadith attributed to Abu Bakra and Abu Hurayra, the two transmitters she targets, goes far beyond the cautious attitude taken by previous scholars. (Abu Hurayra was one of the most prolific transmitters of the Prophet's deeds and sayings; to reject his contribution is to reject an awful lot of extant hadith.)

It is clear that the Prophet regarded women as active, responsible members of his new community who had important, often public, roles to play. Other twentieth-century scholars have pointed out that Khadija, his first wife (until her death, his only one), was central in defining and sustaining Muhammad's sense of mission. Later wives—notably 'A'isha and Umm Salama—were outspoken advisers and public figures. The new faith also seems to have sought to give some women legal protections they had not enjoyed earlier. Yet, while Mernissi's own readings of her sources are generally careful, she does not always allow for alternative possibilities that the same sources would also support, or at least do not preclude. She also ascribes motives and beliefs to the early Muslim protagonists of this drama that are beyond our ability to know, and some of her observations are anachronistic.

If Muhammad did see in some women important potential supporters, this did not necessarily mean he sought to give them the same status as men. Neither is it at all clear that in Medina, as Mernissi contends, “the debate on equality of the sexes raged,” nor that the Prophet believed in principle in sexual equality. Nabia Abbott's early and still important study, “Women and the State in Early Islam,”1 sees in the absence from leadership positions of women not married to the Prophet a gauge of Muhammad's ambitions about gender: from this perspective, one Mernissi does not examine, the “egalitarian project” looks far less egalitarian.

I think Mernissi strains the reader's belief when she leaps from women's active roles in the early Muslim community, and from their interest in ascertaining their rights and roles, to claiming that they were “press[ing] the Prophet to ask the Muslim God to make a declaration on [sic] the place of the free will of a woman as believer in the new community.” It also seems farfetched to suggest that “'A'isha and Umm Salama … demand[ed] the liberation of women.” The relative lack of evidence about pre-Islamic Arabia makes it still harder to evaluate early Muslim women's actions and demands, not to mention their expectations and assumptions.

As Mernissi says, some kind of shift, boding ill for women, did occur late in the Prophet's life. But we do not and cannot know the motives behind the revelations he received in this period—revelations that would later ratify men's sexual, spatial and economic domination of women. Perhaps, as Mernissi claims, the climate of instability and the increasing challenge to the Prophet were key. But it may also have been Muhammad's own relations with his wives, said to have been troubled at this time, that generated these verses, and he may not have been quite the reluctant legislator that Mernissi portrays.

I'm not as optimistic as Mernissi. I don't think that placing the Qur'an's pronouncements on women in historical context can alter either the gender-based power relationships it dictates or its theological and legislative power as God's immutable Word. Still, this eloquent, forthright and carefully documented argument should get a hearing. Mernissi makes clear that critical re-readings of the central sources for Islamic belief and practice are not only possible but imperative. (She compares her own reinterpretations to the “muzzled, censored, obedient and grateful” responses of other Muslims.) The care she takes to provide basic historical, doctrinal and exegetical information suggests her interest in reaching non-Muslims as well as English and French speaking Muslim communities in Europe and the US. She also engages contemporary Muslim polemics on gender and sexuality published in Arabic. The book is especially important, I think, when placed in the context of an increasingly heated struggle in the Muslim world—a struggle in which “Islamic legitimacy” is invoked to support a vast range of conflicting visions of women in the volatile world politics of the nineties.


  1. Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. I (1942).

Daniel S. Lev (review date 1992)

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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 and complex. In it Mernissi lays down a serious challenge to religious leaders and teachers who for thirteen centuries, she contends, have violated the spirit of Muhammad's revolution to preserve the miseries of a pre-Islamic age that he tried to extinguish. It is not an unusual story in the monotheistic universe, where a single God with one prophet makes subversion of new ideas relatively easy for those who command the meanings of revelation. Drawing upon a long tradition in Islam of reasoned analytical discourse, whose limits she also effectively criticizes, Mernissi has asserted her own right to construe the intentions of the Prophet.

In Islam more than in either of its predecessors, Judaism and Christianity, the original ideas of the founder concerning women were incontestably revolutionary. Not only were women given the right to inherit, implying independence, but Muhammad's demeanor and the revelations he received fairly consistently favored their freedom to engage politically no less than men. Only fairly, however, for during the crucial early years of his exile in Medina, in the 620s CE, other acts and revelations apparently slid back. Among them is the source of the veil, which Mernissi makes the central metaphor of her essay as the curtain—hijab means both veil and curtain—behind which women were confined to a private existence shorn of public responsibility. Only by explaining these contradictions as deviations from the Prophet's intent can one make an argument for emancipation without rejecting the faith. Mernissi's illumination of the issues is bright enough to assure her book at least a mild storm of debate.

She traces the problem to political and military exigencies that required concessions to Muhammad's critics. The analysis gathers legitimacy from her method, which is the standard one of Islamic interpretation, focussing not only upon the Koran but the exemplary behavior and words (Sunnah) of Muhammad related by those close to him. The rules for establishing the validity of these reports, hadith, require careful assessment of their credibility, which Mernissi undertakes to compelling effect. Questioning the sources of hadith that have been used to encage women, Mernissi simultaneously reveals the spirit behind the mainstream tradition and fashions an alternative account of Muhammad's ideas, illustrated by well known hadith about his behavior and that of his wives, particularly 'A'isha and Salama, and of later figures, to produce a vision of women as fully realized participants in public life.

Unlike many others who have had at received dogma on women, Mernissi knows that this alone is not quite enough, for so fundamental a challenge stands uneasily apart from a more general critique of the religious condition. What makes this book more than a persuasive polemic is the scope of Mernissi's ambition, not simply to establish the right of Islamic women to human completeness, but as well to encourage all Muslims to deal with a morally exhausting burden of historical crust.

Following an enlightening introduction to present and past in the Islamic history of women, the book is divided in two parts. The first, “Sacred Text as Political Weapon,” sets a wide stage by asking whether the fascination of Islam with the past is not an escape from a humiliating present. From the midst of this problematic, Mernissi suggests that the condition of women in Islam is founded on a tradition of misogyny consolidated by dubitable hadith, whose uses she explains as a necessary prologue to her own analysis. The second part of the book, “Median in Revolution: The Three Fateful Years,” is an interpretative analysis and commentary in which Mernissi reclaims Muhammad for women.

Her book, part of a growing reform literature in Islam, will not convince those who are committed to the received tradition, for reasons she herself makes clear. But many who are troubled by the outcome of Mohammad's mission will be grateful for Mernissi's formulation of a persuasive alternative.

Nabila Jaber (review date May 1992)

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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 disciples' accounts of the prophet's deeds and sayings. The significance of Mernissi's argument lies in the attention given to the Hadith rather than the Koran. Given the Hadith's importance in terms of decoding religious scriptures and illustrating theological interpretations, her focus on the genesis of this text and its political role in shaping the present form of patriarchal Islam is both innovative and interesting.

In line with current feminist research, Mernissi problematises the sphere of knowledge claims in male Muslim theology. She contests the authenticity of the writings of the Hadith from both epistemological and methodological standpoints. Her arguments are concerned with the way in which Muslim scholars present questions of truth, and methods of verification. In juxtaposing and deconstructing the recorded versions of both male disciples' accounts of the prophet's life against those of his wives and female relatives, Mernissi skilfully points out the logical flaws associated with the former. Her general tactic is to link the narrators' strong misogynistic attitudes with their tribal (patriarchal) origin.

For Mernissi, the construction of femaleness in the Hadith revolves around her sexuality which constitutes a symbolic barrier to the spiritual (religious) well being of the male believer. Consequently, Islam requires women to be hidden or masked. Her masterly analysis of the linguistic discourse of the term veil (Hijab) draws on the relationships between spiritual, visual, and spatial dimensions. In carrying out her investigations, Mernissi displays an intimate knowledge of ancient Islamic texts, including philosophy, poetry, historians' accounts, and religious documents. Her methodological creativity extends to the use of psychoanalysis in terms of locating the narrator's motives and intentions in the making of particular discursive fields.

The text can be seen to be triggered by the present crisis facing Muslim states. The mal du present, it is argued, is multi-dimensional and penetrates the spheres of politics, economics and necessarily gender relations. The complexities of these issues are evinced in the growing rise of conservative Islam against the state quasi-secular rule, as manifested in the increasing pressure put on women to return to traditional Islam. This move signifies the return of women to a marginalised status via the mechanism of veiling and seclusion. The control over the female body again functions as a powerful tool for cementing patriarchal order.

Mernissi's advocacy for a liberating Islam is to be seen in what she claims were the practices of independent Muslim women. She refers to autonomous women who engaged in public debates about politics and warfare, and arrange their marriage contracts on their own terms! To mention but a few, the most influential ones were the prophet's wives and relatives. In contrast, women under present Islam are repeatedly subjected to extreme form of patriarchal order whose discourse reproduces sexual hierarchy upon which Muslim identity is constructed.

In deconstructing the discourses on Muslim identity, Mernissi demonstrates the close linkages between the concepts of time (history), power (knowledge and control), and gender (femaleness). The construction of femaleness in orthodox Islam is seen as a product of collaboration between political ends and ideological justifications. For Western feminist readers this is to be expected. But the paradox of Mernissi's argument lies in her attempt to unravel these claims in the very terms of the discourse of Islam itself.

In conclusion, this book does more than illuminate a liberating way of reading historical and religious texts. Her style of writing, along with her command over the subject material, engages the reader with passion. For all those interested in both global issues of feminism and Islam this is an important text.

Grace Halsell (review date 1993)

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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 had to kill the heirs in order to take power. Many themselves led battles, inflicted defeats, concluded armistices. Some had confidence in competent viziers, while others counted only on themselves. “Each had her own way of treating people, of rendering justice and of administering taxes.” Coins were minted in their names, and the khutba or Friday sermon was proclaimed in their names in the mosques.

Yet their lives and stories, achievements and failures have largely been forgotten. Why have they mysteriously fallen out of recent Islamic history books? Mernissi blames “political Islam,” which she carefully distinguishes from what she calls Risala Islam—the true Islam of the Quran and the Prophet's traditions. In a time and era when brute force often reigned supreme, Muhammad gave new lessons about slaves, non-violence and women. It was not the Prophet who said women should cover their faces or shun politics. Mernissi reminds us that Muhammad revolutionized life for women—granting them the right to divorce, the right to inherit, the right to have custody of their children in the event of divorce, the right to pray in the mosque and the right to participate as fully in life as men.

Born in 1941 in Fez, Mernissi is regarded by many as one of the preeminent Quranic scholars of our time. She was educated entirely in Quranic schools and spoke only Arabic until she was 20. After earning a degree in political science at University Mohammed V, she won a scholarship to the Sorbonne and later received a doctoral degree in sociology from Brandeis University.

While all 16 women whose lives she documents were powerful, two Arab women who ruled Yemen, Malika Asma and Malika Arwa, seem especially worthy to note. Asma claimed the attention of the historians not only because she held power, but also because she attended councils with her “face uncovered” (unveiled). Mernissi quotes a modern Yemeni historian: “She was one of the most famous women of her time and one of the most powerful. She was munificent. She was a poetess who composed verses. Among the praises given her husband, Al-Sulayhi, by the poets was the fact that he had her for a wife. … When he ascertained the perfection of her character, her husband entrusted the management of state business to her. He rarely made decisions that went against her advice.”

A second Yemeni queen, Arwa, was the daughter-in-law of Asma. She held power for almost half a century (from 485/1091 to her death in 532/1138). The two queens held the same royal title, al-sayyida al-hurra: “The noble lady who is free and independent; the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.”

If Mernissi could easily find these Muslims women rulers, why do so many modern “scholars” fail to do so? Mernissi quotes Bernard Lewis as having written: “There are no queens in Islamic history.” Such untrue statements, she adds, mean that Muslim women cannot rely on male researchers such as Lewis to read their history for them. Rather, Muslim women must read it for themselves.

While Muslim women have become heads of state, no woman has become caliph. Two of the criteria of eligibility for the caliphate are being a male and being an Arab, though the second rule could be and later was bent. As for women being barred, she asks:

“How to reconcile these two points: the principle of equality among all believers and the very restrictive criteria of the caliphate?” Again, she blames “political Islam,” writing that “the Islam of the politicians changes its colors according to the circumstances. The politicians who are caliphs and qadis can at will bend Islam risala, the Islam of the Prophet's message in the holy book, the Quran, to suit the precise interests they wish to defend.”

A foray into the past, she writes, brings with it one absolute certitude: to return there is impossible, because of what has changed in the world, including Muslim societies. “The heaven of the Abbasid caliphs is no longer our heaven, their earth is no longer ours.”

