Rebel for the Sake of Women

The Moroccan author and researcher Fatema Mernissi argues that despite the merits of the Arabic nationalists, who allowed women to gain access to education, many ideas have not yet been accomplished. Nong Darol Mahmada reports

Photo: AP
Mernissi received the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters in Spain 2003

​​Fatima Mernissi was born in 1940 in Fez, Morocco. She grew up in a harem along with her mother, grandmothers and other sisters. It was a harem guarded strictly by a janitor so that the women could not escape from it. The harem was well-maintained and served by a maid servant. Her grandmother, Yasmina, is one of nine wives but the same fate did not fall upon her mother. Her father took only one wife and did not choose polygamy since the nationalists rejected polygamy. Even so, her mother was illiterate because she spent all of her time inside the harem.

Creation of a new Morocco

When she was born, Moroccan nationalists successfully decolonized the country from French rule. As she related: "If I was born two years earlier, I would not have obtained an education. I was born at the right time." The nationalists who fought against France promised to create a new Morocco with equality for everyone. Women and men had equal access to education. The nationalists also sought to abolish the practice of polygamy.

Fatima was lucky that despite her life in a harem, she got the opportunity to acquire a higher education. In her book The Harem Within, Mernissi tells us about her childhood in a harem in Fez. But it’s only part of the book as her childhood was not as wonderful as depicted in the book. For example, although she illustrates life in the harem appealingly, she does not ignore the oppression for those inside.

Different Cultures, Different Harems

She explained how women in the harems looked up to the sky and dreamt about simple things like walking freely on the street, or how they might peep at the outside world through key holes.

Dreams of Trespass. Tales of a Harem Girlhood

​​To Mernissi, westerners always visualize harems as castles. She distinguishes between the high class harem (imperial) and the ordinary harem (domestic). The Westerners imagination is about the high class harems of rich and powerful men with hundreds of female slaves guarded strictly by a kasim. This sort of harem ceased to exist in World War I when the Ottoman Empire was destroyed and those practices were forbidden by the new Western rulers. Mernissi lived in an ordinary harem of the kind which still exists in the Gulf countries.

Since she was a little girl, Mernissi was involved in the national upheaval of thought and raised wild questions for instance on the limits imposed between boys and girls. The little Mernissi asked, if there is an approved boundary between boys and girls, why is it only girls who are covered and limited. She only posed such questions to her grandma Yasmina who could not reply since it was too dangerous for her.

At that time she also had an ambivalent relation with religion, due to the difference and tension between the perspective of al-Qur’an she perceived in the school of al-Qur’an and what was taught by her grandma. She was taught strictly in the school where she should memorize al-Qur’an everyday. She was constantly berated, yelled at and beaten whenever she made a mistake. Thus she viewed religion as something to be afraid of.

On the other hand, the little Mernissi perceived the beauty of religion through her grandmother Yasmina, who lead her towards the poetic side of religion. Her grandma frequently told the story about her hajj and enthusiastically told Mernissi about Mecca and Medina. She constantly talked about Medina and ignored the other cities like Arafah and Mina. This influenced Mernissi so much that she became obsessed with Medina.

A gate to escape obstacles

Mernissi nursed this attitude for many years. To her, al-Qur’an depends on our perspective and on our perception toward it. These holy verses could be the gate to escape from or instead be an obstacle. To her al-Qur’an can lead us towards dream or instead damage our fortitude.

When Mernissi became a teenager, she started having religious lessons. She found it heart breaking: "Some Hadiths (prophetic tradition) originated from "Kitab Bukhari" which are told by the teachers hurt me. They state that the Prophet said: “Dog, donkey and woman would annul anyone’s prayer whenever they pass ahead them, break off between the praying man and kiblah."

The upheaval in Mernissis thinking

I was shocked to hear that sort of Hadiths and never repeat it with the hopes that silent would wipe away this Hadiths out of my mind. I asked, "How come the Prophet said that sort of Hadits which hurt me so much... how could the beloved Muhammad hurt a little girl who is in her growth, attempt to make him as pillars of her romantic dreams."

Mernissi experienced an upheaval in her thinking. Yet despite the merits of the nationalists who allowed women to get an education, Mernissi admitted that many ideas of Arabic nationalism are still to be accomplished. Polygamy is not yet forbidden, women cannot achieve equal status and democracy has not yet become established in the Arab world.

Beyond the Veil. Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society

​​Currently, Mernissi has obtained her master in politics from Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, and a PhD from University of Brandeis in America in 1973. Her dissertation, Beyond the Veil, become a text book and a key reference in the west about women and Islam.

At the moment, she works as a lecturer of Sociology at Mohammed V Rabat University where she graduated. She is well-known as a Muslim feminist in North Africa and is a prominent activist in the Islamic world.

Thought and works

I notice that Mernissi’s works stem from her individual experiences which triggered her to conduct historical research about things which have disturbed her religious comprehension. For example, in her work The Veil and Male Elite which she revised later as Women and Islam: A Historical and Theological Enquiry, her investigation of the sacred texts of al-Qur’an and Hadiths is based on her individual experience, as for instance the case of the misogynist Hadiths which equate a females position to that of dogs and donkeys.

Mernissi’s heartbreak deepened when she heard about Hadiths regarding female leadership. Her motivation to investigate such Hadiths seriously was instigated by the Hadiths spoken by a trader in the market who negated female leadership. Surprised by her questions, the trader quoted the Hadith that "there is no salvation within society led by females."

To her, this indicates that the Hadiths are embedded within the Muslim community and that therefore female leadership is still debatable despite the case of Benazir Buttho who became the prime minister of Pakistan and despite the fact that al-Qur’an discusses the leadership of Queen Bilqis.

She is also concerned with another matter: the hijab. The topic of hijab has dominated her intellectual career. The hijab, which is a instrument of limitation, segregation and isolation which is used to keep women out of the public space. To her hijab means segregation and is used as a medium of asserting hierarchy between the rulers and the people.

Scheherazade Goes West. Different Cultures, Different Harems

​​She communicates her understanding through interpretations of al-Qur’an and Hadiths and through historical research and sociological analyses. Her goal is to deliver an alternative interpretation through her books The Forgotten Queen in Islam and Islam and Democracy.

In these works she attempts to show that the defects within Arab governments are not inherent in religious teachings, but that they are due to the manipulation of the religious teaching by rulers for their own interests. Nevertheless, Mernissi defends Arab countries when they are maligned by the western press.

Manipulation of religion

In most of her works, she attempts to illustrate that religious teachings can be easily manipulated and for that reason she believes that the oppression of woman is not part of the real teaching of Islam. That’s why she is careful not to oppose sacred tradition. Most of her articles regarding woman express these notions. We can see this, for example, in her book Rebellion's Women and Islamic Memory, (London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1996).

In conclusion, her articles are rich in sociological analyses. In the works mentioned above and in her published dissertation, Beyond the Veil, she writes specifically about her research on Moroccan woman and about the sexual limits placed on woman. Nevertheless, her intellectual struggle and experience can be seen as representative of Muslim matters in general.

Nong Darol Mahmada, © Liberal Islam Network 2004

Click here to get to Fatima Mernissi's website.