On November 30, Fatema Mernissi passed away of cancer in Rabat, Morocco at the age of 75. Few Americans or Europeans have ever heard of her, I know. That is not likely to change with her death. Margalit Fox’s excellent feature obituary in the December 9 New York Times was the only significant literary eulogy to appear in the American press. Mernissi’s passing got somewhat more attention in France, since most of her 15 books were written in French, as befits her youthful attendance at the Sorbonne. But her doctorate was from Brandeis, and her first and perhaps most famous book, Beyond the Veil, was an adaptation of her dissertation, both written in English.
Why might Americans care to know about Mernissi? Because she lived her life doing what, now once again after the atrocities in Paris, Beirut, and San Bernadino, has returned under the guise of a call for a “war of ideas.” In the Western discourse on radical Islam, the same question keeps recurring: Why do traditional and serious Muslims not more avidly defend real mainstream Islam and urge reform within it in the face of radical challenges from salafi extremists? It’s not a bad question, but it is not as though no such voices have been raised. Fatema Mernissi lived her entire life on the front lines of that struggle. She fought that war of ideas long before 9/11. Without her, it is no exaggeration to say, we would be even worse off than we are.
The first time I heard of Mernissi was at a gathering with family friends in Mosul in the late 1990s. A mere teenager then, the topic under discussion intrigued me: A well-known university professor had publicly chastised a female colleague over her knee-length skirt, which, he claimed, was a source of distraction for students and professors. The female colleague answered her accuser calmly: “A man your age, at your status, and of your piety, should perhaps not be monitoring women’s attire.” On-lookers reportedly laughed at her response during the incident, and we laughed again at our retelling of the event days later. But then one of our guests said, “…and then she started rambling about women’s rights!” That brought a few shouts of encouragement, the (very) rough Arabic equivalent of “You go, girl.” “Looks like Mosul has its own Fatema Mernissi now!” another guest remarked. More laughter followed, but soon another guest quickly identified Mernissi as a “Moroccan freemason who wants women to live in hedonism.”
Even in the Mosul of the 1990s, accusations of submission to the “evil West” often chased anyone who had ideas; anyone who thought like Fatema Mernissi; anyone who dared to suggest, as she did, that there was no basis in the Qur’an for the subordination of women in Islam, that several well-known hadiths could not therefore be authentic, and more besides. One had to think twice, or more than twice, before uttering any such thing. After all, Mosul was the city that hailed Sayed Qutub, not Mernissi, not the pyramids, nor even Gamal Abdel Nasser, as North Africa’s greatest contribution to the world. Although conspiracies about Western agents sent to destroy the solid values of Muslims were quite popular and believable, even by the reckoning of my own younger self back then, there was still something that did not seem to me appropriate when a Friday sermon would revolve completely around the ill consequences of women plucking their eyebrows (this is not a joke; I wish it were). But we were “conservative,” and that entailed never objecting and never questioning religious authority—or men, for that matter.
Mernissi became aware of the misogynist plague that Middle Eastern and Muslim societies suffered from at a young age. The opening paragraph of her book Dreams of Trespass—Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994) tells of her father, a nationalist, saying, “our problems with the Christians are similar to our problem with women: neither know how to respect boundaries.” The “Christians” were the colonial forces that occupied Morocco during the course of previous century—mainly the French and the Spanish, but there were other claimants, as well. The problematic “women” her father referred to were her mother, aunts, and sisters who dreamed of crossing the “boundaries” of their aristocratic harem to navigate the streets and markets of Fez; the town of Mernissi’s birth. This incident, she wrote, sent her on a mission to redefine boundaries for women who shared her skin tone and mother tongue.
At 16 years of age, Mernissi—a student in one of Fez’s French protectorate schools—was smitten by Muhammad. But weren’t we all, and did we really have much choice? Most education systems in the Muslim world are built around idealizing the character of the Prophet. But a young Fatema saw an angle others had missed: She admired Muhammad the human, the lover who adored Aisha and named her his wife on Earth and in Paradise, thus preferring her to all the hur—the black-haired beauties; the same hur that motivates hundreds of young suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq today, who think they will meet such women in Paradise. Fatema was therefore heartbroken when her teacher recited a hadith that read, “Three things, if passing a man while praying, will invalidate the prayer: a woman, a donkey, and a black dog.” “How could Muhammad say something so hurtful? Why would he mention a woman in the same breath with a donkey and a black dog, and as a thing that invalidates a prayer?”, Fatema asked.
She refused to believe it. Her refusal led her to revisit Islam’s most sacred books after the Qur’an, one by one, carefully examining thousands of pages of the sira and other literature. She studied the thirty volumes of “Al-Tabari,” poured over Ibn Hisham’s Biography of the Prophet, Ibn Sa’ad’s Al-Tabaqat, and Ibn Hujur’s Al-Isaba fi hayat Al- Sah’aba.” She read and searched and reread the hadiths compiled in the Sahih Al-Bukhari and the Sahih Muslim. Mernissi already knew that there was innate misogyny in her society, but she needed to find its source. On account both of what she found and, more important, what she did not find, she concluded that much of women’s submission in Muslim countries was political, due to the deliberate misinterpretations of religious texts. It was not an enshrined misogyny practiced by early Muslims and passed on as authoritative tradition reaching back to the Prophet.
