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Inspiring Thursday: Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi is a distinguished Moroccan writer and sociologist and a well-known name in the Arab intellectual world, the Middle East, and North Africa. She was one of the most influential women who was able to influence the Muslim women’s movement, thus calling her the founder of Islamic feminism. The 1967 war, known as the Six Day War, marked a turning point in Arab nationalism. This war is in fact the Arab defeat against the Israel State. In the minds of the Arab intellectuals, it was the result of years of backwardness in the Arab world. Fatema Mernissi is one of the intellectuals who, after the defeat of the Arabs in this war, like her contemporaries, sought to analyse the cause of this defeat and, by emphasizing the cultural status of her society, examined the indicators of the decline of Arab women. Fatema Mernissi was born in 1940 in Morocco. She began her education in religious and Quranic schools and until the age of 20, she could only speak Arabic. After completing her undergraduate studies at the Sorbonne, she studied political science and eventually received her doctorate from Brandis University. Many consider her the founder of feminism in Morocco. Although much of her research has focused on this subject, her vision and worldview go beyond that. Mernissi believed in freedom and democracy in her path and considered this freedom necessary not only for women but also for men. In her first work, “Women in the Muslim Subconscious,” she examined the psychological dimensions of Muslim society toward women and concluded that in order to achieve equality, Muslim men also needed to be able to free themselves from their limited mental space and try to develop various social and economic dimensions. In the late 1980s, under the leadership of Fatema Mernissi, social activists and equal rights advocates in Morocco and Tunisia began a massive mobilization in response to the rise of fundamentalism in the region. Fatema Mernissi was one of the leading figures in democracy and women’s rights in Tunisia, and she showed very well the connection between women’s equality and democracy. She had a profound impact not only on the Moroccan women’s movement but also on the Middle East women’s movement. Attention to the relationship between democracy, human rights, the defence of equal minorities, and the issue of women is evident in the goals and identities and even the names of associations formed in Morocco in the 1980s and 1990s, including the Moroccan Women’s Democratic Association. During these years, a women’s rights group, the Women’s Movement Union, and its allies called for the reform of unjust laws and equal rights for women, thus accelerating the reform movement. In such an atmosphere, in 1992, a campaign called “One Million Signatures” was launched, which was able to collect more than one million signatures in support of the campaign in a short period of time with the help of activists such as Mernissi. This movement, along with other movements such as holding seminars, demonstrations, etc., succeeded in convincing Egypt central state of the need for reform. So, she ordered a new set of rules to be drafted in consultation with women’s groups. This small victory, however, provided a set of domestic and international factors for the 1996 constitutional amendment. Mernissi was a person who introduced religious hermeneutics (the science of interpreting texts) into women’s studies in a new way.  During her travels throughout Morocco, she not only collected statistics, but also interviewed many Moroccan women and collected pure narratives in the language of women, one of the most important narrative writings in the field of women. This research was conducted in the 70s and 80s for UNESCO and the International Labour Organization, whose central theme was “Women and Labor”. One of Mernissi’s most important analyses is the difference between the unequal view of women in the West and in Muslim countries. He believes that in the Western view, women have in fact been “less” than men and have strived for equality and equal status. While in some Muslim countries, women are not considered less than men, but women are a tempting and dangerous force that is why they must stay at home. Mernissi also attributes this view to many discriminatory and sexist laws. She, who separates the Holy Qur’an from other religious texts, says that many texts are fabrications that have been written throughout history to restrict women and do not have a proper religious basis. Fatema Mernissi’s views were criticized by Arab intellectuals, even Arab women intellectuals, accusing her of imposing Western culture in Muslim countries. The importance of this issue is due to the war between the Arabs and Israel and the sense of patriotism of the Arab community as result of it. Mersini published her first book in 1975 in a quasi-modern Moroccan society entitled as “Beyond the Veil and Ethnocentrism”. This work is a classic anthropological and sociological text about Muslim Arab women and the lands adjacent to the Mediterranean Sea. In this book, she sought the term ideological discourse on women and sexuality, a discourse hidden in the dilemma of patriarchy in Muslim societies. In Mernissi’s view, the ideal of a silent, passive, and obedient woman has nothing to do with the authentic teachings of Islam, and this is the structure created by scholars, religious jurists for distorting religious texts in order to maintain a patriarchal system.

Written by WAVE intern Homa Bazafkan

Sources:

Fatima Mernissi obituary | World news | The Guardian

What’s Inside – Oxford Islamic Studies Online

Beyond the Veil – Saqi Books

Fatima Mernissi: going beyond the veil to fight misogynist interpretations of Islam (archive.org)

Notable Feminist Fatema Mernissi – Morocco.com