Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fatima Mernissi is an Islamic feminist who challenges the Muslim elite and the western preconceived views of the Muslim woman through a series of academic writings. As an activist, she believes in providing evidence for her arguments, and thus most of her work is written in the form of essays or research reports. Her life’s work builds upon her goal of achieving gender equality and women’s rights, through her rejection of oppressive Muslim regimes and ignorant western misconceptions.
Mernissi was born in 1940 in Fez, Morocco, and grew up in a Harem, where she got to know this oppressive institution first hand. Through personal experience and what she learned from the other women in the Harem, she very soon realized that women in Morocco had fewer rights than men. She began her education in a Koranic primary school, but later went on to a French secondary school, where she learnt more about world views and how women in other countries had more freedom than women in Morocco. Intrigued with the gender inequality, she left Morocco to go study political science and sociology at the Sorbonne, in Paris, and later at Brandeis University (Sabra).
As a college student in France, she comes into direct contact with the western world. She realizes how distorted were the perceptions the west had about Muslims, herself included, and vice versa. “Mernissi wanted to get to the bottom of these distorted mutual perceptions and wrote her doctoral thesis on gender and women in the East and West” (Sabra). This study, which she publishes in 1975 as Beyond the veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, is Mernissi’s debut as a feminist, and the first time she openly challenges Muslim and western worlds by trying to become “an agent for modernity” (Fonseca). In this essay, she argues that gender inequality and traditional Islam are outdated in modern society and should undergo dramatic changes in order to fit in with modern standards for globalization.
After her first successful essay, which is now available in 6 languages, and is “regarded as a classic book in the United States”, Mernissi develops the idea of veiling a little further (Mernissi). In 1988 she publishes The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam, which clearly reveals her thoughts on feminism from just looking at the title. She believes the male elite veils women literally and figuratively; literally by the imposition of the veil in some Muslim countries, and figuratively because it restricts her freedoms and rights. The male elite justifies restricting women’s freedom as a religious compliance with Qur’anic laws (Sabra). According to the elite, Qur’anic texts clearly state that women should not be allowed certain freedoms and rights. However, Mernissi argues that these laws do not specify such things; they have just been misinterpreted to favor the ruling elite. After various years of research and going through ancient Islamic texts, she challenges the state by sustaining that Mohammed wanted a Muslim nation based on equality, meaning that both men and women should have equal rights and freedom, thus indirectly condemning the state as heretic (Kramer).
Mernissi wonders how the state had managed to sustain the inequality for so long, and comes up with some conclusions. By deeming women as inferior based on religious texts, the state manages to restrict women’s education, thus leaving them unable to read the very verses which oppress them. New generations of women grow up in ignorance, believing the elite when they say religious texts revealed by the prophet are the ones that deem them inferior, until the moment comes where feminist authors and activists, like Mernissi, challenge these interpretations and create awareness about this injustice. Mernissi challenges the male elite, which has been in charge of Muslim states for many years, by questioning their motives behind this withdrawal of information.
In 1988, and to everyone’s surprise, Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister of Pakistan and becomes the first woman to lead a Muslim state. Many people in power condemn her appointment as blasphemous and demand that she be removed from the position immediately, as a woman can never be the leader of a Muslim nation. Annoyed, Mernissi decides to prove them wrong, and in 1990, after arduous research, she publishes a controversial essay that challenges both Muslim and western nations by claiming that Muslim women had been in power in the past. In Forgotten Queens of Islam she retells the story of fifteen Islamic queens, their rise to power, and their achievements, thus proving wrong everyone that thought a woman could not run a Muslim state (Fonseca). Mernissi argues that the fact that these women and their stories were forgotten further proves that information is controlled by those who are in power, the male elite, and is used against women.
Mernissi also challenges the way most Arab women are represented in the western world.  Far from aiding multiculturalism, technology in the western world is sometimes deceiving in its depiction of other cultures. Typing “Arab woman” into Google, one of the most important search engines in an ever-growing technological era, results in a series of pictures depicting two extremes; on the one side, a fully veiled woman, and on the other, a naked one.

Both extremes are wrong in depicting the reality of the Arab woman. Mernissi challenges these views by portraying strong, empowered Muslim women in Forgotten Queens of Islam. Her research is vital for a better understanding of Muslim culture by the western world.
After many years of writing essays, she realizes that maybe the format of her writing was not very appealing to some readers. Mernissi responds by this by writing a fictitious novel in 1994, which became so popular that it was translated into 25 languages (Mernissi). Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Childhood is her personal memoir, recounted through the innocent and untainted eyes of a little girl growing up in a Harem. Her captivating narrative manages to attract readers from various backgrounds in the charming story of a little girl, while at the same time creates awareness of the feminist cause and challenges erroneous views from both Muslims and westerners. The western reader, expecting to be confronted with the ugly reality of a little girl living in harsh circumstances in an oppressive harem, is taken aback by the tranquility with which the story flows. The reader in trapped in the adventures of little Fatima, relating to many of the things she narrates, as everyone was a child at some point, and manages to detach from the preconceived image of the Arab woman engraved in their brains by the media. However, by the end of the novel, Mernissi develops the idea of gender inequality and ends the story on a sour note (Abdo). Through this memoir, Mernissi aims to break preconceived images of the imperial harem, making the argument that not all women live in harems, and not all male figures are oppressive. She also wants to emphasize that even though some Muslim women are free in many ways, others are still very much oppressed.
For Muslim readers, Mernissi tries to create awareness “of the damage that religious, national and cultural discourses impose on women” (Abdo). Women’s voices are not particularly loud in the Muslim world, thus, not a lot of people know what they think about their lives and whether they feel fulfilled or not. Mernissi manages to convey different perspectives about the Harem, and personal views of the characters towards different aspects of life in a Harem. Some Muslim readers might turn away from feminist texts and women’s request for freedom, but the innocence of a child learning her limits and prohibitions, and losing her best friend, makes the reader feel more sympathy towards the child, and thus, the feminist cause.
Mernissi continues researching and writing, and by 1992 she publishes Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. In this essay, she argues for and against western involvement in Muslim culture. According to her, Islamic fundamentalists are afraid of the modern world, mostly because they do not want to lose their identities, or exchange Muslim traditions for western ones. However, Mernissi argues that some foreign involvement is necessary for the modernization of Morocco and other Muslim nations. She argues that women will never get the rights they deserve under a dictatorial or religious government, thus, in order for women to get their rights, Muslim states must become modern and democratic. One the one hand, government officials argue that “God revealed his sacred law, the shari’a, obviating all need for human legislation or legislators” and the king is there to ensure shari’a is enforced. A democratic government would make people to think that they have a say in the law, which would be heretic, since we are talking about religious law, and god is the only one who makes the law (Kramer). On the other hand, Mernissi argues that Islam can still function around a democratic government and that some foreign involvement is both needed and beneficial.
Fatima Mernissi is a very well known feminist that has had a strong impact in the Muslim and western worlds, as she has written many essays in English and French, and translated many of her works into various languages to expand her audience. Nowadays, she keeps writing about these issues and developing her work in terms of current global events. Through her research, she builds upon her knowledge, providing a stronger basis for her arguments, and coming across as a feminist which is 100% involved in her ideals, distinguishing her from others who may write about what they think but not necessarily prove their points with factual information.