Mernissi has written five previous books on Islam, all noted for their original and scrupulous research. Her most widely-read books include: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society and The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam.

In The Forgotten Queens, she writes that universal suffrage “tears away two veils” that give substance to political Islam: “the hijab (veil) of women and the hijab or veil of the caliph.” When these “veils” of political Islam are removed, she says, one arrives at the “will of the people.”

“In today's Muslim world, there is no longer any debate about the legitimacy of universal suffrage.” Rather, she says, “Nowadays, it is about the degree of falsification of election results. This is a big step forward toward the acceptance of the people as the source of sovereignty. And yet there is nothing more foreign to political power in Islam than the recognition that sovereignty resides in the people—a bizarre idea that would never have crossed the mind of the most pious caliph.”

While most male authorities traditionally do not object to women acquiring education—this, after all, can be used to a man's benefit—they have too often objected to women developing a “will” of their own. Yet the ability of human beings to develop their minds depends on the degree of responsibility they take for what happens on their earth. “If the earth belongs to someone else, the need to think becomes superfluous.”

The “caliphal earth” of the believers is low, physical and heavy with sensuality, Mernissi writes. She believes each Muslim should establish his or her own Islam, based on the Prophet's message. In her inspiring book, she gives a glimpse of how one might escape a narrow dogma of a political creed and rise on wings “to the overwhelming majesty of heaven,” to “the immensity of divine eternity.”

Martin Kramer (review date 1 March 1993)

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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 Mernissi entertains no illusions about the fundamentalists. Mernissi, a feminist who teaches sociology at the Université Mohammed V in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, has seen them up close. And they have seen more of her than they would like—“an educated woman, unveiled, agitating in the street in the name of the Charter of the United Nations and against the shari'a,” the revealed law of Islam. At times they have tried to smother her voice. Her earlier book, The Veil and the Male Elite, was banned in Morocco after its publication in France. In this newest statement from the front line of the cultural war [Islam and Democracy], Mernissi has ventured beyond women's rights into human rights. She has produced yet another courageous book. Yet now that a generational surge of Islamic fundamentalists threatens to stuff the ballot boxes of the Arab world, this courage is also quite useless as a realistic guide to what should be done.

Mernissi's point of departure is a dissenting interpretation of Islam's historical legacy. It is currently fashionable to argue that an Islamic civil society, born with the faith, survived and even thrived despite a rapid turnover of absolute rulers; that, under the tumultuous surface of politics, Islamic society maintained an inner harmony that lasted for a millennium, until the rude intrusion of the West. Mernissi will have nothing to do with this anodyne reading of history. She sees an Arab past marked by “incessant bloodbaths,” and a present haunted by “the phantom ship of those who were decapitated for refusing to obey”:

Opposition forces have constantly rebelled and tried to kill the leader, and he has always tried to obliterate them. This dance of death between authority and individuality is for the Muslim repressed, for it is soaked in the blood and violence that no civilization lets float to the surface. … The West is frightening because it obliges the Muslims to exhume the bodies of all the opponents, both religious and profane, intellectuals and obscure artisans, who were massacred by the caliphs.

Such an utterance would incur general censure in many a university center for Islamic or Middle Eastern studies. It is all that more courageous to pronounce such truths from within a society where every schoolchild knows these caliphs as heroes of a golden age, and where every history textbook fixes the blame for the modern Arab malaise solely on foreign intruders. And there is personal risk in drawing too close a parallel between the past and the present, as Mernissi does when she avers that today's Arab politicians, in power and in opposition, “continue to succeed in gutting one of the most promising religions in human history of its substance.”

No eastern Arab land would long suffer such a voice, whose allusions to the despotism of the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates are too contemporary. These are countries where some of the earliest disputes of Islam still simmer, especially over the flame of the persistent dissent of Shiites. But North Africa, the far west of the Arab world and as much Berber as Arab, is sufficiently removed from the early events that compromised Islam to see them with an altogether clear eye. So it was in the time of Ibn Khaldun, and so it remains today. Mernissi's voice is not a lone one; it echoes those of other North African intellectuals, such as the Tunisian Moncef Marzouki, whose book of a decade ago caused an uproar. “Our past has been a series of plots and wars,” he wrote. “We are almost completely ignorant about those who were oppressed, crucified and murdered to keep the face of truth from being revealed.”

Historical Islam may have been dominated by despots and rebels, but Mernissi believes that there has always been another Islam yearning to be free. This Islam had its origins in the egalitarian message of the Prophet, but also, and far more importantly, in the teachings of the ninth- and tenth-century rationalist philosophers known as the Mu'taliza. They placed reason on the same plane as revelation and borrowed liberally from extra-Islamic sources, especially from Greek philosophy. Mernissi compares them to the Enlightenment philosophers of the West, and makes them champions of humanism and individualism, whose doctrines so menaced rulers that they severed them with the sword. The stump has been “an infected wound that the East has been carrying for centuries.” But Mernissi, following her metaphor of mutilation to the end, avers that “having an arm amputated is not the same as being born with an arm missing.” A sense of the severed limb persists. By this logic, democracy is not foreign to Islam, and Muslims are wrong to fear that its spread might compromise the integrity of Islam. On the contrary, it would heal the injury inflicted by “despotic politicians” long ago.

The credibility of such an argument is probably not for an unbeliever to weigh. Islam is what Muslims make of it, and if Mernissi's polemic is to succeed, it must defeat the opposing view of the fundamentalists. They argue that God revealed his sacred law, the shari'a, obviating all need for human legislation or legislators. The present secular rulers are tyrants not because they govern absolutely, but because they govern without reference to Islamic law. Implementation of this law is the primary duty of government; and if an authoritarian state enforces the law, then its legitimacy is indisputable. Indeed, just government should be authoritarian, because it rests upon the unquestionable authority of the law. The wise ruler should consult the leaders of society for their advice. But democracy, the perpetual plebiscite, is the very essence of arbitrary government, since it turns on popular whim. Participation in elections is admissible, perhaps, as a way to acquire power for Islam. But once that power is established, any means are permissible for its preservation.

Now to believe Mernissi, the masses have already chosen democracy over shari'a. As evidence, she offers (of all things) the massive demonstrations against the Gulf war, in which she herself participated. This outpouring, described in her book with an enthusiasm that evokes accounts of Eastern Europe's revolutions, supposedly protested the absence of democracy and the waste of resources—both epitomized by Saudi Arabia, at that time flooded by foreign troops. The Western media portrayed these demonstrations as groundswells of fundamentalist xenophobia, but Mernissi claims otherwise, invoking the demonstration that she joined. “Fundamentalists were among the demonstrators,” she allows, “but many other groups were present, including all the branches of the Moroccan Left and thousands of independents like me, of all persuasions, from university students and professors to shopkeepers.”

But surely this evidence is equivocal at best. A better argument could be made that those demonstrations were about neither democracy nor Islam. If anything ran through the chanting crowds that filled the streets, it was anti-imperialism, a desire to see the West's nose bloodied just once—and an admiration for Saddam, who proved himself a man of honor by defying America and keeping his promise to attack Israel. It is one of the paradoxes of Mernissi's quixotic vision that she sees so clearly across centuries but cannot make out the pattern of a local crowd. The grim truth is that there have been no massive demonstrations for democracy in the Arab world, whereas the demand for an Islamic state has managed to fill boulevards, and not just during the Gulf war. The problem is not that the pro-democracy liberals fear coming out into the street. It is their fear that they would not even fill it.

For, despite the efforts of Mernissi and others, the reading of democracy into Islam seems forced for most Muslims. It too closely resembles the strained attempt of a generation ago to read socialism into Islam. Those many dusty tomes on Islamic socialism are an embarrassment today, and caused some Muslim grumbling even when they were de rigueur. (“There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet,” ran a comic play on the Islamic profession of faith.) As Muslims have watched ideology supersede ideology among the unbelievers, they have stopped trying to reconcile Islam with the current vogue. Instead, they have rallied around a literalist reading of Islam's sources as an anchor against successive waves of Western thought. The demagogues of contemporary Islam have worked this into a simple message of salvation through Islamic law, with which Mernissi's intellectualized juggling of the sources cannot possibly compete. Fundamentalism's leading spokesman, the Sudan's Hasan al-Turabi, has put it bluntly: movements like those in Iran and Algeria “are without elitism or obsession with equality. They represent quantity and the people.” The aim is power, by packing the ballot boxes or the streets, and the fundamentalists have been unbeatable at both.

If democracy is to have any chance in the Arab world, its outnumbered friends, Mernissi among them, will have to forge alliances of convenience. They have two choices. They can negotiate with existing regimes, in the hope that the nudging of the West might ultimately produce a gradual transformation, or they can march with the fundamentalists and pray against all odds that they survive militant Islam's excesses to emerge as equal partners. The starkness of this choice has been brought home by the events in Algeria, where a civil war may be brewing. The Arab world now stands poised on the brink of a great contest between an increasingly pan-Islamic fundamentalism and a region-wide alliance of threatened regimes. Wherever the gale strikes, the brave friends of democracy will have to scatter for shelter under one roof or the other.

And yet Mernissi, in a disturbing show of naiveté that may afflict the liberals as a whole, rejects all potential allies. The fundamentalists, who openly preach against democracy and would consign women to servitude, are hardly trustworthy partners. To her mind, however, neither are the regimes, especially those that have been supported or bailed out by the West. All of them have wasted the wealth of the Arabs on arms. One of them, Saudi Arabia, is already fundamentalist, and is singled out by Mernissi as the Arab regime “most contemptuous of human rights”—an odd determination that can only inspire admiration for Saddam's cover-up. Other regimes, in a grab for legitimacy, are deemed likely to play the fundamentalist card themselves, creating a “tele-petro-Islam” bounced off satellites to the entire Arab world, demanding obedience and preaching obscurantism. Mernissi still believes in the masses, but they have been duped, kept in ignorance by relentless media manipulation.

And so in the end she envisions only one salvation: the West. In an act of supreme altruism, Mernissi concludes, the West should “use its power to install democracy in the Arab world.” It must support the demands of “progressive forces” against both regimes and fundamentalists, and even “promote the creation of a civil society.” For the Arab world, like it or not, has become a virtual ward of the West:

The American president has taken on ethical responsibility for the region, and along with him François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl and the citizens who elected them in the representative democracies of the West. Whoever consumes Arab oil is responsible.

If the West does nothing but back the status quo, argues Mernissi, it will “in great part be responsible for the avalanche of violence which will descend on all those who call for democracy, with women at the head of the list.”

This amounts to an appeal for the West to take direct responsibility for rearranging the inner politics of the region—to build an empire of democracy. The petition deserves a hearing, for its liberal authors stand alone in the Arab world in their belief in democracy and in the West's mission to defend freedom. True, there are some in the West, mesmerized by the sheer numbers of fundamentalists, who have begun to dream wistfully of a mass conversion of Muslim zealots into admirers of democracy and the West. But this is an illusion. The fundamentalists, even as they flood the polling places, hold democracy in utter contempt and imagine the West to be on the verge of collapse, rotted away by unbelief and materialism. Liberals like Mernissi are democracy's only true friends in Arab lands, and they are right to ask whether “the West will be a pioneer in establishing those universal values that it preaches and that we have come to love.”

But the West has other responsibilities, too. It must assure the flow of oil out of the region. It must block the flow of weapons of mass destruction into the region. It must discourage aggression by ambitious states like Iraq and Iran. It must work to reconcile Arabs and Israelis, lest they launch an unimaginably destructive war upon one another. And the West must do all this at a time when the peoples of the former Communist countries are also in dire need of assistance if their own ventures in democracy are not to run aground.

For all these reasons, the West has balanced its commitment to democracy with support of those Arab regimes that endorse its other objectives. They include Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait and, yes, Saudi Arabia. The governments of these countries have been encouraged to make gradual progress toward political pluralism, within the limits imposed by the struggle against fundamentalist violence. The progress has been slow and there have been disappointments. There will be more progress, more setbacks. But the alternative to this gradualism is a maelstrom of intervention and revolution, in a region armed to its teeth and seething with hatreds of every kind.

If Arab liberals reject gradualism and refuse to enter into partnerships with reforming regimes, the cause of democracy will be lost. No doubt they would prefer that liberal democracy be established immediately, even through Western intervention, so that they might inculcate its values through the apparatus of the state. According to Mernissi, “The power of the modern West has been built by state propagation, through public schools, of that humanism that the Arab masses have never had the right to.” In this view, an Arab state governed by a liberal elite, controlling the media and education, could transform society from above.

