Fatima Mernissi (b. 1940) is a Moroccan sociologist and writer. Born in Fez to a middle-class family, Mernissi studied at the Mohammed V University in Rabat and later went to Paris, where she worked briefly as a journalist. She pursued her graduate education in the United States and in 1973 obtained a PhD in sociology from Brandeis University. Returning to Morocco, she joined the sociology department at Mohammed V University, where she long lectured while also holding a research appointment at the Moroccan Institut Universitaire de Recherche Scientifique, also in Rabat.
As one of the best known Arab-Muslim feminists, Mernissi 's influence extends beyond a narrow circle of intellectuals. She is a recognized public figure in her own country and abroad, especially in France, where she is well known in feminist circles. Her major books have been translated into several languages, including English, German, Dutch, and Japanese. She writes regularly on women's issues in the popular press, participates in public debates promoting the cause of Muslim women internationally, and has supervised the publication of a series of books on the legal status of women in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
Mernissi 's work explores the relationship between sexual ideology, gender identity, sociopolitical organization, and the status of women in Islam; her special focus, however, is Moroccan society and culture. As a feminist, her work represents an attempt to undermine the ideological and political systems that silence and oppress Muslim women. She does this in two ways: first, by challenging the dominant Muslim male discourse concerning women and their sexuality, and second, by providing the “silent” woman with a “voice” to tell her own story. Her book Doing Daily Battle (1988) is a collection of annotated interviews with Moroccan women who present a lucid account of the painful reality of their lives as they struggle against poverty, illiteracy, and sexual oppression.
From her first book, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (1975), Mernissi has sought to reclaim the ideological discourse on women and sexuality from the stranglehold of patriarchy. She critically examines the classical corpus of religious-juristic texts, including the ḥadīth, and reinterprets them from a feminist perspective. In her view, the Muslim ideal of the “silent, passive, obedient woman” has nothing to do with the authentic message of Islam. Rather, it is a construction of the ‘ ulamā ’, the male jurists-theologians who manipulated and distorted the religious texts in order to preserve the patriarchal system.
For Mernissi, Islamic sexual ideology is predicated on a belief that women's inherent sexual power, if left uncontrolled, would wreak havoc on the male-defined social order—hence the necessity to control women's sexuality and to safeguard Muslim society through veiling, segregation, and the legal subordination of women. Mernissi 's work explores the impact of this historically constituted ideological system on the construction of gender and the organization of domestic and political life in Muslim society today. One book, The Veil and the Male Elite (first published in French in 1987), critically examines the historical context of Muslim law and tradition and argues that the original message of the Prophet Muḥammad, which called for equality between the sexes, has been misrepresented by later political leaders and religious scholars. This argument is still vitally important today, particularly with the advent of the Arab Spring and its implications for gender relations.
Since the early twenty-first century, Mernissi has been conducting research on the social impact of the pan-Arab satellite television channels, culminating in her book Journalistes Marocaines: Génération Dialogue (2012). She believes that satellite channels have created a space where the free flow of information and debate are possible, and that this has changed both communication behavior within families and, ultimately, the image of women. Mernissi further asserts that the satellite networks have played a large role in the Arab Spring.
See also FEMINISM and WOMEN AND SOCIAL REFORM, subentry onSOCIAL REFORM IN NORTH AFRICA.
- Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Rev. ed.Bloomington, Ind., 1987.
- Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women (edited by Mernissi). Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. New Brunswick, N.J., 1988.
- Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Reading, Mass., 1994.
- The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.
- Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass., 1992.
- Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems. New York, 2001.
- The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass., 1991.
- Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Oxford, 1991.
- Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory. London, 1996.
The following works by Fatima Mernissi are among those available in English:
Fatema Mernissi, Moroccan sociologist and writer (born Sept. 27, 1940, Fez, Mor.—died Nov. 30, 2015, Rabat, Mor.), was a pioneer in the field of Islamicfeminism and argued for social justice for women within Morocco and beyond. Although her parents had a monogamous marriage, she grew up living in a harem with her mother and grandmother, who was one of her grandfather’s nine wives. Mernissi described her early life within that domestic harem in her 1994 memoir, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Her relatively progressive father permitted her to pursue a formal education—unlike her illiterate mother and grandmother. She studied sociology at Muhammad V University in Rabat and the Sorbonne in Paris, where she briefly worked as a journalist. After having earned a Ph.D. (1973) at Brandeis University, she returned home to teach sociology at Muhammad V University and to pursue research at the Moroccan Institut Universitaire de Recherche Scientifique. Mernissi’s scholarly books include Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (1975; revised from her Ph.D. dissertation), Le Harem politique: le Prophète et les femmes (1987; The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, 1991), Sultanes oubliées (1990; The Forgotten Queens of Islam, 1993), La Peur—modernité: confit Islam démocratie (1992; Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, 1992), and the autobiographical Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (2001).