Rest in Power: Remembering Fatima Mernissi, Acclaimed Moroccan Feminist

Renowned Moroccan sociologist, author and Arab Muslim feminist Fatima Mernissi died on November 30 in Rabat, Morocco. She was 75.

Born in 1940 in a harem in Fez to an affluent family, Mernissi attended Quranic and nationalist schools, followed by graduate studies in sociology at Mohammed V University in Rabat, and the Sorbonne. In 1973, Mernissi obtained a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University, after which she returned to Rabat to teach sociology at Mohammed V University, while holding a simultaneous research appointment at the Moroccan Institut Universitaire de Recherche Scientifique. Though widely read in the Arab Mashriq and the Maghreb, Mernissi worked and lived in Morocco all of her life, and was deeply involved in its social and political causes, including being a member of La Caravane Civique, a pioneering group of Moroccan intellectuals who worked for the education of rural Moroccan women.

The domestic harems such as the one Mernissi grew up in were essentially extended conjoined family units where a man lived with his wife or wives, children and female relatives. The domestic harem was officially dissolved upon Morocco’s independence in 1956 from France, but they retain a profound symbolic power in the Arab ethos. Harems were spatially and architecturally defined by a line of control that was both real and imaginary—the hudud—or a “sacred frontier” in Arabic, whose main purpose was to separate women from the outside world.

In her memoir, Dreams of Trespass, Mina, one of the servants from Mernissi’s harem childhood, herself kidnapped from Sudan as a young girl and sold in Morocco to be a maidservant, tells a young Mernissi, “The frontier indicates the line of power because wherever there is a frontier, there are two kinds of creatures walking on Allah’s earth, the powerful on one side, and the powerless on the other.” The young Fatima asks Mina how she can tell on which side she stood. Mina’s answer was “quick, short and very clear: If you can’t get out, you are on the powerless side.”

In her work, Mernissi relentlessly interrogated the various forms of this hudud—“the veil” or hijab being one of them—all of them manmade lines of control meant to keep women or the powerless in or out. To explain the private and public abjection that Muslim women experienced in normative male-centered Islamic societies under Sharia or Islamic law, Mernissi undertook an exhaustive scholarly and intellectual engagement with Islamic religious texts, including the Quran, the canonical commentaries on the Quran, the Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet), and other religious and juridical texts of the Sharia. Through rigorous, patient and elegant exculpations, and verifications of concordances, Mernissi imaginatively deconstructed and interpreted the myths of women’s inferiority postulated by the Imams—spiritual leaders—as a cosmic fact in the Muslim community. Mernissi contended that the challenge of modernity to Islam was to balance ta’a (obedience) with ra’y (individual opinion), ‘aql (reason) and khayal (imagination), powerful concepts with varied interpretations in different historical periods of political Islam. A practicing Muslim, Mernissi’s own relationship to her religion manifested all four forces in equal measure.

In The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, Mernissi contended that “not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but the manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies.” In a society segregated by hudud, the Quranic exegetical “evidence” of women’s inferiority proffered by the Imams demanded that men enforce the cosmic submission of women. With scrupulous granularity, Mernissi connected the abjection of woman to man, and man to the Imam and the Caliph. In Forgotten Queens of Islam, Mernissi noted that political Islam must tear away two veils to embrace democracy: the veil separating the woman from the world, and the veil separating the caliph from the will of the people.

As a sociologist, Mernissi captured the voice of the common people of Morocco in her writing. Mernissi talked to the fruit vendor, the carpet weaver, the unemployed graduate, the newspaper vendor, and the vegetable seller, threading their views onto the larger philosophical and political debates touching Arab and international affairs. Writing in the genre of sociological life histories, in Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women, Mernissi presented the daily challenges faced by nine ordinary Moroccan women from all walks of life, a first in Moroccan feminist studies.

Mernissi’s passing impacts transnational feminist scholarship and Arab intellectual thought in profound and significant ways. In particular, the art of jadal—reasoned and logical argumentation—that Mernissi practiced in her most exacting critiques of the East and the West remains a vital corrective to the divisive and violent discourse animating our current conversations about the Arab world on both sides of the debate.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


Dr. Gayatri Devi is associate professor of English and women’s studies at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. A founding member of the campus women’s center, the HOPE Center, she has also served as the elected faculty coordinator of the Women and Gender Studies program.