But the liberals' possession of the state, if conferred by the West, would constitute a short-lived triumph. The Mu'taliza, Mernissi's heroes, also enjoyed a moment of power, when they gained the ear of a sympathetic caliph in the ninth century. They promptly instituted an inquisition, to make their rationalism prevail. But caliphs came and went, and soon the tables turned. If democracy is to stand on its own shaky feet, it has to evolve through a process of compromises—an urgent and abbreviated process, for time is short, but still a process that is itself proto-democratic, involving the establishment of balances between competing interests. Only such a process can generate the rudimentary values of pluralism, which owe nothing to state propagation and everything to the friction of politics.

Mernissi and the Arab liberals, in short, cannot escape the need for politics. Still, who cannot admire the pure flame of her own extraordinary humanism, and her refusal to compromise principle? This is a rare book, written from within the Arab world but without fear. It is dangerous to walk this path without minding one's back, but it is also liberating.

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

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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 it has polarized Muslim societies between antiwestern fundamentalists and the pro-western ruling elite. In such a climate the sapling of democracy is not likely to grow roots. Echoes of Mernissi's argument can easily be heard in the ongoing crisis in Algeria. The war is a metaphor in that it symbolizes the inner conflicts of Muslim society—the struggle against oppression and for freedom and justice, which characterizes relations between the rulers and their subjects as well as those between the sexes.

If there is to be freedom and justice in the Muslim world, society must come to terms with both dimensions of the Gulf war. It must contend with its fear of the West and rise above the debilitating conflicts that have torn it asunder. To do so, Muslims must reinterpret their values and world views. Since these are largely expressed through the medium of religion, reinterpretation is largely a task of religious exegesis. Mernissi approaches this endeavor with great bravado in hope of exorcising Muslims of their fear of the West, freedom, social justice, and democracy. She deconstructs Muslim myths, reexamines the highlights of Islamic history, theology, and legal thought—a reformation of sorts—all with the aim of finding both the roots of prevalent Muslim attitudes and the means to encourage Muslims to embrace democracy. The result is a rich, original, and kaleidoscopic account of Islamic history and beliefs through which the author examines the nature of social conflicts and proposes ways of resolving them.

In the process, Mernissi provides an insightful account of the roots of Islamic fundamentalism. More important, she frees Islam, the world civilization, from the clutches of narrow and restrictive fundamentalist thought; thus she lays the foundations of an all-encompassing solution to the Muslim debacle. Rather than succumb to the unbridled secularism of most critiques of fundamentalism, Mernissi contends with the place of Islam in Muslim society. She attempts to provide a balanced reading of Islam, one which avoids the theological and historical pitfalls that have produced fundamentalism and instead lends itself to creating a democratic order that is anchored in the indigenous culture. Mernissi's approach is no doubt contentious because more often than not it stretches the boundaries of Muslim religious sensibilities. Yet, it is also empathetic. Its contribution lies in initiating debate and dialogue, pointing the way to new exegetic possibilities, and creating hope for a way out of the current impasse.

Islam and Democracy is provocative, insightful, and informative. It is recommended to all those interested in democratization, the politics of Muslim societies, women's issues, and the Middle East policy of the United States.

Marlene Kanawati (review date August 1993)

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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 Elite] that is both relevant and timely; it seeks to clarify the ambiguities that appear to shroud women's right in Islam. Through her analysis she tries to understand what lies behind the effort to veil women and send them back to the private realm. Her theory is that Islam is going through an “identity crisis” and that the veil is a symbol of protection; the female body is a “symbolic representation of the community” and therefore “protecting women from change by veiling them and shutting them out of the world has echoes of closing the community to protect it from the West” (p. 99). The obvious response is, why should women be deprived of their hard-earned freedom to satisfy this notion? Is it really the only solution to this “identity crisis”? In the preface she says that “Muslim women can walk in the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition” (p. viii).

But what is this “Muslim tradition”? This is the question she sets out to answer, drawing on Islamic religious sources, and in the process she claims to discover that “it is neither because of the Koran, nor the Prophet, nor the Islamic tradition, but simply because those rights conflict with the interests of a male elite” (p. ix) that these customs are being revived. This male elite has manipulated the “sacred texts” to fabricate “false traditions.” particularly whenever there has been a need to “legitimate” certain actions or attitudes. “Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies” (pp. 8-9). Mernissi shows how this tradition was distorted to support an image of inequality that had no basis in Islamic law since the Prophet's time, “women had their place as unquestioned partners” in the Islamic “revolution” (p. 11).

The evidence Mernissi uses to convince her readers was analyzed with the help of two Moroccan religious scholars, one a 'alim to guide her readings and explain to her the complexities of Islamic texts, the other a university colleague in Islamic philosophy. She combed through the Qur'an, the hadith, the tafsir, treatises on the causes of the revelations, biographies of the Prophet and his companions, Islamic history, and recent books by Islamic scholars and Western and Arab scholars of Islam. She then placed the religious data she collected in the sociohistorical context of the Prophet's time and analyzed the main concepts and terms as they were then used. She then reinterpreted both the Qur'anic verses and the relevant religious texts, showing how they have been misinterpreted and indicating how meaning is limited in time.

Mernissi builds up a case in favor of women's rights and against the veil, though she acknowledges that some Qur'anic verses argue the other way. These verses she explains away as appearing to protect the Prophet and his wives from the violence of a city in a state of civil war, and then asks if verses proper to times of strife should continue to rule the lives of Muslims today. She points to the dissatisfactions of a Prophet who realizes with regret that the ideal society he envisioned based on equality between the sexes is an impossible ideal, because the society of his time was not yet ripe for the kind of Islam that he had hoped to achieve. To Mernissi, this ideal vision was a sort of plan for the future which it is now time for Islam to realize. To make the point, she claims that the Prophet continued to practice his idealistic notions within his own household, in spite of the verses he wrote against them to appease Islam's early supporters. These included the Prophet's companions, whom the author calls the Muslim “male elite.” It was their attitude, she claims, and not the Prophet's, that Muslim men adopted forever after. Mernissi describes Arab women following their warrior husbands to war and encouraging them in battle, participating in political debates, taking initiatives, leading battles, arguing for their rights, asking the Prophet why God did not mention them in the revealed verses until new verses came down to answer their questions. God heeds women, the Prophet loves and respects them, and even jahiliyya society allows them a remarkable amount of freedom. Mernissi wants to show contemporary Muslim women what they have lost and how restricted the Muslim women of today have become, and what interesting companions and advisers men have lost by reducing their lives in this way.

There are some weaknesses in her arguments. Women did make gains through Islam, including property and inheritance rights and the right to accept or reject a marriage offer; but there is also evidence that Islam imposed restrictions on women's public behavior, including the veil, that had not existed earlier. Early Qur'anic verses give women equality, but later verses undeniably impose male domination. The author argues that the latter are God's way of calming the anger of the male elite, but since Muslims have to follow the Qur'an as God's revelation to his Prophet, verses like these have also to be respected, so the dilemma remains. Though she attacks many hadiths as being misreported, which is acceptable in Islam, Qur'anic verses are God's own words and cannot be doubted. She also opens herself up to criticism by implying that the Prophet ignored God's dicta when she claims that he did not apply them in his own life.

Mernissi conceptualizes the hijab, or veil, as having visual, spatial and ethical aspects. To Mernissi, the imposition of the private—public dichotomy symbolized by the hijab represents male resistance to those demands, an official retreat from the principle of equality (p. 174). Using a sacred-profane dichotomy, the hijab becomes a point of separation between Islam and the West. Using this kind of symbolism. Mernissi creates a unity in her conceptualization of the present and the past, which involves both rejection and an acceptance of the hijab and leads to yet another inconsistency that is rooted in a problem not specific to Mernissi. That problem is the dilemma of the Arab Muslim in the modern world where a world market and communications are imposing a Western model that is not always compatible with Islamic culture. Reflecting the dilemma, Mernissi both attacks the West and admires it, defends Islam and attacks it. She wants to take what is best in the West and inject it into Islam, yet realizes the inconsistency in this and tries to solve it by finding these same Western virtues—democracy, human rights, and freedom of opinion—in an Islamic past. She reproves Muslim men for ignoring them and practicing a hardly hidden dictatorship after the Prophet's death.

This perspective is liberal and even radical in its view. It is reminiscent of Sheikh Mohammad Abdou's views, which accept Islam as a creed but reject much of what Islam says about certain institutions, seeing them as appropriate only to the time to which they belonged. The feminism is also modern, but it is a very Middle Eastern kind of feminism.

Mernissi has not only contributed a “feminist interpretation of women's rights in Islam” but has grouped together critical issues in the Middle East and Islamic world that have long remained in the background to generate the particular conflicts, perplexities, and problems peculiar to modern Islam and which have made actions and policies difficult. One of her contributions is to clarify why creed remains so intermeshed with politics, sexuality, and the values that bridge the public—private, and sacred—profane dichotomies. Reading Mernissi is quite an education, especially for the uninitiated. She relates the past with the present, the subjective with the objective, concepts with everyday living, and the dream with the reality in a lively, refreshing, novel way. The book would be useful in courses on women, contemporary issues in Islam or the Middle East, and on relations between religion, politics, and sexuality in that part of the world.

Carla Power (review date 6 August 1993)

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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 “unnatural” occurrences. There were women rulers in Yemen as early as the 11th century, while slaves taken as concubines and wives had exercised considerable, if unofficial, political power since the 8th century.

Harem life was essentially a meritocracy, where slaves used beauty and intelligence to gain influence. Though most wielded power indirectly, as mothers or wives of caliphs, there were exceptions. When al-Hakam, an Ummayad caliph of Spain, grew more interested in scholarship than government his wife, a Christian slave, assumed the management of the Empire.

Mernissi provides evidence of 17 queens who, in minting their own coins and having the Friday prayers read in their names, fulfilled the traditional conditions for Muslim sovereignty. With the exception of two Yemeni queens, women rulers were drawn from non-Arab Muslim cultures: the Turks, the Mongols and the islanders of the Maldives and Indonesia.

Most achieved power by marrying it, though a few, like Mamluk Sultana Radiyya, were designated as successors. Radiyya ruled in Delhi in the mid-13th century, her father Iltutmish having chosen her as sovereign over his less talented sons. After killing off a rival brother, she ruled, unveiled and unchallenged, for four years. Contemporary sources recall this “Pillar of Women, Queen of the Times” as a keen warrior and administrator who “walked in the suqs dressed like a man, and sat among us to listen to our complaints”.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam is not merely a well-researched investigation of the past, but a manifesto for the Islamic world in the 1990s. Mernissi shares with Muslim fundamentalists the quest for an “active past”, viewing early Islamic history as crucial to give meaning to the present.

The queens of Islam, she asserts, have been largely ignored or man-handled by a misogynist tradition of scholarship. Mernissi sees Islam and history as the “most dogmatic and efficacious weapons” on the political stage. The Muslim woman, she writes, “must go directly to those books of Muslim history which reactionary forces use against us to block our rights”.

In an effort to get Islamic history reread, Mernissi aims to make it accessible. Her descriptions of a chaotic Cairo under the mad Caliph Al-Hakim read like first-rate reportage. As affairs of the heart had great bearing on affairs of state, she includes details of royal relationships. At times, her own tone is downright coquettish: “Did [Muslim queens] fall in love like you and me, foolishly, pathetically, or did they have hearts of stone, unfeeling and cold?”

Yet the flashes of irony, period details and gossipy insights do not extend to the core of Mernissi's book, which is a tersely eloquent discussion of the nature of power in Islam. Mernissi is too complex a thinker to try to cram Islam into the western democratic mould. There is, she holds, an “aristocratic essence” at the heart of political Islam.

The book closes with a discussion of the incompatibility of democracy, based on a multiplicity of voices and truths, and the “caliphal” system, where a caliph rules according to Heaven's law over a submissive populace. Though the caliphate is effectively defunct, the Muslim of the modern nation-state remains torn between the roles of believer and citizen, condemned to “waltz between two irreconcilable scenes”. Muslim writers such as Fatima Mernissi suggest that there is some hope for reconciliation.

Venetia Porter (review date 21 January 1994)

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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 distracted him from serious matters.

The core of the argument is that history has been rewritten: such is the continued horror of the notion of women rulers in the Islamic world that reputable historians, both Western and Arab, have undermined the importance of these women, cast slurs on their characters, or ignored them altogether. Mernissi's is a very readable broad sweep of history. There are problems, however, with her approach. Arguments inevitably become simplified, errors of fact have crept in, and spellings have sometimes suffered in the translation. While her theme is on the whole convincing, the conspiracy theory can be taken too far. The Queen of Sheba is given a prominent place because of her mention in the Koran, and Mernissi finds “scholars … in the process of piling up proof that she never existed”. The fact is that scholars of South Arabia, who have no axe to grind, have found no reference to her in the South Arabian texts. Again in the context of Yemen, she sees the lack of knowledge about the early medieval Sulayhid queens as part of the “abysmal gaps in memory” which she ascribes to male prejudice. But the history and culture of the Yemen in general are little known; how many have heard of the Yu'firids, the Rasulids, or the Tahirids—all dynasties ruled by men?

