Moroccan sociologist and feminist writer Fatima Mernissi passed away on the 30th of November, aged 75. As the news broke on social media, many of us at MMW shared stories about the lasting impact Mernissi had on our lives, and what we had learned from this pioneer of Muslim feminism. Here is that conversation.
Sya: As an undergrad some 10 years ago, a fellow student once asked me, in the lull between lessons, if I had a crush on any celebrity. I thought for a moment and told her that no, I didn’t, but I did have an obsession with a certain female scholar. I was referring to Fatema Mernissi.
Tasnim: I can identify with that – since Mernissi was the first person I encountered who saw no contradiction between being Muslim and being a feminist, she became a role model for me in my teens. Not necessarily in the sense of “when I grow up I want to be like her” but in the sense that this is possible too – this is a valid way to be a Muslim. The first book I read was The Veil and the Male Elite, and to be honest, I struggled with it – but that was the value of this book for me. It was probably the first book that challenged the “truths” I had grown up with, and on some level, though always uncomfortable with some ideas, had assumed were accepted truths for people who called themselves Muslims. What were the first books you read by her?
Eren: I was first introduced to Sheherezade Goes West, which does not only explore the “harem” from a Muslim perspective, but also shows how the “harem” is Orientalized and over-sexualized in Western societies. In reading this book, I came to understand Mernissi as a feminist that did not only contribute to Islamic feminist movements, but that also countered the hegemony of Western-white feminism. As the years went by I got to read The Veil and the Male Elite, which continues to be essential to my understanding of gender and power from a Muslim perspective, and The Forgotten Queens of Islam, which in my view, should be the go-to book when analyzing prominent Muslim women figures in Islamic history.
Sya: The first book I read was The Veil and the Male Elite, followed by whatever I could find in the public libraries of Singapore. This was before I could afford to buy books, and I remember feeling so grateful that someone had the good sense to include just one copy of a few of Mernissi’s translated works in all of Singapore’s public libraries. I devoured them all.
Shireen: For me, Beyond the Veil was the first book on Islamic Feminism that I had ever read. It was a hot day in the summer of 1996 and I was perusing the Women’s Bookstore at University of Toronto campus. It was a delight to come across something like that. Particularly when the Women and Gender Studies departments were drowning in Second Wave white feminism. Terms like “intersectionality” and “white saviourism” were not accessible to me. I picked it up and read it. In fact, I sat down on the faded carpet and read the entire book in one afternoon as I sipped my coffee that had gotten cold.
Eren: Mernissi’s work will always have a special place in my heart, in part because I discovered her work as I navigated my first year as a convert.
Tasnim: I think quite a few of us read Mernissi at a formative part of our lives.
Sya: Yes. I was in a time in my life where I was starting to question my beliefs in some of the doctrines I had been raised with (Sunni Shafii Islam with no hint of independent thinking whatsoever). Here was a female scholar who based her arguments on original Arabic sources and said things I had never heard being said in all of my childhood and adult religious education: that concepts like feminism and democracy were not alien to Islam, or that hadith were not an infallible or unquestionable source of information. Reading her ideas seemed unbelievable at the time, as if I had discovered a secret no one wanted me to know.
Shireen: Before Mernissi, the only books I had read on Islam were a translation of the very orthodox ‘Behishti Zewar’ (Heavenly Ornaments) by Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi and “Return of the Pharaoh” by Zainab Al Ghazzali. The latter was not a book on Islamic Feminism, per se. But it carefully described Ghazzali’s accounts as fighting to practice her faith (her choice) and being oppressed for it. I considered her badassery a feminist revolt. In similar ways, Mernissi’s book resonated with me because it addresses issues of patriarchy and choice and self-expression.
Krista: I experienced Mernissi’s work a little differently. When the news of her passing began to circulate on social media, I noticed many of my friends (including some of you) posting messages about how she had changed their lives. Although I, too, felt sad to hear the news, I felt a bit of distance in relation to some of the other reactions I was seeing. It’s not that I don’t appreciate her work – I do, and I cite her in my own writing – but I read her later in my development as a Muslim feminist, when my life had already been changed by other writers. By the time I read any of her books, I found her work to be intelligent and useful, but my thinking on a lot of topics had been transformed already, so I didn’t end up with the kind of intense personal connection to her that many people I know have expressed in the last week.
Sya: I would say Mernissi changed my life. Because of her, I chose to go to Morocco to fulfil my degree’s internship requirements at a women’s rights organisation in Rabat: the Democratic Women’s Association of Morocco, or ADFM. Surrounded by students who chose to work in banks and government departments, this was just the start of learning to find my own way and calling in life. With her knowledge, Mernissi was one of the first scholars who gave me the security that Islam truly had an epistemological and physical space – not merely an apologetic one – for women. She gave me the tools (and the tricks) to think, read, feel and learn.
