On November 30, 2015, the Moroccan sociologist, writer and feminist Fatema Mernissi died in Rabat at age 75. Mernissi produced ground-breaking scholarship, written in a vibrant voice. In the days following her death, many of her colleagues, students and readers wrote about the tremendous impact that first reading her work had on their intellectual development and their vision of feminism.
Mernissi grew up in a middle-class family in Fez and was part of the first generation to attend newly established schools for girls. She pursued a degree in sociology at Mohammed V University, studied at the Sorbonne and earned her Ph.D. from Brandeis University. Her first book, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (Indiana University Press, revised edition 1987), based on her dissertation, drew parallels between family relations and political relations, and focused on the tensions and contradictions the post-colonial Moroccan state created by both encouraging women to educate themselves and enter the workforce and still expecting them to conform to traditional gender roles.
Mernissi was by all accounts deeply charismatic, well known for her humor and style. Nawar Al-Hassan Golley is a professor in the English Department of the American University in Sharjah. She remembers, as a graduate student, meeting Mernissi at an academic conference in London in the late eighties. “I thought she outwitted everybody,” says Al-Hassan Golley. “She stole all the attention. She was so smart and so beautiful. I thought: Will I ever become like this woman?”
Al-Hassan Golley is one of several academics behind the creation, in 2012, of the United Arab Emirates Gender and Women’s Studies Consortium. One of its principal aims is to encourage the creation of women and gender-studies programs at local universities. She has created a minor in women’s studies at her own university, but she says progress elsewhere has been slow.
Al-Hassan Golley would also like to develop a pre-university “school curriculum that’s sensitive to gender equality and the status of women,” which she says is currently lacking. At universities across the region, academics focus on women’s contributions and concerns in their classes as a personal initiative, but a gender perspective is rarely institutionalized. Only a handful of higher education institutions have a women’s studies program, such as the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, at the Lebanese American University, Birzeit University’s Institute of Women’s Studies, in the West Bank, and the American University in Cairo’s Cynthia Nelson Institute for Gender and Women’s Studies.
Mernissi’s early sociological work, such as the book Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women (Rutgers University Press, 1989), was the first to feature interviews with poor rural Moroccan women. Mernissi argued that women’s economic role was obfuscated by both religious conservatism and by capitalist state planning. The family code promulgated in 1957 and based on Sharia law stipulated that “every human being is responsible for providing for his needs (nafaqa) through his own means, with the exception of wives, whose husbands provide for their needs.” At the same time, the statistics gathered by male officials running Morocco’s modernization efforts catalogued women who worked 14 hours a day in villages as “housewives” or “inactive.”
Raja Rhouni, a professor in the English Department at Chouaib Doukkali University in El Jadida, Morocco, says that this early phase of Mernissi’s scholarship is often overlooked. Rhouni wrote the first dissertation in Morocco on Mernissi’s work, in 1997, and has published a book analyzing the scholar’s writings, Secular and Islamist Feminist Critiques in the Work of Fatima Mernissi. It is Mernissi’s “double critique of male interpretation of Islam and of capitalist development that should be an inspiration to Moroccan feminism” today, says Rhouni.
Mernissi avoided labels and was skeptical of ideologies. She was criticized by Marxists for undermining class struggle with her concern with women’s issues; by Islamists for daring to question religious orthodoxy; and by nationalists for importing the culturally foreign notion of feminism. She took to task colonialism, Western ethnocentrism, religious conservatism, capitalism and nationalism for the ways they marginalized women. She roamed widely between disciplines and different theoretical approaches over the years. “Mernissi’s utmost commitment seems to be primarily to social change,” writes Rhouni, who argues that she was “an example of what Antonio Gramsci calls an ‘organic intellectual,’ who follows her society’s moves.”
Zakia Salime, an associate professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Rutgers University, met Mernissi in Morocco in the 1990s, through their involvement with women’s rights activism. Salime had created a nongovernmental organization in Fez that helped women start micro-businesses. Mernissi had turned her home in Rabat into a meeting place. “She incorporated the energies of civil society in her own private home,” says Salime, “to make it a space for discussion, debate, artwork, creativity.” Mernissi led writing workshops for former political prisoners and regional research groups; she founded feminist collectives, publishing ventures and one of the first support centers for female victims of violence.
The most important things Mernissi taught her were to “have as a starting point women’s agency and power instead of their oppression,” says Salime, and to “let women speak for themselves and learn to listen to what their real needs are.”
What Mernissi is best known for today is being one of the leading figures of “Islamic feminism” (a term she never used). In 1992, she published The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, in which by contextualizing and historicizing passage of the Koran and the Hadith (Prophetic sayings), she argued that much of the alleged misogyny of Islamic religious texts was actually imposed by the men who early on monopolized their interpretation. She wrote two more books focused on showing the compatibility of Islam with women’s rights and their political participation, The Forgotten Queens of Islam and Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. The field of Islamic feminism has continued to grow, and encompasses the work of writers such as Amina Wadud, Leila Ahmad, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, Kecia Ali, Sa’diyya Shaikh and Asmaa Lamrabet.
Mernissi, Salime says, made her feel “at home in my feminism, in my femininity, and in my identity as a Muslim woman.” Mernissi had a view of women’s issues thanks to which “you don’t feel estranged, you don’t feel shocked. You don’t feel you have to deny part of yourself.” In 2011 Salime published Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco (University of Minnesota Press), a study of the recent interaction between the feminist movement in Morocco and Islamist women’s growing activism.
In 1994, Mernissi published Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, a semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical account of her childhood. In it she describes life in a harem in Fez in the 1940s, from the point of view of a young girl. The narrator’s mother chafes at only being allowed to leave the communal, enclosed home—where multiple branches and generations of the family live together—on rare, exceptional occasions. Meanwhile great change is brewing outside, with colonialism nearing its end in Morocco and new regimes sprouting across the region—the Mernissi family supports the Moroccan nationalist movement and the younger women of the house love to read about and re-enact the adventures of famous Arab divas and feminists. The book demystifies Orientalist depictions of harems as idle and libidinous. Instead Mernissi presents the harem as a busy web of familial relationships and daily rituals—a complex, frustrating, sometimes charming space. Her gaze is critical, intimate, observant and empathetic.
She also makes the harem a universal metaphor for intellectual as well as physical imprisonment, writing: “You’re in a harem when the world doesn’t need you.” When barriers are created, she writes, they always divide the world into the powerful and the weak. And as one of her older relatives tells Dreams of Trespass’s young narrator, “If you can’t leave the place where you are, then you are one of the weak ones.” Mernissi clearly never accepted weakness or immobility, and her writing communicates her confidence in women’s will and ability to be free.