Mernissi's message is directed not only at historians but at contemporary Arab women. In an amusing account of the excesses of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim, who had dogs killed, prohibited the Egyptians' favourite food, mulukhiyyah, and stopped women going out for years by banning the manufacture of women's shoes, Mernissi breaks off to talk of the courageous women who defied the ban. This is a cry to their modern counterparts, in a country where the Islamists are now eroding the rights that women have fought to achieve.

There is, however, an unconscious paradox in the rehabilitation of these “forgotten queens”. This is brought out unwittingly in another newly translated work, Islam and Democracy. Mernissi continues to emphasize the good qualities of her queens (Arab historians tend to eulogize their dead rulers). However, it is evident that they acted as ruthless politicians when necessary. Yet she lambasts the despotism of rulers throughout Islamic history, and blames them for the present state of the Muslim world, “rolled towards a precipice of mediocrity where it now vegetates”. This is an angry book. It begins with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the expectations it aroused in the Arab world about the possibilities of democracy in the Middle East. The remainder of the book is a sustained lament for the fact that this potential has not been realized. She ascribes the failure to a variety of causes, veering between the personal and the general. She has recourse to the device of interlocutors, one of whom is her aunt Aziza, who complains “why does no-one explain this dimuqratiyyah? Is it a country, a she-devil (ifrita) or an animal or an island?” In her attempt to seek out “democrats” in Islamic history, Mernissi focuses on the dissenters, the heretics and the unorthodox. Equally, she hunts through Islamic traditions to find justification for democratic practice. In neither quest is she wholly successful. However, the passion behind her writing will sweep up and carry along any sympathetic reader.

Mary Ann Tétreault (essay date spring 1994)

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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 observation that also has been made by philosophers such as Charles Fourier, from the northern shore of the Mediterranean, as well as others, like Mernissi herself, whose roots are on the southern shore of that sea. Unlike Fourier, Mernissi goes beyond the assertion that women's rights reflect a willingness to concede the humanity of a disadvantaged group. She also understands that a democratic society is one that is composed of individuals, rather than families with their traditionally sanctioned hierarchies and relegation of women to passive, serving roles.

The second equation defines the second gulf war as a counterattack—at least temporarily successful—against the upsurge of popular pressure to introduce democracy that swept the Middle East in response to the fall of totalitarian governments in Eastern Europe. Here Mernissi's argument is even more complex, permeated by the ethos of Arab nationalism as well as a colonial experience that has shaped the consciousness of so many in the region. The first equation is successful in demonstrating her thesis because her stories clearly reflect reality even though her argument is not linear. The second is more problematic, not only because of the complexity of the argument, but also because it diverges from the method as well as the spirit of the rest of Mernissi's feminist analysis.

Lynn Hunt suggests that a nation is defined not simply as a people who share a territory, but rather as a people who share a collective political unconscious. A nation's understanding of the political order is reflected in family romances, shared “images of the familial order that underlie … politics … [and are] structured by narratives of family relations.”2 What Mernissi describes throughout her book is the family romance of Islam. It is figured in narratives that combine images of the walled city and the veiled woman in a romance of security achieved through the construction and maintenance of boundaries between different categories of human beings.

The idea of boundaries, of hudud, was present in [the Abbasid caliph] al-Mansur's paradise [Baghdad] … because his ideal of a well-organized Muslim community was based on the recognition of boundaries to separate and control differences. … To guarantee maximum security … he ordered that the market be transferred outside the circle [enclosing the city] so that the ungrateful, seditious populace would stay far from the palace. … Women who walk in the streets without the hijab, unveiled, are seen as out of bounds. … They are considered defenseless because they have left the boundaries of the harem, the forbidden and protected space, but also because they have ventured into areas that are not theirs.

(p. 7)

The family romance is not remote from the politics of state and society. Hunt tells her readers that in revolutionary France the politics that culminated in the king's beheading were prefigured and accompanied by narratives in which the image of the good father was replaced by images of absent or despotic fathers. Many of these romances incorporated stories about the wicked mother, mitigating the father's neglect. This prefigured the success of the revolutionaries in constructing a new government of men modelled as a relationship among brothers—but not sisters, who carry the stigma of the wicked mother. The latter became the scapegoat saddled with the sin of revolution.

Mernissi reminds the reader that the psychic link between the boundaries confining the veiled woman and those protecting the walled city has operated for “centuries of misogyny” (p. 156). Like the family romance of the French Revolution, the family romance of Islam also casts women as scapegoats. Their autonomous passage from the harem into the larger city is repeatedly identified as responsible for civil disorder—“it is a tradition, even a state tradition” (p. 154). This explains why the normal response by Muslim rulers to civil unrest is to shut women away. The utility of this strategy is more than ideological—it is also structural. By forbidding women to leave their homes, this apparently symbolic restoration of boundaries is, in reality, a curfew that gets half the umma off the street. In times of high unemployment it also gets rid of half the potential workforce. Further, it enables Muslim sovereigns to mobilize allies from among religious fundamentalists. Mernissi recounts numerous stories, from the time of the Fatimids to 20th-century Iran and Algeria, to show that the subjection of women is a standard technique for reimposing the status quo ante.

But ante what? In today's world, Mernissi writes, the feminists' link between the liberated woman and the liberated society is stronger than the caliphs' link between the secluded woman and the secure city.

Women are the only ones who publicly assert their right to self-affirmation as individuals, and not just through words but also through actions (e.g., unveiling and going out). Today they constitute one of the most dynamic components of the developing civil society.

(p. 157)

Mernissi argues that civil society, the space where individuals define themselves as autonomous beings, is part of Islam's rationalist tradition, which began with the Mu'tazila philosophy (pp. 32-4). Imams and caliphs were threatened by the Mu'tazila notion of good governance as depending on the consent of reasoning believers even more than they were threatened by the prospect of violent rebellions spearheaded by more militant dissidents. In response, leaders condemned the Mu'tazila philosophers on the grounds that they were propagating a foreign ideology inimical to Islam.

The ritual condemnation of foreign innovations continues today with modern political and religious leaders insisting that democracy is another foreign invention that must be rejected. Yet the condemnation of foreign innovations in the name of Islamic values curiously is limited. As Mernissi points out, it does not extend to technology: telephones, televisions, tape recorders, or other

marvelous, indispensable little objects. … Opposition movements, whatever cause they espouse, use them widely to push their propaganda. There is no political debate about their being foreign, and no political party, especially not the serious fundamentalists, are calling on us to choose between religion and the telephone. But this is the case with the notion of democracy.

(p. 52)

Although the argument against democracy is couched in terms of religious values, Mernissi argues that the issue is not religion but interests. “The faithful battle each other every day to have access to” automobiles and telephones for their own convenience, even though one could argue that these foreign imports strengthen foreign corporations and foreign governments at the expense of the interests of the customers (p. 53). Some of the faithful, particularly the educated middle classes, also see democracy as a convenience that promotes their interests, but others see it as threatening to theirs. “Considering the intensity of the opposition to democracy, which sometimes results in violence, they must believe that their very survival is in danger” (p. 53). Mernissi's analysis of differences of interests relating to democracy is not confined to individuals alone, but extends to political regimes as well. Some regimes reject democracy as an innovation contrary to identity and religious traditions, while others embrace it. “However, all of them use the automobile and the telephone. …” (p. 53).

A reaction against democracy, Mernissi argues, is not a rejection of innovation. It is a reaction to the fear that boundaries are breaking down and threatening the security of the social order, the same fear behind the movement to keep women veiled and secluded. In the minds of individual men, she says, this is really a fear of death:

… individuals are born of women, they die and become dust. Paternity has meaning only for a man who thinks himself immortal, who sees himself as part of a succession of generations. … Because the child born of the womb of the woman is mortal, however, the law of paternity was instituted to screen off the uterus and woman's will within the sexual domain. … The children born of the uterus of a woman … belong to their father, and he is certain of gaining Paradise if he submits to the divine will.

(p. 128)

In the minds of authoritarian political leaders and the mosque of Islamist reaction, there is a real fear of being deposed, of losing one's power to upstart elements of the same ungrateful, seditious populace that al-Mansur consigned to the space outside his city walls. It is also a fear of the memory of the fate that Islam's dissenters met at the hands of tyrants.

The gharb (West), by constantly talking about democracy, brings before our eyes the phantom ship of those who were decapitated for refusing to obey. It also brings to the surface the struggle between the pen and the sword: that is, the struggle between, on the one hand, the intellectuals, the qadis (judges) thirsting for justice, the Sufis thirsting for freedom, and the poets who tried to express their individuality; and, on the other hand, the caliphs and their shari'a, their very authoritarian reading of divine law.

(p. 19)

The second gulf war introduced massive discontinuities in Islam's family romance. The war transgressed boundaries in threatening ways but, rather than opposing the trespassers, Muslim leaders supported them against the wishes of their own populations, adding to the confusion. One discontinuity was created when father/uncle leaders replaced brother Saddam with a stranger, the West, specifically the United States as represented by George Bush. This kind of discontinuity could be subsumed under traditional tales of tyrants and rebels, taghiya and kharijites, and mobilized against the transgressing heads of state:

… the Arab press and slogans depicted them … as pharaohs forgetful of the rahma that Muhammad's Mecca promised the world … The financial details of the princely budgets were revealed and the flood of petrodollars invested in arms was duly exposed. … The medina was caught up by the full force of the sacred and by economic confusion that could only end in the condemnation of tyrants.

(p. 112)

A second boundary transgression also could be turned against the bad patriarchs, but this time to the benefit of Islamist rather than secular opponents of transgressing Arab regimes. The erasure of the boundary between Islam and the jahiliyya—the time of ignorance before Islam—was accomplished by introducing lethal weapons into the land of Mecca and Madina: missiles, “sometimes fired by young women with angelic faces beneath their combat helmets” (p. 115). Mernissi argues that the female troops crystallized Arab reactions to the war being led by the stranger against the brother, by evoking fears of an undisciplined past whose theology was dominated by violent mother goddesses.

Whether the jahiliyya is behind us or before us is a question that recurs in the press. What have Arabs done to Allah which is so horrible that we are harrowed within and shamed, scorned, and bombarded without? The word jahiliyya, spread all over the media during the Gulf War, signified and condensed the problem that Islam came into the world to solve: the problem of violence.

(pp. 120-1)

The most horrifying transgression of boundaries, however, was the shattering of the logic of the boundary itself—the assumption that any walls or any veils could ensure the security of the city and the people.

The war proved that all Arab cities, including present-day Baghdad, can offer us many different fantasies but not boundaries. Our cities have been stripped of boundaries. … Where is one to find a sense of security on a planet where even the “defense of freedom,” as Mr. Bush calls it, can mobilize high-tech violence as lethal as it is mobile? Is it by chance that a house without security is called 'awra, “naked,” like a woman without a hijab … ?

(p. 7)

This realization, that modern weapons have left no safe place anywhere in the world, was every bit as shocking when it came to Americans following the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union. Then the realization touched off a nuclear arms race of terrible proportions and a rash of client and proxy wars that recreated the violent and equally displaced conflicts that undergirded the so-called hundred-years peace in 19th-century Europe. Now that hudud have disappeared for the Arab nations as well, will jahiliyya return?

Mernissi hopes that the threat of a new jahiliyya will stimulate a search for a new Arab order, one that embraces rather than rejects the erasure of boundaries, including the boundaries dividing one Arab state from another, as the creation of a larger human space. Such an order would harness the political economy to the benefit of every Arab citizen—indeed, to the benefit of every world citizen—rather than to that of despotic leaders of territorial states. Global communications could create a world society of individuals living without national boundaries, just as women going out into the medina obliterate the boundaries dividing the leaders from the people, and the people from one another. The achievement of this new order is crucially dependent on the redistribution of oil wealth from the Arab “haves” to the “have nots.” Yet this too is a solution embedded in interests, just as are the positions of the imams and caliphs who reject democracy.

The cast of characters in Mernissi's family romances are as significant as the stories themselves. They are filled with children and grandmothers, kings and commoners, and oppressors and oppressed. One narrative in particular reveals that placement of the author's boundaries between the good and the wicked is influenced by preferences not simply for a particular social order, but also for a particular hierarchy of identities. This is the parable of the ambiguity of fear, illustrated by the differences in the fears of the amir, his chauffeur, and the female members of his family.

Associating democracy with fear certainly multiplies the ambiguities and increases the uncertainties. This is especially true if we remember that in a certain country—let us say Kuwait—the fear experienced by the emir is not the same as that felt by his wife and daughters. The emir's chauffeur—who is, let us say, a Palestinian—has different fears from his master's and also from those of the palace servants. … Each one, depending on his circumstances at the moment, feels and names the fears that beset him.

