Fatima Mernissi, the icon of North-African Feminism

Soumeya Lerari
Posted December 19, 2017 from Algeria
Fatima Mernissi receiving the Spanish award "Principe de Asturias de las Letras" 2003

It is in order to evaluate the depth of the contemporary Muslims’ amnesia, which sees equality of the sexes as an alien phenomenon, that we must return to Medina, to its narrow streets where the debate on equality of the sexes raged and where the men were obliged to discuss it, and refused to accept it, although God and His Prophet demanded it” (Women and Islam, p.129)- F.M

Threeyears ago, for a reason I cannot seem to remember, I bought a book called "Islam et démocratie" (Islam and Democracy) written by Fatima Mernissi. At that moment, I did not know who Mernissi was neither what she had done in her life, what she stood for or where she was originally from. I must admit that I was expecting another piece of literature in which I would be reading the same old discourse that is used by medias and contemporary authors, a narrative of fear, pessimism and empty arguments. You can then imagine how surprised I ended being when I realized that NONE of that was part of that incredible book.

What surprised me most was her accurate and well rounded analysis of the evolution of status of women in the MENA region and the impact ofdifferent historical events on that -among them political instability and social unrest-.

That is when I started researching about Mernissi's life and accomplishments and decided to continue reading her books and have these unique insights from a woman who was a pioneer of the Maghreb's feminist movement.

Fatima Mernissi was born in the beautiful Fez in Morocco in 1940. The feminist writer, Sociologist and "Islamologist" was a daughter and grand-daughter of alphabet women and only spoke arabic until her twenties. One of her first accomplishment is to decide to overcome the language barrier and learn other language (French, English and Spanish) and wrote in all of them more than in arabic.

She was determined to succeed and ended up graduating her Bachelor in Political Sciences in Morocco, her Master degree in La Sorbonne University in Paris, France and her PhD in Sociology in the United States, before deciding to come back to her homeland and teach -interalia- at Mohamed V University in Rabat.

She dedicated a lot of her time to deeply study the Quran and then decided to "fight from the inside" and deconstruct all the lies and false ideas about women's rights and the status of women through the religious paradigm. Most importantly, she fought fiercely against regressive religious interpretations and entrenched attitudes justified by them that lock women out of public life and deprive them -often- from their basic rights.

As presented by the Arab Women Writers, she was able tocast doubt on the validity of some of thehadith(sayings and traditions attributed to the prophet Muhammed SAAWS), and therefore the subordination of women that she sees in Islam, but not necessarily in theQur'an. She had done so through a meticulous study of the life of the prophet and a wide range of Islamic teaching.

Besides that, through her sociological and religious research as well as her courageous writings, Mernissi defied with intellectual honesty and determination the status-quo established around women's rights in Morocco and in Islamic societies.She was one of the first ones to state: "The education of girls and women in developing countries is the best existing contraceptive.", proving through a relevant research (shared in her book "Morocco through its women") that in average, an illiterate woman has 5 children against 2 for and educated one in Morocco.

The backlash against Mernissi's work was a "natural" response from religious conservatives who tried to demonize her and discredit her contributions especially because she dared to prove the painful reality: that inthe name of the sacred text, was blind submission to unjust human-made laws imposed. Yes, she dared to pinpointthe way through which patriarchy distorted women’s role within Islamic civilisation in the name of an erroneous reading of the sacred texts.

Sadly, Fatima Mernissi left us on the the 30th of November 2015, leavinga rich legacy of feminist writings and sociological studies that are more than ever relevant to women in Islamic societies, particularly in the Maghreb region.

Amongher most famous books:

  • Le harem politique: Le prophete et ses femmes.Paris: 1987.
  • The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam
  • Islam, Gender and Social Change
  • Reves de femmes: Une enfance au harem(autobiographical novel), translated 1996.
  • السلطانات المنسيات
  • شهرزاد ترحل الى الغرب

Comments 7

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Nusrat Ara
Dec 20, 2017
Dec 20, 2017

Dear Soumeya, thanks for sharing this information about Fatima Mernissi.  I would definitely love to read her books and definitely recommend others to do so as well. Given the current world conditions it is more than needed. 

Tamarack Verrall
Dec 24, 2017
Dec 24, 2017

Dear Soumeya,

This is a beautiful and important tribute, all the more important given that Fatima Mernissi is no longer with us. Like Nusrat, I would also love to read her books. Years ago I learned so much from Nawal El Saadawi's The Hidden Face of Eve - Women in the Arab World. I can imagine how courageous Fatima Mernissi must have been facing the backlash in those years. Thanks for keeping her work and her books known.

In sisterhood,

Tam

Lisbeth
Dec 14, 2018
Dec 14, 2018

Thanks for your story. I will try and read her book one day. :-)
Regards

Soumeya Lerari
Dec 16, 2018
Dec 16, 2018

Most welcome! Hope you do :)

Ngala Nadege
Dec 15, 2018
Dec 15, 2018

Thanks for sharing. I will love to read those books but where can I get them?

Soumeya Lerari
Dec 16, 2018
Dec 16, 2018

Thank for you feedback Ngala!
You should find them on amazon and other online platforms. In the Maghreb they are usually available at libraries too. Let me know if you can't find maybe I can find a way to get them to you!

Ngala Nadege
Dec 18, 2018
Dec 18, 2018

OK thanks ! I will do just that .

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