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Fatema Mernissi: Beyond the Veil of Cross-Cultural Misconceptions PDF Print E-mail


Al Waref Figure of the Month
By Alissa Orlando

The Al-Waref Institute recognizes Fatema Mernissi as the Figure of the Month for July.  This Moroccan feminist writer reconciles traditional Islam with progressive feminism.  Her pioneering vision of civil society has inspired others in the Muslim and Western worlds to reexamine their values and perspectives.

Like many revered thinkers, Fatema Mernissi’s early childhood shaped her later works.  Born in Fez, Morocco in 1940, Mernissi belonged to a family of affluent agriculturists.  Although she was shielded from the poverty most Moroccans faced, Mernissi grew up in her family’s traditional domestic harem.  The purpose of such a harem is to keep women out of the public sphere and away from men outside of the family.  Her isolation from the world connected her to the other women confined to the harem.  These feelings of seclusion from society inspired her memoir, Dreams of Trespass, a work that garnered critical acclaim for its illustrative depiction of harem life.
Mernissi received her primary education at a Koranic school, which was established by the nationalist movement.  She attained her degree in political science from University Mohammad V.  She was then awarded a scholarship to study at Sorbonne in France and completed her doctorate in sociology at Brandeis University in the United States.  After six years abroad, Mernissi returned to her homeland to teach sociology at University Mohammad V in Rabat.  It was then she began to share her revolutionary interpretation of Islam with young thinkers and open-minded readers.
Mernissi’s first work, Beyond the Veil, has shaped the sociological discussion concerning women in the Muslim world.  Beyond the Veil challenges the dichotomy between Western and traditional Muslim interpretations of sexuality.  Mernissi interprets the Koran as acknowledging the strength and aggressive femininity of women.  This controversial assertion established her as a credited Islamic scholar and normalized the discussion of women’s rights in Muslim societies.
Mernissi’s following works continued to reconcile the progressive ideas of feminism and democracy and the traditional practice of Islam.  In Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women¸ Mernissi interviews eleven Moroccan women.  She gains insight into the challenges of domestic life and the significance of economic empowerment.  The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Islam highlights the influential political roles women played during Islam’s nascent development.  It features Mohammad’s wives and the equal spiritual and property rights they retained during this early period.  The theme of political involvement continued in her next book, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, which showcased women from the eighth century that influenced civil society. 
In 1992, Mernissi broadened the focus of her work.  Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World and Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory both address the Muslim world’s opposition to democracy.  Mernissi asserts this resistance is rooted in a desire to cling to social order but restricts women’s rights.  Attuned to the cultural misconceptions between East and West, Mernissi’s book Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems exposes the difference between the west’s perception of a harem as an epicenter of sexuality and the reality of a harem as an epicenter of intellectual development.   As in all of her writings, Mernissi urges both Western and Muslim societies against making hasty and uninformed cross-cultural assumptions.
Mernissi has achieved critical acclaim for her feminist convictions, storytelling techniques, shrewd intelligence, and fervent optimism.  Groups such as the UNESCO and ILO have recruited her research ability, and the Prince of Asturias Foundation recognized her significant contributions to the field of sociology. 
But the reach of her works cannot be quantified by awards or recognition.  As said in a review in the Cairo Times, Mernissi’s works “provide insight into the human condition and a moral framework based on our common humanity, not on a specific religion or culture.”
An overarching theme in all of Mernissi’s works is what separates mankind from one another.  With her every word, Mernissi chips at the boundaries societies have established between East and West, men and women, tradition and progress, moving us towards a more open and free world.
To learn more about Fatema Mernissi and her works, please visit:
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