(p. 51)

This is a parable about the ambiguities in values and the emotions associated with them, as they are experienced by persons whose interests and capabilities differ. It also concerns who the oppressor and oppressed are—which are the good family members and which are the wicked, which ones manipulate the fears of the others to their own benefit. The wicked father amir is also a source of fear to the wife and daughters and equally, although differently, to the dependent Palestinian chauffeur. This division is apparent even though the distance between the amir—of Kuwait—and the others is not so sharply drawn as it could have been—not just “wife” but “wives,” and in such profusion, although always within Quaranic bounds, as to be embarrassing for his apologists as well as a source of fear to his wives and daughters.

Other characters in this family romance also have been omitted, along with the embarrassing extra wives. Given the inclusion of people al-Mansur would have consigned to the space beyond the city walls—the palace servants, “who are likely to be Pakistani, North African, or Filipino”—one can only wonder at the exclusion of the Kuwaitis, the sons in this family. Mernissi only gives one son figure, the Palestinian chauffeur; could this be a fable where a cousin takes the place of the sons of the family, who are not only disinherited but also “disappeared?” Missing as well are the wife and daughters of the Palestinian chauffeur. These women are presumably oppressed by poverty, but their omission from the story disguises the reality that they are also oppressed by the same family dynamic that evokes fear in the hearts of the wife and daughters of the amir.

There is another parable, one that is not recounted explicitly, but that nevertheless resonates throughout the pages of Mernissi's book. This is the parable of the prodigal son. As a child, it was always irritating to this reviewer that this bad boy could come home to a celebration complete with a fatted calf, while the good son—who had obeyed, stayed, and worked for his father—was relegated to a servant's role. One feels this same irritation with Mernissi's subliminal parable. Her prodigal son is, of course, Saddam Hussein. His sins are not ignored, but they are discounted; the implication is that, in some sense, these sins were washed away by the damage inflicted by the stranger Bush. Saddam's kinship and narrative relationship to the amir of Kuwait, however—the son who took care of his family rather than dissipating all his resources in foreign adventures—is nowhere in evidence. Yet this is the relationship whose secrets underlie the solution to the threatened jahiliyya. As such, it requires at least as much careful analysis as the other relationships recounted in the family romances with which this book abounds.

It is not only the unwillingness of tyrants and imperialists to grant the individuality of oppressed citizens and subordinate nations that impedes democratization in the Middle East. Democratization is equally impeded by the unwillingness of individuals to grant the same humanity to all their brothers and cousins as they grant to those for whom kinship coincides with affinity or alliance. The romance of the dominant father and domineering elder brother has not yet been replaced in the culture of the region by a narrative that Mernissi herself identifies as equally representative of Islamic ideals—equality among all brothers of the family. Like the French fraternité, Islamic ideals of equality among brothers have been expressed as excluding women from autonomous roles. Yet, in the absence of equality among brothers, equality between them and their sisters and cousins is also unlikely. Violence as a response to injustice thus remains, like the childhood monster Lalla Haguza, hovering as a constant threat to the peace and order of the medina and the world.


  1. Most particularly Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), and The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, tr. by Mary Jo Lakeland, (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1991).

  2. Lynn Hunt, The Family Romance of the French Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), p. xiii.

Miriam Cooke (review date May 1994)

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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 system. Muslim scholars like her must tap the individualist tradition of rationalism represented by such groups as the Mu'tazila. If not, the vicious cycle of intellectual opposition, repression, and violent rebellion (e.g., the Kharijites) that began under the Abbasids and is now fed by weapons from the West will persist. The Gulf War also revealed political divisions in the Arab world between countries, between classes, and between regimes and their subdued masses. It showed how unhealthy it is for Muslims to be dependent on the West.

Quoting vivid passages from Islamic historiographers, Mernissi admonishes Muslims to find a balance between Islam as a ruling system and modern political philosophy, between blind obedience to a misinterpreted scripture and freedom of thought within a secular democracy. She asserts that what prevents Muslims from enjoying the benefits of modernity, particularly democracy, which she insists is not a Western, but a universal “insistence on the sovereignty of the individual rather than of an arbitrary leader” (p. 16), is incapacitating fear.

Chapter by chapter, Islam and Democracy catalogues the fears that prevent Muslims from fulfilling themselves: the West, the imam, democracy, freedom of thought, individualism, the past, and the present. Mernissi insists on the importance of understanding the West, especially in this postcolonial era when opposition to its values is no longer a nationalist mandate. The West is both bugaboo and model: colonizing enemy, it yet demonstrated the effectiveness of rationalism: creator of a global arms market that has destroyed the infrastructure of the Islamic world, it yet fostered tolerance within a secular humanism.

Mernissi points to the connection between modernism and fundamentalism. In a world of opportunity for others, the “mixture of frustration and religion is explosive” (p. 55); it even produced a fatwa against a writer of fiction. Islam alone seems to offer a “sense of identity and the power to struggle” (p. 59); it is a “force for the destabilization of privilege” (p. 113). She insists on the importance of contextualizing Islamicism within the “new world order” that is dependent on plentiful supplies of oil so that it is recognized for what it is: “tele-petro-Islam.”

There is a fascinating discussion of technical terms such as hija, hudūd, 'aql and ra'y. An interesting aspect of this semantic analysis is the connection that Mernissi forges between women and power and violence: “In the new post—Gulf War city, which will be anything but the madinat al-salām, what will happen to the women who cause fear because they have already gone beyond the boundaries and refused to accept them?” (p. 10), a somber warning to feminists who would defy their system while remaining in it. Yet she does offer another option that she herself follows: study the feared jāhiliyya and understand that it is in that violent era that today's ignorance finds its roots. Time has exacerbated this pre-Islamic evil and has allowed for the appearance of American women combatants in what had once been the land of the terrifying “goddesses of death, pregnant with fifteen centuries of oblivion” (p. 115). She advocates a renewal in the current jāhiliyya—a term she uses much as Islamicists are now using it—that sounds almost like da'wa. Just as in the 7th century of the common era, Muhammad and his followers came to liberate Arabian society from its misogyny, so enlightened Muslims may today become beacons in the feminist revolution.

Mernissi argues logically and cogently for the interdependence of the social and the feminist revolutions. Her thesis is reminiscent of the calls of other Muslim feminist activists who have insisted that the nationalist revolution cannot succeed without the success of the feminist revolution. Without equality throughout society, liberation movements will remain stymied. The future is in the hands of women who have recognized the essential good in the bad of historical Islam. It is up to them, grounded in a well-understood Islam, to challenge the authority of the despots, whether they be the leaders of the Islamic nations or of the Western powers, to demand citizenship for all equally and to call for demilitarization. Men will never do it alone.

However, I am less convinced by her argument about the nexus between women and time, the anxiety about women's power being connected with fears of mortality, and the need to overcome such obscurantism so as to be able to resist the worst, probably because the most hidden colonization, that of Western time. She seems to be advocating a complete rupture with the modern world, especially America. Also, there are some slippages that occur because of the reformist polemics of the project. It is not always clear whom Mernissi is addressing. Sometimes it seems that she is targeting Arabs, then all Muslims, and sometimes even a Western audience. She alternately blames each and then warns of the coming revolution led by women. Her admonitions as from an insider merge into pleas for unity as from an insider. With whom does she identify? Or, does she feel herself to be sufficiently distanced that she can choose the perspective she wants depending on the rhetorical goal? Islam is at once good and bad. Although the implication is that the good is at the heart of essential Islam and the bad is on the surface of a historical system, she may invoke a recent glorious past so as to rail against a destructive West: “The cold war derailed the cultural development of Muslim societies and, in Iran, allowed the imams to emerge as deformed mirrors of stifled aspirations” (p. 113).

Islam and Democracy provides a rich mix. It is at once scholarly in tone and emotive, political and personal, theoretical and activist, serious and sometimes surprisingly informal. It will be of interest to all students of Islam as a religion and a culture.

Jonathan Yardley (review 29 May 1994)

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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 that the women refrain from stepping out into the public sphere. In these domestic harems, the men need not have many wives. Indeed, what defines the harem is the desire of the men of the family not to break up into nuclear units and their wish to keep the women secluded. If we accept this definition, we could say that while imperial harems died out with the end of the Muslim empires in 1909, domestic harems existed until very late in the 20th century, and even today can be found in places like the Gulf countries where the emirs still feel the need to keep their women veiled and secluded.

A harem such as that inhabited by Mernissi's family was thus from the male point of view an instrument of domestic felicity and from the female point of view a form of what her maternal grandmother called qa'ida, or “invisible rule,” a “custom, or a behavioral code.” To which her grandmother added: “Unfortunately, most of the time, the qa'ida is against women.” In this rigidly patriarchal society, the domestic harem was thus an agency of constraint and control.

To call the harem a prison is no exaggeration, a judgment with which its occupants heartily agreed long before the winds of liberation began to blow in from the West. Mernissi's grandmother often spoke of being “stuck in a harem,” and many women struggled against male rule: “When Allah created the earth, said Father, he separated men from women, and put a sea between Muslims and Christians for a reason. Harmony exists when each group respects the prescribed limits of the other; trespassing leads only to sorrow and unhappiness. But women dreamed of trespassing all the time. The world beyond the gate was their obsession. They fantasized all day long about parading in unfamiliar streets, while the Christians kept crossing the sea, bringing death and chaos.”

Dreams of Trespass is thus the story not merely of daily life in a domestic harem but of how Mernissi learned to cope with—and eventually to overcome—the shackles it placed on her. It is in virtually every respect a remarkable book. Its quietly forceful prose betrays no traces of the sociology that Mernissi now professes at University Mohammed V in Rabat; its good humor is unwavering; it tempers judgmentalism with understanding; and it provides a vivid portrait of a world that most Westerners can scarcely comprehend.

The women of the harem were birds in a gilded cage, and no one knew it better than they. Their men regarded their situation as protective and benign, but the women despised it. Though she was her husband's only wife, Mernissi's mother “hated communal harem life and dreamt of an eternal tete-a-tete with Father,” and told her daughter, “Whoever heard of ten birds living together squashed into a single nest? It is not natural to live in a large group, unless your objective is to make people feel miserable.” Later, as Mernissi's own world began to expand somewhat, “Mother cried out that her life was absurd—the world was changing, the walls and gates were not going to be here much longer, and yet, she was still a prisoner.”

What is extraordinary about the women of the harem is that they somehow found constructive channels for their anger. Rather than imbuing their children with bitterness, they “managed to convince me that all women had invisible wings, and that mine would develop too, when I was older.” That was the lesson taught her by Aunt Habiba, an amazing woman who overcame deep personal unhappiness to provide a stellar example for her niece: “I loved her so much. She was so silent, so apparently quiescent to the demands of a tough outside world, and yet, she still managed to hang onto her wings. She reassured me about the future; a woman could be totally powerless, and still give meaning to her life by dreaming about flight.”

Find an inner life: That was the counsel of these women—mother, grandmother, aunt—whose own experience suggested no realistic alternative. Mernissi listened to the tales of Scheherazade, not the “lovely but simple-minded entertainer” of Western mythology but “a courageous heroine and … one of our rare female mythical figures,” a “strategist and a powerful thinker, who uses her psychological knowledge of human beings to get them to walk faster and leap higher.” From these tales and others told her by the women of her family, Mernissi determined that “my chances of happiness would depend upon how skillful I became with words” and set off upon the journey that would take her out of the harem and into the university in a new, if still far from perfect, Morocco.

“Angry women are hostages of their anger,” one woman told Mernissi. “They cannot escape it and set themselves free, which is indeed a sad fate. The worst of prisons is the self-created one.” Mernissi learned the lesson of those words and became, in the deepest sense of the term, a free woman. Her account of how this came to pass is singular testimony to the human capacity to transcend circumstances.

Daniel Brumberg (review date September 1994)

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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.

Although this analysis seems to echo the idealist apologetics that have often marked Islamic reformism, it is based on a structural approach that roots the emergence of an authoritarian ethos in the growth of patriarchal states (although she doesn't use this term). The men who rule these states, she claims, have quashed the idea of a more individualistic Islam. Thus, today, the Gulf sheikdoms use “oil money” and the “cloak of the sacred to cultivate ta'a.

Because this analysis explains how state structures and cultural worldviews reinforce one another, it also shows how an ethos can become rooted in the soil of a civilization. Repeatedly, Mernissi's approach leads to such insightful, yet discouraging, generalizations as her remark that in the Arab world, “people experience modernity without understanding its foundations, its basic concepts.”

While much of her work is informed by this pessimism. Mernissi's remedy for the malaise she analyzes is very optimistic. For example, she writes that because “concepts of political power … have been tightly controlled since the Abbasids,” Arabs must do nothing less than “minutely” remodel the political terminology that informs their language. Yet she then proclaims that the Arab world—led by a vanguard of middle-class professional women—is “about to take off” on a journey “towards uncertainties, toward plural modernities.”

