Obituary: Fatima Mernissi

Icon of Arab feminism

The world famous Moroccan sociologist and writer Fatima Mernissi was a mediator between cultures and a charismatic advocate for a genuine Arab feminism. She died on 30 November 2015 at the age of 75

Fatima Mernissi was born in 1940 in Fez, a Moroccan city steeped in tradition. She belonged to a generation that still attended a national, not a French school. She later studied sociology and political science in Paris and the US, eventually becoming a professor of sociology in Rabat.

She grew up, as she described it, in a harem, a segregated area reserved only for women. "The harem was an institution, similar to that of the family," she later explained. In this harem, Mernissi gained an insight into the lives of women in her society.

Her mother and grandmother were illiterate. But they told her about Scheherazade. This woman from the "Arabian Nights" stories left a profound impression on her.  "Scheherazade was a beautiful woman. She had power and was very clever. She cured the Sultan of his illness," said Mernissi. That was a dream for her, passed on to her by the women in the harem. For her, the dream contained the promise of wanting to be a worthy person. Hence, her main priority was to ensure that Arab women were able to find their voice and raise it against social wrongs.

"Writing is the best beauty treatment"

"Women used to be wholly reliant on the oral tradition. They had no claim to education and the ability to write," was a realisation she made at an early age. And she realised that writing is an excellent way for women to free themselves from social constraints: "That you write, for that reason alone means you have a voice! Power – when we talk about writing, that is the essential idea," Mernissi said.

″Dreams of Trespass – Tales of a Harem Girlhood ″ by Fatima Mernissi (published by Herder)
In her theoretical writing, Mernissi takes a critical view of the situation of women in the Muslim world. In an autobiographical work titled "Dreams of Trespass – Tales of a Harem Girlhood" she grapples with memories of her childhood

She wanted women to end their silence, she wanted them to speak and tell stories like Scheherazade, which is what she did, with wit and humour, when she said: "Writing is the best beauty treatment."

For Fatima Mernissi, a woman who says nothing is a veiled woman. The headscarf itself did not matter, but silence was the true veil.

In all of her many books, which she wrote in English and French and which have been translated into more than 30 languages, she attained a recognition far beyond the borders of Morocco.

For example in her book "Gender, Ideology, Islam" she reflects on the status of women in Islam. In it, she presents an interesting study on gender relations in pre-Islamic and Islamic societies and establishes that in Islam, unlike in Christianity, sexuality is regarded as a positive force.

In her book "The Harem is Not The World" she discusses the lives of women in Morocco. And her work "The Political Harem" breaks a social taboo by pointing out that the highly problematic position of the woman in political and social life has been in evidence since the birth of Islam.

In other books too, such as her historical study "The Forgotten Queens of Islam", she wrote about the status of women. She retold the life stories of these Sultanas of Islam in Delhi, Cairo, Sana'a and Granada, thereby lifting the lid on the hushed-up power of women in these Islamic nations.

Demarcation from Western feminism

Fatima Mernissi saw herself as a feminist, but her brand of feminism is clearly distinct from the Western version, which time and again demanded an at least temporary demarcation of women from men, in both a social and literary context.  This was what she had to say about the women's movement in the Western world:

"There are huge differences between the Arab and European women's movement. The Arab women's movement is not just driven by women, but by women and enlightened men. The women's movement in the West is just driven by women, men have no business there."

She said this because in Morocco and other Arab countries there are men working intensively to address the problems facing women, men who write prolifically and dedicatedly on the subject, such as for example Qassim Amin in Egypt, a man she much admired: "I've always been a devotee of the educator Qassim Amin, who said: 'In Islamic society the woman was veiled because the man was afraid of her'," she once said. With this sentence she outlined the connection between the veil, a wall and fear. After all in this way, the Arab man is able to very effectively contain his fear of a woman.

Mernissi's position represents a politically and culturally enlightened stance. The people who supported and encouraged her were not women, but men. "Here at home we don’t have any problems with men. We're not enemies. We even demand that we get along well with men! Because we come from a society that has institutionalised the division between man and woman. The man lives in one world and the woman in a totally different one," she maintained.

In her last creative period, when she felt liberated from academic constraints, as she once said, she began inflecting her work with new accents. "I used to want to assert myself through rational thought, although actually I wanted to be like the singer Asmahan. I envied those women who could write fiction," she said.

Fatima Mernissi (photo: Fatima Mernissi)
In 2003, Fatima Mernissi and the US writer Susan Sontag were both awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize for Literature. The jury said both authors had confronted essential contemporary issues in their work, and had entered into a "dialogue of cultures"

She began by writing "The Harem Within". In it, she tells real stories in subjective form: "As a child it was my dream to become a clown or an actor, but the family didn't allow it. They said: No Fatima, you should become a teacher, doctor or lawyer."

 Criticism of Western "ideas about the harem"

Fatima Mernissi did not confine her criticism to the Islamic world, but also criticised the attitude of the Western world to women in Islam. In her book "Scheherazade Goes West", she wrote that Western cultural ideas about the harem have nothing in common with the harem she herself got to know. The harem is anything but a brothel. It is simply a section of the house off-limits to men.

For the first time she wrote a book aimed at the West. That is not easy, she said: "The people in the West are used to writing about us. They have created an image of us. I wrote the book to examine the difference between two observers: the Western and the middle-eastern man."

Many men in the Western world are titillated by the word "harem". Mernissi believed the concept of the harem aroused unbridled fantasies: "Men start dreaming about wild orgies. They think the harem is erotic and imagine that in a harem, men were perpetually surrounded by naked or half-naked women, that the pleasure possibilities were endless. Some women in the West think the same thing," she said.

For Fatima Mernissi, the problems facing the modern Arab woman did not lie in the harem, but in the lack of experience with democracy and gender equality. She fought for this throughout her life using words. With her death, the Arab world has lost a tremendous thinker, educator and humanist.

Suleman Taufiq

© 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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