By the time Mernissi had finished her political science studies at the Sorbonne and earned her Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis, she knew she had found her life’s calling. When her dissertation became Beyond the Veil in 1975, and word of it got back to the region of the Arabs, eyebrows rocketed skyward as they had never rocketed before. Here was a Muslim woman openly discussing sex. Not only that, but this Muslim woman was claiming that Muslim scholars in the old, traditional sources believed women to be highly sexual—like vaginas with teeth, as she described some of the pre-Islamic Arab folktales that, she held, still influenced social attitudes. Women were equal “partners” in sexual appetites, and that recognition led male Muslim jurists to fear the disruptive power of women on society and its morals. The sexual appetites of women had to be reined in for the good of everyone; thus did the Arabic word fitna come to apply as a virtual synonym for the disruption of which women were capable with all forms of non-right-fittedness and potential chaos in society.
Once Mernissi understood this, there was no turning back. She could not have kept this realization bottled up inside her even if she had tried. She set the bar very high from the outset, perhaps too high; no other female writer has managed to equal her courage, one that infused scholarly excellence with an unmatched ability to break down the origins and evolution of the Islamic heritage into its basic social elements.
In 1987, Mernissi published an Arabic translation of perhaps most her controversial book, Political Harem: The Prophet and Women, in which she attempted to debunk claims that Islam prohibited women from entering politics. The book was inspired by yet another incident a few years earlier in her hometown of Fez. Mernissi was shopping at a local grocery store when she asked what the grocer would think if a woman were to become the leader of an Arab country. “The man was so shocked, he dropped the bright white eggs I had come to buy,” Mernissi wrote. “Another bystander quoted the Hadith in which Muhammad says, “No people will prosper if they delegate their affairs to a woman,” and he was ready to spit.” Saddened by the experience, she traced back some of the most misogynist hadiths, questioning their context and shedding doubt on the validity of their narrator, Abu Hureira. How could a man who accompanied Muhammad for only three years narrate nearly 6,000 hadiths? Mernissi had passed, or trespassed on, yet another boundary.
However passionate about change in Muslim societies, Mernissi avoided Western-born fanatical feminism, and she was never a misandrist, though she chose not to marry. She was born into a harem, but stressed that it was nothing like the harems seen in popular culture, where tens of beautiful young women gathered and awaited the masculine Sultan. The harem consisted of the women in her family. They were protected from strange men, so the boundaries were understood and often enough appreciated. Mernissi did not despise her culture, unlike many “Muslim feminists” today, but she rather embraced it so as to push it forward. She sought to exercise the Quranic principle of jadal (debate and argumentation), and she even helped popularize the noun jadaliya to emphasize the need for Arab societies to permit and encourage genuine open debate on a variety of subjects.
Alas, Mernissi could not have predicted what would happen once the wall of enforced, obedient silence about important issues was breeched. Once it became possible to question traditional religious authority, some questioned and attacked that authority from the “religious right,” as it were—and we know what has happened since. Nevertheless, Mernissi’s approach showed that her cause was not women’s rights per se, but rather how to reintroduce women as equal partners of men for the benefit of society as a whole. She believed that women’s participation in an open and ongoing conversation with their male counterparts would lead to women’s freedom. But she was also realistic and patient: She did not aspire to compete with the works of Islamic jurists and historians, but rather to update the methodology of examining the heritage of Islamic civilization. She merely rejected the habit of regarding medieval concepts and interpretations as eternal, unquestionable facts, and never sought to reject Islamic texts or attack them, but rather to reintroduce and reinterpret verses and traditions progressively.
Mernissi also never allowed herself to be drawn into political controversies as such from her position as a professor at a Moroccan university. Perhaps she idealized the Prophet too much to enter what many believe are “dark areas” of his life and times. She repeatedly stated that Islam, within in its historic context, was very progressive toward women. Context was key, and she would rather refer to time and place than to denounce incidents and practices that contradicted her principles. She found victory in the small places: women selling baked bread in public instead of behind closed doors; female television anchors sharing the news desk with male colleagues; young girls choosing their desired field of education, or the ones they wanted to marry.
During her last decade or so of life, she spoke enthusiastically about Sufism. In one of her final television appearances last year on Al-Jazeera, she described Sufi teachings as a manifestation of the bridges she sought to build. She quoted Ibn Sina (Avicenna), the great Muslim Sufist and scientist: “We have been plagued with a folk who believe God has shown only them the right path”; and “He who knows does not express anger when witnessing evil, but feels empathy and kindly advises; not chastises.” These were the virtues that a mature Fatema Mernissi esteemed: Islamic virtues, through and through.
This week, a young Nadiya Murad shared her ordeal of rape and torture at the hands of purveyors of the pinnacle of backward religious misogyny within her world. Her story, however, reflects the universal theme of the objectification of women. Anyone who is shocked at ISIS’s enslavement of Yazidi women yet proceeds to snap photos of unaware women is quite the hypocrite. What makes the tragedy of the Yazidis so painfully unique is that sacred texts were used to justify such heinous acts. This is what Fatema Mernissi, now gone, dedicated her life to fight. She had faith in youth and believed the time of successful reform would come—for humiliation, violence, and death can be tolerated for only so long.
This past May, a female colleague and I attended a lecture about religious reform. The all-male panel repeated the phrase “our constellation of religious jurists” so many times that the word “reform” went missing in action. On one such repetition, my colleague quietly said to me, “Yes, the constellation of jurists that orbits around the black hole known as the vagina.” We both failed to suppress our laughter, which symbolized too many thoughts of trespass we both had entertained that day. I whispered to her, “That is something Fatema Mernissi would say. ”
But it was no longer the 1990s in Mosul, so there was no one to cast aspersions and ridicule, nor to associate our trespasses with any hidden Western agenda. We were not ashamed to be witty, truthful, bold, and feminine. I would like to think that Fatema Mernissi would take some pride in what she helped to create. She was a great human being, a great woman, and a great Muslim.