Mernissi attempts to bridge this gap between her explanatory pessimism and her prescriptive optimism by arguing that patrimonialist regimes survive owing to their support in the West, demonstrated, she claims, by the war that the United States waged to liberate Kuwait. This argument leads Mernissi to the conclusion that the West must use “its power to install democracy in the Arab world.” Moreover, she asserts that by forcing the rulers of the Arab Gulf states to democratize, the West will ensure that their wealth is more equally distributed to the poor Arab populations.

This prescription is dubious. Rapid democratization in the absence of a transformation of Arab civil societies might in fact empower the very forces which Mernissi opposes, as almost happened in Algeria. It might also make it easier for Arab businessmen to invest outside the Middle East. Finally, spreading the oil wealth absent a coherent plan of economic reform would not resolve the crises produced by decades of state-managed underdevelopment.

The solutions to the profound crises so well explained in Mernissi's book lie within the Arab world. The West can bolster the chances for democracy in the Arab states by backing civil society groups. But everything in this fascinating book suggests that the edifice of authoritarianism in the Arab world can only be chipped away at slowly lest it come crashing down on the heads of those who struggle against it.

Saideh Pakravan (review date fall 1994)

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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 allowed.

Mernissi grew up not in one but in two harems: a formal one in Fez, her home, and another one on a farm 100 kilometers away, where she visits Yasmina, her maternal grandmother. In both places, lives are defined by frontiers, physical as well as moral and sacred frontiers—the huddud.

To the child wondering about the life that she and her kinswomen lead, “a harem had to do with men and women—that was one fact. It also had to do with a house, walls, and the streets—that was another fact. All of this was quite simple and easy to visualize: put four walls in the midst of the streets, and you have a house. Then put the women in the house and let the men go out. You have a harem.”

Mernissi's grandmother also explains that: the word “harem” was a slight variation of the word haram, the forbidden, the proscribed. It was the opposite of halal, the permissible. Harem was the place where a man sheltered his family, his wife or wives, and children and relatives. … Mecca, the holy city, was also called Haram. Mecca was a space where behavior was strictly codified. The city belonged to Allah and you had to obey his shari'a or sacred law, if you entered his territory. The same thing applied to a harem when it was a house belonging to a man. … A harem was about private space and the rules regulating it. It did not need walls. Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within. You had it in your head.

To this view Mernissi's mother adds her own: “running around the planet is what makes the brain race, and to put our brains to sleep is the idea behind the locks and the walls.”

Harem life, strictly regulated by the invisible huddud, can also be extraordinarily festive. But whether celebrating weddings and births, staging plays about the life of the Lebanese singer Asmaha and the renowned Egyptian grande dame and feminist Huda Sharaoui, or going about their chores, the women remain keenly aware of the narrow confines of their lives, of how it feels to be “a woman intoxicated with dreams in a land that crushes both the dreams and the dreamer …,” of what it feels like to cry “over wasted opportunities, senseless captivities, smashed visions.”

Though Mernissi condemns the system she grew up in and escaped from, she does so in a gentle voice. She generously shares treasured moments from her childhood. Not least of the charms of Dreams of Trespass are the powerfully evocative photographs by Ruth Ward, a play of light in tiled inner courtyards where robed women glide by, their faces invisible, shadows among the living.

If the purpose of keeping women in harems was, as the author's mother puts it, “to prevent them from becoming too smart,” it does not always work, as Mernissi demonstrates in these compassionate and intelligent memoirs.

Ruth Bernard Yeazell (review date 8 December 1994)

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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 anticipated.

It is not just that modernity has entered the harem in the form of tapedecks and VCRs, but that an alien idea of romantic love has disrupted the traditional relations of the sexes. Inspired, presumably, by Kingsley's performance as the saintly Gandhi a few years earlier, the filmmakers have cast him in the unlikely role of the virginal master of a harem, a man who cannot bring himself to consummate any of his ‘marriages’ because the partners have not freely chosen one another. Having fallen in love with Kinski when he spotted her on the floor of the Stock Exchange during a business trip to New York (in the mid-Eighties, apparently, nothing seemed sexier than Wall Street), he appears to have reverted to his customary role just long enough to arrange for her abduction.

Predictably, the heroine's initial resistance gradually gives way to love and they consummate their romance; almost as predictably, the lovers are parted in the end by a lethal gesture that stands for all the other fatalities that divide them. More noteworthy is the way in which an erotic fantasy of the harem is transformed into a nostalgic dream of the extended family. Promiscuous sex, it turns out, is the province of the New York singles scene rather than the mysterious East: the opening sequences give us just enough of the heroine's pre-abduction life to make it clear that what she lacks is not lovers but a settled home and any genuine connection with her mother.

In the harem, by contrast, instead of distrust and jealousy, she finds collective intimacy—a process captured most vividly when her stony face dissolves in laughter, as she joins with the other women in girlish hilarity at a bit of soft pornography, Rudolph Valentino-style, they have been watching on video. Only when this rootless modern woman is fantastically transported to the harem does she locate her family—both in the sense that she finds among its inmates the experience of kinship that has hitherto eluded her and in the sense that it enables her for the first time, apparently, to contemplate her origins.

The forbidden spaces of the harem have long served as a template for Western fantasies, and if Kinski's celluloid adventures suggest that some of us are now more inclined to look Eastward for the family than for sex, that hardly counts as evidence that we have come any closer to understanding the harem itself. As Fatima Mernissi makes clear, ‘the’ harem is pretty much an imaginary construct in any case, there having always been harems and harems. Though her subtle memoir of growing up in Morocco in the Forties dwells more on the constraints than on the satisfactions of the extended family, Mernissi is not without nostalgia for the world of her childhood, nor is she without her own history of confusion about the social arrangements into which she was born. ‘What exactly is a harem?’ she recalls herself worrying as a child. Harems may depend on a critical distinction between inside and out, but it proves far from easy, as Mernissi discovers, to know just when one has crossed the line.

In The Harem Within Mernissi describes how she and her young cousins used to retreat to the ‘forbidden’ terrace (its dangerous height made it officially off-limits to children), in order to debate the meaning of the mysterious institution that governed their lives. Cousin Malika begins with a simple question: ‘Is a harem a house in which a man lives with many wives?’ The answer turns out to be yes, no or it depends, according to which child is speaking:

Malika said the answer was yes, since that was the case with her own family. Her father, Uncle Karim, had two wives—her mother Biba and the co-wife Knata. Samir said the answer was no, because you could have a harem without co-wives, like that of his own father, Uncle 'Ali, or my father …

My answer to Malika's question was more complicated. I said that it depended. If I thought about Grandmother Yasmina, the answer was yes. If I thought about Mother, the answer was no. But complicated answers make others resentful, because they make the confusion worse, and so both Samir and Malika ignored my contribution and kept arguing between themselves, while I drifted off and watched the clouds overhead, which seemed to be coming closer and closer.

After agreeing that the case of Ahmed, the family doorkeeper, proves that marriage alone doesn't define a harem, the children try to decide whether wealth or sexual prowess makes the difference. (‘Maybe a man needs a big thing under his djellaba to create a harem, and Ahmed has only a small one?’ Malika asks, and is sternly silenced by the older, more authoritative Samir.) Subsequent efforts prove equally unsatisfactory. By the time the young Fatima speculates silently that ‘maybe the harem itself was just a game’, she has reached a moment of characteristic scepticism:

Sulta, authority, games. These were key words which kept popping up, and it struck me that maybe the harem itself was just a game. A game between men and women who were afraid of each other, and therefore always trying to prove how strong they were, just like we kids always did. But I could not share that thought that afternoon with Malika and Samir, for it sounded too crazy. It meant that grown ups were no different than children.

As an adult, the author has devoted her career to following the logic of such insights. A prolific writer, Mernissi has achieved a considerable reputation for her studies of gender relations in Islam and for her serious attempts to reconcile the Prophet's doctrine with the imperatives of modern feminism. Though she was trained as a political scientist and a sociologist, there is a sense in which she, too, is continuing a game she invented as a child—a game which consists, in her words, ‘in contemplating familiar grounds as if they were alien to you’. Of course, it is Mernissi's very refusal to take anything for granted that makes her such an instructive guide for the Western reader to adopt a defamiliarising perspective is, after all, to see with the eyes of a stranger.

To judge by her recollections in The Harem Within, Mernissi's sociological imagination was nourished by the circumstances in which she came to maturity. She distinguishes between the extended family of the ‘domestic’ harem and the ‘imperial’ harems of the Ottomans, with their aura of sensuality and luxury so fascinating to the West, but her own youthful perplexity about the institution is clearly a result of the changing conditions in 20th-century Morocco. While Mernissi grew up in an urban harem consisting of two monogamous couples, their children, assorted relatives and servants, her maternal grandmother was still living on a farm, where she shared both housework and husband with eight co-wives. But history, in the grandmother's view, was evidently moving in the right direction.

Though she lamented having to wait eight nights for her husband, she consoled herself by recalling the conjugal patience demanded by the eighth-century Caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, whose wives were said to number 999: ‘That is almost three years! So things are getting better. Soon, we will have one man, one wife.’ As it happened, her own daughter had already become such a wife, having married a man who sympathised with the nationalist campaign against polygamy. Yet Mernissi's mother, too, chafed against the restrictions of the harem, which in her case meant not only the seclusion of the women but the collective rituals of the extended family. (While the nationalists favoured monogamy, they had said nothing about a separate household for the nuclear couple.)

Mernissi's mother hated the demands of communal life—the lack of privacy, the fixed meal-times, even the perpetual negotiations over what to eat. ‘Whoever heard of ten birds living together squashed into a single nest?’ she would argue, while her husband attempted to compromise by supplying a privately stocked cupboardful of food and occasionally joining her for solitary ‘picnics’ on the terrace. In this respect, too, the harem was changing; but the fact that several brothers had already departed with their wives only increased the pressure on those who remained.

Nor did modernity always bring with it a relaxation of constraint. Though Mernissi grew up in a household where the radio transmitted news of the war in both Arabic and French, the young men affected the mannerisms of Rudolph Valentino and even the women sometimes ventured collectively to the movies (taking care to buy up tickets for four rows, while occupying two), the walls of the urban harem often seemed more confining than the polygamous arrangements of Yasmina's farm. In the country the women could wander freely through the fields, their faces unveiled, confounding the children's initial assumption that a harem had something to do with ‘a house, walls and the streets’. Only when her grandmother explained that ‘harem’ derived from the word haram, ‘forbidden’, and that ‘once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within,’ did the author begin to recognise the family resemblance between the households of her mother and her grandmother.

Despite her sensitivity to cultural difference, Mernissi sees in the harem something of a cosmopolitan metaphor—or rather, a metaphor for the impulses that render cosmopolitanism impossible. Having grown up in a French colony at a time when the Christian invaders were themselves fighting other Christians, who in their turn were persecuting the Jews, the future sociologist seems to have developed an acute consciousness of how arbitrary—and dangerous—are the frontiers that divide people from one another. Of her father's lament that ‘the problems with the Christians start … as with women, when the hudud, or sacred frontier, is not respected,’ she remarks that ‘I was born in the midst of chaos, since neither Christians nor women accepted the frontiers.’ Following the logic of her grandmother's observation, Mernissi suggests that you needn't even be a woman to carry a ‘harem’ within you. Despite the evident strength of the French forces who occupied her city, she recalls their terror of crossing the line that divided them from the natives: ‘The Ville Nouvelle was like their harem; just like women, they could not walk freely in the Medina. So you could be powerful and still be the prisoner of a frontier.’

Elsewhere, she remembers her mother responding to her curiosity about the war and the persecution of the Jews by comparing the yellow star to the veil: ‘No one really knows why men force us to wear veils. Something to do with the difference maybe. Fear of the difference makes people behave in very strange ways.’

As if in tacit recognition of another cultural difference, the American edition of Mernissi's memoir is entitled not The Harem Within but Dreams of Trespass—American readers presumably being less attracted by inner restraint than their British counterparts and more drawn to the promise of rebellion. ‘Women dreamed of trespassing all the time,’ Mernissi declares, and her book evokes many gestures of rebellion in the harem, both trivial and less trivial, from the collective theft of the radio key, so that the women might dance to the love songs of a Lebanese princess when the men were away, to her mother's successful petition that her daughter be educated at a ‘real’ school rather than the traditional Koranic one.