Shireen: I think for many of us the connection comes from the formative experience we were talking about. Like many other women who looked for guidance and ideas on Islamic feminism and de-colonialism, Mernissi was the starting point for me. That said, I did not wear hijab when I read “Beyond the Veil” and I had a few criticisms of the book. Some that would later be written. Mernissi defined ‘Muslim’ as those who are living under theocratic rule. That definition did not include me. I was born and lived most of my life in Canada. I chose to practice. Technically, I didn’t fit the model of Mernissi’s ‘Muslim’. But I understood that she drew her experiences from her life and the lives of other women in Morocco.
Eren: I also cannot say that I always agreed with her, for instance her analysis of democracy in The Forgotten Queens of Islam was problematic in my view, something I addressed in my MMW review.
Shireen: I think that her addressing hijab particularly as a central theme in many of her books was exhausting for me. I was debating whether to wear it or not (I started soon after and still wear it) and I felt like I had to mentally unpack from her point that it was a reinforcement of control of Muslim women. As someone who wants to move away from hijab as being the most central symbol of a woman’s faith, I felt that Mernissi constantly re-emphasized it. This being said, she could not have imagined the hijab-fetishes and internet imagery that would inundate our lives. Keeping in mind, there are so many Muslim women who do not choose to cover. But at the time, any conversations about exotic, veiled women were reductive, if they were had at all. So I didn’t always agree with Mernissi’s perspective — but I feel like that was the point. To get Muslim women to think critically, to share and to debate.
Eren: Yes. Despite not agreeing with everything she wrote, Mernissi did two things for me. First, she taught me that feminist struggles have a long history in the Third World, as proven by her historical accounts of Muslim societies. She, along with women like Amina Wadud, taught me that women of colour and women in the Third World have a lot to offer to feminist movements and to Muslim communities.
Krista: I’m glad you mentioned Wadud, Eren – one of the reasons that Mernissi’s work didn’t rock my whole world when I read it is that there is now a lot of Muslim feminist work out there, which I happened to read first. This was not the case at the time Mernissi was first writing – her early writings came at a time where very little else was published that looked at Islam and gender in the way she did, and she didn’t have a community of like-minded writers to lean on. Judging by the reactions that I have seen to her passing, however, it seems clear that she played a major role in creating and bringing together such a community. In fact, when I looked at the books that have had the biggest impact on me (among others, Wadud, Kecia Ali, and Sa’diyyah Shaikh), I was not surprised to find that every single one lists Mernissi in the bibliography. So I am indebted to her in many ways, as it turns out, and deeply grateful to her for being one of the trailblazers in this field.
Eren: She was a trail blazer, but also willing to learn from others. Above all, I appreciated that authenticity. One can actually see her evolution as a feminist and as an Islamic feminist throughout her works, and that speaks to a scholar that is aware and that continues to strive to learn and understand. She refused to become an irrelevant feminist by becoming “boxed” into her early ideas about feminism and Islam; instead, she continued to analyze power and gender from a variety of perspectives, always making sure that her work was relevant to younger Muslim women and women of colour…and for that, I will always be thankful.
Tasnim: Because she was one of the first to do this kind of work, there was space clearing work to be done. You can sense that kind of deliberateness in her books – but she managed to do it with an awareness of her perspective that kept her from speaking for others, I think. For example, in an interview with Charlie Rose, back in 1994, Mernissi’s point about her particular experience, documented in Dreams of Trespass, is applied across the Middle East as Rose extrapolates and asks if she thinks all women in the region experience their lives as a “prison.” She’s quick to correct that assumption, to point out that women in the region are university graduates and so on. On the one hand, she was clear about the challenges women face, but she didn’t allow her work to feed stereotypes.
Shireen: I applaud her for starting and controlling a discussion in the first place from an intelligent and academic perspective. My own professors did not know much of her work and they preferred to use white, Western academics to discuss ‘Women of the East and the Orient’. Mernissi’s existence was proof that a woman who identified strongly as Muslim could critique her culture and faith. Her voice and advocacy deserved amplification. Reading Mernissi always brought up fantastic discussions particularly about democracy. Her opinions on the realities of French colonialism and the realities of living during that period are incredible. She was unapologetic in her commentary, she was a pioneer and a legend, and she deeply influenced the way I look at feminism. I may just re-read Dreams of Trespass one more time.
Sya: I would say Mernissi gave me the courage to question and challenge my communities through writing and speaking. By combining two parts of my life that had long seemed disparate (Islam and feminism), she helped me to confidently bring parts of my selves together to work at what I love best: writing and advocacy for the marginalised. This is my favourite quote from her:
“Writing is one of the most ancient forms of prayer. To write is to believe that communication is possible, that other people are good and that you can awake their generosity and their desire to be better.”
Shireen: That’s beautiful. Here’s another quote I like from her: “Dignity is to have a dream, a strong one, which gives you a vision, a world where you have a place, where whatever it is you have to contribute makes a difference.”
Tasnim: She certainly made a difference with what she had to contribute – in some way, she has changed all our lives, and I know that many of us will be returning to her books for many years to come.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un. May she rest in peace.