Under either title, history refuses to present itself as a straightforward narrative of liberation. Despite the nationalist campaigns against polygamy, Mernissi observes, it was never officially abolished in Morocco—a fact which she attributes less to the popularity of multiple wives than to fundamentalist attacks on the legal status of women and their right to participate in the state. ‘Indeed, when it comes to the status of women,’ she announces, ‘one could say that the Muslim world has regressed since Grandmother's time.’ The harem as Mernissi understands it is hardly a thing of the past.

Sasthi Brata (review date 24 February 1995)

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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 mother, with her father who taught her of the “sacred frontier” that divides men's and women's spheres, and with her maternal grandmother, who rode horses and harboured the other wives in the “harem”. These really are the tales of Scheherazade. You forget to query how a 50-year-old can remember what she was told 44 years ago. Total recall? Artistic licence? Who cares? The tale rings true.

Suspension of disbelief is commandeered in both books. …

Mernissi is a vastly more acute observer of oppression. Hers is a sharp intellect that tells its story in lethal footnotes. “Anxiety eats me whenever I cannot situate the geometric line organising my powerlessness.” And again, “Where a Muslim government stands on the question of polygamy is a good way to measure the degree to which it has accepted democratic ideas.” How do you react to a statement such as this: “Once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within. You had it in your head, inscribed under your forehead and under your skin.” This is no megaphone polemic. It is quiet, assertive and devastating. …

Aged six, Mernissi asks her illiterate grandmother why “rules are always made by men”? The response: “The moment women get smart and start asking that very question … they will find a way to change the rules and turn the whole planet upside down.” The child queries “How long will that take?” and Yasmina, the wise old owl, replies “A long time”.

Marilyn Booth (review date spring 1995)

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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 (Islam and Democracy, 1992).

Central to this female-centered description of a privileged childhood in a Morocco undergoing rapid social and political transition is the notion of “harem” as a fluid and changing social space and as a contested and controversial subject: “Whenever I tried to find out more about the word ‘harem,’ bitter arguments ensued. … If words in general were dangerous, then ‘harem’ in particular was explosive. Anytime someone wanted to start a war in the courtyard, all she had to do was prepare some tea, invite a few people to sit down, [and] throw out the word ‘harem’.”

The urban extended-family household with its walls, its strict doorman, and the “modern” ideas of its nationalist menfolk, including their adherence to monogamy, is contrasted with the rural, polygynous household of Fatima's maternal grandfather, where there are no outside walls to contain the gamut of communal cooperation and rivalry that the young girl observes. The rituals and pleasures of both households provide backdrops for the strategies of the younger generation as they escape, one way or another, from the strictures that a grandmother extols and a mother bemoans. Listening to the forbidden radio, creating a theater of contrasting images of womanhood, embroidering, going to the hammam, preparing for a feast day—all hold pleasurable memories and the reminder of boundaries. The child's vantage point makes for delightful reading, although the underlying narrative perspective is hardly that of a child.

I felt privileged to share in the formative memories of this courageous and astute activist scholar. From the portrait of the author's luminous mother, frustrated with the limits on her own life yet carving out changes and articulate about her hopes for her daughter, emerges the happy sense that Fatima Mernissi is fulfilling in her own life the “dreams of trespass” that her intensely visionary mother passed on.

Haleh Afshar (review date autumn 1995)

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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 “nature” of women. Mernissi notes the patriarchal construction of the veil that encloses and separates women from the sites of power; she then goes on to discuss the many effective ways that, throughout history, Muslim women have subverted and undermined this physical and spatial imposition. Mernissi cites fifteen queens who, though forgotten by historians, did in fact break the chains of patriarchal norms over the centuries to rule across the Islamic empires. …

Mernissi's argument is located in the context of a faith that does not separate religion from power. Yet there is no feminine word in Arabic that would denote the idea of exercise of religious and political power at the same time. Women have, over the centuries and against the teachings of the prophet of Islam, been removed from the public domain. They have had the veil imposed on them and have been barred from the mosque where the Islamic form of democracy has been practiced (80).1 I agree with Mernissi that Muslim men have made the difference between the sexes into a social architecture. They have situated their arguments in the domain of law and not pollution categories. They have claimed that women have been given different and not equal rights to men and have been specifically excluded from the exercise of power.

Yet Mernissi documents the lives of the queens of Islam who ruled openly and enjoyed the official symbols of sovereignty, which were the minting of coins and, more important, having the Friday prayer, khutba, recited in their names at the mosque. Even though the language of Islam, Arabic, does not have a feminine for the Islamic word for rulercaliph—they gave meaning to the terms sulatana and malika, feminine nouns that convey concepts of power and authority untrammeled by religion. Mernissi notes that their reigns were facilitated by exceptional circumstances: by Islamic respect for the right of royalty and nobility to rule and by their own exceptional talents. The women who ruled did so largely within the limits placed on them by their faith. The Arab queens respected the physical and spatial separations imposed on them by the veil, hijab, and rarely moved beyond the harem divide. But this did not prevent them from exercising considerable power. But the barriers of the veil, and the separate spheres prevented many other influential women and potential queens from openly governing. Mernissi includes examples of powerful women who did not enjoy the privileges of minting coins or having prayers said in their name but who nevertheless exercised power over long periods. They were formidable women, many of whom even overcame the constraints of slavery and were instrumental in placing their own sons, rather than those of a hurra, or free woman, on the throne.

Having considered the history, the region, and the cultural factors that prevented or enabled women to rule in Islamic countries, Mernissi agrees with Marcus that the most pernicious factor working against Muslim women's rights and political opportunities today is a ritual—not the delineation of women as polluted and their periodic separation from the almighty and the required purification rituals, but what Mernissi calls “the ritual of the veil.” She is of the view that the only solution for Muslim countries is universal suffrage, which “tears away two veils, two veils that give substance to the two thresholds of political Islam in its cosmic architecture: the hijab (veil) of women and that of the caliph … the hijab of the caliph … hides the unmentionable: the will of the people, the will of the amma, the mass, which is just as dangerous as that of women” (178).

On the whole, I think that it is Mernissi's analysis that is correct. I feel that Marcus places undue emphasis on the importance of the rituals of pollution and purity and am rather surprised to read that in 1978 when Marcus visited Izmir these rituals were still followed so strictly. This is all the more unexpected as Turkey is the only Islamic country to have formally separated religion and politics and to have adopted a specifically secular constitution in the early decades of the twentieth century. Perhaps the best explanation of the apparent discrepancies between these volumes is that, although Marcus does not state this clearly, she conducted her research at the zenith of Islamic revivalism and among lower-middle-class women, who are usually the most devout supporters of Islam and who understand the faith in terms of its rituals. They may also be more willing to accept the hierarchical social organizations that would interpose a man between them and God or between them and the exercise of political power. By contrast, Mernissi's work is concerned with women of the aristocracy who are notoriously lax about many rituals and are much more concerned about the difficult problems of power.


  1. For a detailed analysis of the process of imposition of the veil, see Fatima Mernissi, Women and Islam: A Historical Theological Enquiry (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1991).

Carole Hillenbrand (review date July 1997)

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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 official discourse’ (p. 84).

This is not a work of rigorous scholarship or originality. A fundamental flaw is its butterfly approach to chronology, flitting nonchalantly backwards and forwards across centuries, sometimes within the same paragraph. It is written less as history than as polemic. For its biographies of Turkish and Mongol women rulers, it is heavily based on an earlier history of Muslim women written by Bahriye Üçok. Mernissi's book does, however, introduce the reader to lesser-known Arab women rulers, such as the twelfth-century Sulayhid queens of Yemen and the sister of al-Hakim, the ‘mad’ caliph, Sitt al-Mulk, who was the de facto ruler of the Fatimid empire between 1120 and 1124. The book contains numerous factual errors. To cite just one example: in the context of the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 by Sultan Selim the Grim and the transfer of the Abbasid caliphal institution from Cairo to Istanbul, Mernissi writes about ‘the last Abbasid caliph, then living in Egypt, who moved there after the sack of Baghdad by Genghis Khan’ (p. 24). This is disastrously misleading: the sack of Baghdad was carried out in 1258, some thirty-one years after the death of Genghis Khan, and the ‘last Abbasid caliph’ was no Methuselah.

At best Mernissi's writing is eloquent and persuasive; at worst it degenerates into the clichés of romantic fiction. The Harun al-Rashid of history is unrecognizable as one who had ‘the grace to live out his dreams without succumbing to their spell’ (p. 51). Some comments are jarring and inappropriate: Mernissi's derisory instructions on how to embark on a crash course in Shi'ism would certainly not allow her readers ‘to shine at dinner parties and be invited to speak on television’ (p. 206, n. 150). Even if this is an example of her humour, it is insulting both to millions of Shi'ites and to the rather popular audience to whom this book is addressed. In general, however, it is important to stress the force and courage of this book: underneath the rhetoric and inaccuracies, Mernissi skilfully points to the misogyny of Muslim (and western) academics who conveniently erase women's role from the history books. This book underlines the need for scholars to examine, without anachronistic dogmatism, the real contribution made by medieval Muslim women in the spheres of patronage, learning and political life.

Mary Ann Fay (review date August 1999)

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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 that women were not fit to govern. In her latest work, she was reacting to the election of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister of Pakistan and the remark made by the leader of the opposition who called her election blasphemy and remarked that an Islamic state was never governed by a woman. The work under review is Mernissi's attempt to answer that remark.

As she did in Women in Islam, Mernissi returns to the sources to conduct her investigation—published volumes of hadith in the first case, and, in the second, chronicles and histories by al-Maqrizi, Ibn Hanbal, al-Mas'udi, and Ibn al-Athir, among others; Ibn Khaldun's al-Muqaddima, for its disquisition on the nature of power and the rise and fall of dynasties; and Ibn Battuta's Rihla. Although Mernissi uses a methodology and sources appropriate for a historical study, her lack of training as a historian is evident in her mishandling of historical events and chronology, her ahistoricism, and her superficial reading of the relevant secondary literature on her topic and on women's history in general.

Mernissi begins her inquiry by making the distinction between the office of caliph or imam and the wielding of actual power. Thus, Mernissi can assert that even though women have never borne the title of caliph, they have indeed administered states and have even been recognized as heads of states. Mernissi sees essentially three categories of female rulers: those who shared power with a husband or son; those who assumed power because of the absence (through death, for example) or disability of men; and those who were sovereign in their own right. For Mernissi, the test of sovereignty for both men and women was whether the khutba was read in the name of the one claiming to rule and whether coins were inscribed in his or her name. Some of the female rulers were Shajar al-Durr, who was directly linked to the founding of the Mamluk Empire in Egypt; Khayzuran, wife of the third Abbasid caliph, al-Mahdi, and mother of two caliphs, her sons al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid; and Sitt al-Mulk, daughter of the Fatimid Caliph al-'Aziz and sister of his successor, al-Hakim. Among the less well known were Asma and Arwa of 11th-century and early-12th-century Yemen. According to Mernissi, female rulers were called sultāna, malaka, sitt, and al-hurra.

One of the problems with the book is the number of errors Mernissi makes when relating historical events and presenting a chronology. Her account of the Mongol conquest is particularly garbled; she states at one point that after the Mongol defeat by the Mamluks at Ayn Jalut, the caliphate of Baghdad was dependent on the Il-Khan dynasty created by Hulagu. In fact, the Mongols assassinated the last caliph during their conquest of 1258, and the Egyptian Mamluks took a successor to Cairo to legitimize their own rule. Mernissi makes this claim while stating in a later chapter that the caliphate was fatally wounded in the 10th century by the founding of the Fatimid counter-caliphate in Cairo. These are just two examples of the errors of fact that Mernissi makes in the book. Her lack of consistency makes information in one chapter contradict what has been presented in an earlier one. There are several instances in the book also of Mernissi's ahistoricism. When discussing the Fatimid caliphate and the Isma'ili Shi'is, Mernissi informs her readers that one of the Isma'ili sects became famous when its leader, the Aga Khan, married the American movie star Rita Hayworth. She also notes in a lengthy footnote that her understanding of the Druze was enhanced by learning that the singers Farid al-Atrash and his sister, Asmahane, were Druze.

On another level is the issue of interpretation and analysis, specifically Mernissi's understanding of the household and her argument that in the pre-modern period there were clear and rigid distinctions between public and private space. Mernissi argues that women were prevented from ruling in their own right because of the distinction between public space, which was forbidden to women, and the private space of the household or harem, which was women's territory. Other historians have argued more persuasively that both public and private affairs were conducted in the ruler's household, thus blurring the distinction between the two. This is precisely what gave women the opportunity to enhance their influence and even to rule, especially since in the household of the king or caliph power was achieved and allocated based on kinship or proximity to the ruler.

If one were to categorize Mernissi's book, it would be as women's history. Yet she has written about reference to the historiography of the field and or to its categories of analysis, its methodology, or its theoretical frameworks. This is no doubt why the book as a work of women's history seems somewhat dated.

Mernissi is at her most interesting when linking the past to the current state of politics in the Islamic world. She takes Ibn Khaldun's distinction between caliphate and mulk to argue that while the caliph represents an authority that obeys divine law, a king recognizes no superior law and has purely earthly concerns. In modern Islamic states, apparently irreconcilable contradiction exists between the religious and the secular in the declaration of Islam as the state religion within political systems that are ostensibly parliamentary democracies. The contradiction arises because the rights of the individual, which are the foundation of any democracy, are often incompatible with the tenets of the faith. As Mernissi has written, “A citizen and a believer do not behave the same way in space, for the good and simple reason that Heaven and earth are governed by different laws.” Thus, the exercise of free speech by a citizen in the parliamentary realm could be blasphemy by a believer in the religious realm. She is also saying that the modern caliphal state is maintained to legitimize and perpetuate authoritarian regimes by stifling free speech and political action by its citizens. By her assertion that the contemporary Islamic state exists at two fundamentally contradictory stages, Mernissi links women and the people ('āmma). Both are considered fitna (disorder) to the authoritarian regimes now in power because both threaten the regimes's hold on power. Mernissi conceptualizes the issue in terms of space, arguing that both the 'āmma and women are disturbing as soon as they appear where they are not expected, and no one expects them where decisions are made.

Mernissi's study is flawed in several respects, some of which have been discussed. Instructors who choose to use this book in the classroom will have to be sure to correct the errors of fact. For women's history, Mernissi's book does not advance our theoretical understanding of the position of women very much, although it does add to our store of knowledge about women's lives in the understudied period between the establishment of the Umayyad empire to the rise of the Ottomans, a not inconsiderable achievement. It should be particularly enlightening to students whose images of Muslim women have been formed by American popular culture, with its emphasis on the veil and the harem, which are equated with women's subjugation and oppression.

In spite of its shortcomings, this book, like others of Mernissi's, is provocative, insightful, full of interesting information, and very readable. For all those reasons, the book is recommended—with reservations.

Pamela K. Crossley (review date spring 2000)

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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 twentieth to the seventh century is interrupted by a discussion of the difference between spiritual and mundane authority in Islamic theory and practice. For all undergraduates studying Islam this is a very clear and useful discussion, providing a concise but thoroughly accessible hermeneutics of Arabic and Koranic terminology. The primary point—that spiritual and secular authority were distinct, if interrelated—is fundamental to any student's understanding of Islamic history and is advantageous for the study of many other traditions (including Europe, Iran, and Tibet). Mernissi goes on to demonstrate that though women were evidently excluded from commanding religious authority (that is, they could not act as caliph or imam), they were not excluded from political authority (and could be sultans or queens).

Mernissi's examples include not only women who acted as titled leaders, but also those who resourcefully managed to extend their roles as courtesans or concubines to the political sphere. Parallels in the histories of China, Mongolia, India, and Tibet with respect to the enlargement of women's ostensibly domestic roles to include a frank exercise of power will readily suggest themselves to many readers. The heart of Mernissi's book, however, is a serial narrative of medieval “queens” of Islam. They include female sultans (sultana) among the Mamluks in Egypt and India as well as in the Maldive Islands and in Indonesia; Mongol empresses (khatun); Shi'ite queens (malika) in the Yemeni dynasties; and influential women in Sheba (Saba). The narrative portion of the book ends with a biography of Sitt al-Mulk (“lady of power”), whose story is a study in the ambiguities of female influence in the medieval world—capable but untitled, depending upon her private connections to make a public impact, poised among the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic communities of Cairo, always in a delicate balance between forces she hoped to manipulate without becoming subordinate to them. On the surface, the rather ruthless Sitt al-Mulk outwitted the traps that normally ensnared women of her class and background, but as her name implies—and as Mernissi states—she was unique. Her successes, such as they were, only underscore the conditions under which most women achieved little if any independence.

The book concludes with a short but intriguing account of the “Medina Democracy.” In my reading the essay combines many threads from classic scholarship on Islam dealing with the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty with new questions relating to theories of human rights, individuality, and the place of women (the latter being less explicit than one would expect here). The conventional narrative of the idealism in the original notion of the caliphate and the community being distorted by the power politics that emerged after the founding of the dynasty is extended here to include an unresolvable paradox that Mernissi ascribes to all Islamic societies: the inclusive, communitarian, nearly egalitarian ethos of early Koranic teaching conflicts with the seclusion, segregation, and transcendence of the historical caliphate and religious authority generally. Thus all Muslims are members simultaneously of an open, participatory ideal community (whose values have a kind of parallel in current expressions of “global” values, as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and of a society that is fragmented, hierarchical, and necessarily restricted in expression.

The material presented in The Forgotten Queens of Islam is clear and interesting, and it should enlighten undergraduates who are inclined to make broad and unqualified generalizations about the role of women in Islamic political history. Its geographical scope is also appealing, so that students are reminded of the range of the Islamic world. Readers more specialized in either Islamic or world history will probably find the text too spare for its apparent ambitions. For instance, the pre-Islamic period would have provided a rich backdrop to Mernissi's discussion here, whether with reference to female (or ungendered) deities of the earlier time, or to the early political histories of North Africa, Arabia, and Yemen. The “little queens of Sheba” here are Fatimids, and the original article gets only a very passing mention. The place of women in the religious community as prescribed in the Koran and later revised in the commentaries is alluded to, but the treatment is too fleeting for students to read this as a case study in the evolution of an inegalitarian social philosophy. The treatment of Mongol (Ilkhanid) empresses is cursory, and much too little is made of the profound differences in expectation between elite Mongol women and elite Arab women. In powerful Mongol families, women were expected to wield influence and sometimes formal power on their own, and the sobriquet “lady of power” would have had little meaning in Mongolian, where such a thing was not exceptional. Perhaps most evident in the scattershot approach of the book is the huge chronological gap between the story and its moral: the introductory and concluding passages, which are evidently meant to bear the burden of the book's significance, are preoccupied with contemporary concerns, while the history presented is all medieval. But the book is a valuable introduction to Mernissi's perspective, and students seeking more depth can read her Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (New York: Halsted Press, 1976) or Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Inquiry (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), also translated by Mary Jo Lakeland.

Lisa Suhair Majaj (review date July 2001)

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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 Scheherazade and of harem women differed markedly from hers. Curiosity piqued, Mernissi embarked on an investigation of these differences. Her newest book, Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems, offers an engaging and provocative narrative of her encounters with, and attempts to make sense of, Western harem imagery. Juxtaposing these representations to Eastern portrayals of the harem in history and literature, and moving through some fascinating historical and literary territory in the process, Mernissi exposes the factual distortions underlying Western images and, more important, investigates their implications. If we know what happens to Scheherazade when she enters the Western imagination, she argues, we may gain insight into how Western and Eastern societies perpetuate “harems” and disempower women. And we may find new approaches to the perennial dilemma of encountering the “other.”

For Mernissi, the harem is simply “a synonym for the family as an institution.” Historically, she notes, the word is associated with the famous Muslim caliphs such as Harun al-Rashid, whose harem was populated by talented and educated women interested in the wider world. But Mernissi quickly discovers that, to her Western interlocutors, the harem connotes a “voluptuous wonderland drenched with heavy sex provided by vulnerable nude women … happy to be locked up.” These perceptions, she learns, are grounded in Western representations: paintings by Matisse, Ingres and Delacroix, operas and ballets about Scheherazade, Hollywood films (labeled within the industry as “t and s,” short for “tits and sand”).

Puzzled and intrigued by these portrayals, Mernissi decides to explore further. Is there a connection, she wonders, between perceptions of the harem, ways in which men view women in respective Eastern and Western societies, and women's access to empowerment? Where do such perceptions come from? How do they affect cultural assumptions about gender relations, eroticism, love, communication?

Mernissi attributes her ability to explore foreign territory, geographical and intellectual, to her grandmother Yasmina. An illiterate woman who lived in a harem, Yasmina taught Mernissi that travel and interaction with strangers were the best modes of self-empowerment: “The more you understand a stranger and the greater … your knowledge of yourself,” Yasmina told her, “the more power you will have.” In Scheherazade Goes West, Mernissi takes this advice to heart. Candid about her own cultural biases and about the difficulties of understanding the “other,” she draws on both foreign and Arabic sources throughout her investigation, seeking always to remain open to those flashes of insight the Sufis term “lawami'.

The roots of Western harem fantasies, Mernissi discovers, lie in key philosophical concepts, particularly Kant's distinction between the beautiful and the sublime. This schism, which assigns beauty to women and brains to men, dominates Western representation—including the harem images that have influenced perceptions of the “Orient” so deeply as to displace reality (a potential mentioned, Mernissi learns, in 1435 by Leon Battista Alberti, who argued that painted images have the power “to subjugate time.”) Mernissi notes, for instance, that although Kemal Ataturk's historic feminist laws granted Turkish women the right to be educated, to vote and to hold public office in the 1920s, it was Matisse's paintings of languid Turkish harem slaves made during this period that held sway over Western imaginations.

That Western images often stereotype Eastern women as passive sex slaves and that these images reflect the preconceptions (and obsessions) of their makers is not, of course, news. What makes Mernissi's discussion of harem fact and fantasy so innovative are her musings on what these images imply about Western culture. She characterizes a key element of the harem fantasy as women's obsequiousness and willingness to obey—no surprise there. What strikes her, however, is the corresponding absence, in Western representations, of “the feminine as a threat.” After all, she points out, in Muslim harem fantasies men have a healthy fear of the women they dominate, expecting them to be resentful of the harems' inherent inequality.

This fear, she notes, is rooted in the Islamic precept that all human beings are equal, regardless of sex, race or creed, and the Islamic conviction “that the feminine is an uncontrollable power.” Eastern depictions of harem women turn upon this fundamental notion of women as a powerful force. What does it say about Western gender relations, Mernissi wonders, that while Muslim men were fantasizing “in both literature and painting, about self-assertive, strong-minded, uncontrollable and mobile women,” European artists were busy painting harem women in positions of idle, passive nudity?

Mernissi is also struck by the tendency in Western harem imagery to reduce sexual interchange to simple carnality, so that intellectual exchange with women becomes “an obstacle to erotic pleasure.” In Muslim harems real and imagined, she argues, matters were quite different: attraction between the sexes was as much intellectual as physical. To sustain the attention of the caliph, for instance, a harem woman had to use not just beauty but musical skill, poetic ability, historical knowledge and verbal wit. For Mernissi, the eroticism of the Scheherazade stories comes from their female characters' ability to break the barriers obstructing communication between men and women. How, she asks, have Western depictions of the harem missed this essential dialogue between the sexes? “Could it be that things are so different in the West? Could it be that cultures manage emotions differently when it comes to structuring erotic responses?”

Much of the strength of the book lies in questions like these, which lead down rich and informative byways without necessarily providing clear-cut answers. As a result, in the final chapter, Mernissi's proposed solution to the harem enigma seems almost too limited for the questions she has asked. Attempting to buy a skirt in an American department store, she is told by a condescending saleswoman that she is “too big” for any of the clothes in the store. Mernissi is taken aback:

“I am too big compared to what?” I asked, looking at her intently, because I realized that I was facing a critical cultural gap here.

“Compared to a size 6,” came the saleslady's reply.

Her voice had a clear-cut edge to it that is typical of those who enforce religious laws. “Size 4 and 6 are the norm … Deviant sizes such as the one you need can be bought in special stores.”

(p. 209)

Mernissi's retort, “And who decides the norm?” leads to a revealing interchange. “No one cares about my size in Morocco as long as I pay taxes on time,” Mernissi insists. But the saleswoman is disbelieving. “You mean you don't watch your weight? … Many women working in highly paid fashion-related jobs could lose their positions if they didn't keep to a strict diet.” Suddenly the harem puzzle makes sense for Mernissi:

Her words sounded so simple, but the threat they implied was so cruel that I realized for the first time that maybe “size 6” is a more violent restriction imposed on women than is the Muslim veil … Framing youth as beauty and condemning maturity is the weapon used against women in the West just as limiting access to public space is the weapon used in the East. The objective remains identical in both cultures: to make women feel unwelcome, inadequate, and ugly.

(pp. 213-216)

In many ways, of course, Mernissi's conclusions about Western beauty norms simply reframe well established feminist critiques. Her contribution is the harem metaphor, which can startle readers into new awareness of the need for cross-cultural feminist analysis. Every culture has its symbolic veils and harems, and Western women are not necessarily more “liberated” than their Eastern sisters.

This is not, perhaps, a new message, but it is one heard far too infrequently about Arab and Muslim women, who are often positioned as the “other” of feminist analysis. In showing us the relativity of the harem, Mernissi gives new life to her grandmother Yasmina's lesson: travel helps us figure out who we are and how our own culture controls us.


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