Fatima Mernissi: Setting Sail, Lifting the Veil

In remembrance of one of feminism’s trail-blazing scholars who challenged Muslim orthodoxy by placing women at the centre of her enquiry. Her preferred weapon of subversion: humour.

Fatima Mernissi: She wrote, she laughed, she challenged, using her enormous learning, to uncover, and then to communicate what she had found, through her books. Credit: Praemium Erasmianum Foundation/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

A book is a memory-ship. Fatima Mernissi (1940-November 30,2015)
Credit: Praemium Erasmianum Foundation/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Writing, Fatima Mernissi said to us, is a subversive activity in patriarchal societies.

We were sitting in Devaki Jain’s home in Bangalore, about ten of us, meeting informally before the UN End of Decade of Women Conference, to be held in Nairobi in June 1985. We were talking, among other things, about the critical importance of media for the women’s movement, worldwide, but especially in the global South, and the equally critical importance of women controlling media, and therefore, the way women are represented in, and by, them.

Fatima’s statement, so profound, so powerful, so obvious, really, had the same weight and significance for us as that other, more familiar, profound, powerful and obvious slogan of the women’s movement: the personal is the political. And, in an earlier time, of Marshal McLuhan’s famous, the medium is the message.

Over the years, there were other subversions that Fatima alerted us to: the subversive potential of laughter, especially for women, and especially in authoritarian or fundamentalist societies; and the subversive and dangerous potential of interrogating religious texts – not religion, itself, she was careful to distinguish, but man-made interpretations that she believed not only should, but must be, subjected to scrutiny.

“Not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated,” she wrote, “but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies.” Taking her cue from the Moroccan thinker, Muhammad al-Jabiri, she wondered why it was imams, and not scientists, who dominated the production of ideas. What accounted for the “incredible presence of religion” in this domain? Was it because politicians “quickly realised that they could only authoritatively manage the present by using the past as a sacred standard”?

Fatima decided that the only way she could find the answers to her questions was to study the sacred texts herself.

Mernissi, one of Morocco’s and feminism’s most eminent scholars, was nothing if not subversive in her life and work. She wrote, she laughed, she challenged, using her robust yet subtle intelligence, and her enormous learning, to uncover, and then to communicate what she had found, through her books. And through her memoirs, her spoofs, her talks and workshops, her multimedia platforms – all before the era of cell phones, emails, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatnot.

She understood both, the power of media, and the importance of controlling the message.

Growing up inside the harem in Fez, Fatima experienced seclusion and veiling at first hand, escaping to the roof, or locking herself in the toilet, to read. “A harem was about private space,” she wrote in her memoir, “once you knew what was forbidden, you carried the harem within. Ours in Fez was like a fortress.” The image—or rather, the meaning – of the flying carpet for her, was escape, of a world without borders which you could travel without passports and controls. Her most recent book is called Chama’s Dream: Flying Without a Visa.

In the early and mid-1980s Mernissi blazed a trail by doing the unthinkable. She challenged Muslim orthodoxy by placing women at the centre of her enquiry, whether that  enquiry be theological, political, sexual, historical or social. Beyond the Veil: Women in the Muslim UnconsciousWomen and Islam: An Historical and Theological EnquiryWomen in Muslim ParadiseInside the HaremForgotten Queens of IslamDreams of TrespassIslam and Democracy – each book delved deeper into the status of women in Muslim societies by deconstructing sexual relations; reinterpreting religious texts; sending up the notion of Paradise and an afterlife; identifying what she called the “misogynist Hadith”; puzzling over whether democracy was inimical to Islam; going back into her own, and a collective, past in order to arrive at an understanding of the present.

Her books, scholarly and carefully argued, were nevertheless politically explosive and a huge threat, not only to the orthodox clergy but to the Muslim male elite as well. She was heckled and denounced by fundamentalists in Morocco, and Arabic translations of many of her books were banned by the government.

By they couldn’t stop her, because, as she said, she knew how to handle them. She would use humour as her weapon. She likened humour to theatre, the incessant interplay between authority as a mask and the person behind it. Speaking of religious texts, she said the danger of theatre is precisely its work of revealing the men behind the sacred text and title: “the Imam, a person just like you and me, but one who skilfully adjusts the mask so that whatever he says has the sound of Allah’s words – transcendent and compelling”.

Illustration from Mernissi's Women in Muslim Paradise, published by Kali in 1986

Illustration from Mernissi’s Women in Muslim Paradise, published by Kali in 1986. Courtesy: Ritu Menon

WE had never had an author quite like Fatima, who nudged us into publishing Women in Muslim Paradise, her spoof on just how male and women-unfriendly this fantasy of an after-life is! We were sitting in my garden, in the sun, she was trying to explain why it was so important to publish this little book, and why she wanted an Indian miniaturist to illustrate it. But how would he do that, we wondered, when all he had to go on was this tongue-in-cheek, rather risqué text, which wanted to know: Are women entitled to enter Paradise? Do they have a Paradise? What would Paradise look like for women?

How on earth were we to find someone to illustrate these riddles?

Fatima whipped out a sheaf of drawings, miniature-style, pages torn out of various books and catalogues, some Arabic, others Persian, and said: “Voila! Here are pictures, and we find an Indian artist who can reproduce them.”

Well, we did find someone to reproduce them,  he did a beautiful job, and the little book went into two or three editions and created quite a stir. And Fatima, pleased as punch, told us we could give her her royalty in glass bangles from Hanuman Mandir in Delhi. When the book subsequently came in for attack from all sorts of quarters, Fatima chuckled and said that if she had succeeded in annoying fundamentalists, feminists and Marxists, she knew she had “stumbled onto something extremely important”.

I believe that her experience with Women in Muslim Paradise reinforced Fatima’s conviction that short, pithy, humorous yet sharply political, books were the only way to reach large numbers of people, and humour was the means to most effectively communicate her message. By the early 1990s, she had decided to more or less give up her academic writing as a sociologist, and concentrate on producing material in Arabic that could be disseminated more easily and widely than the scholarly French of her academic books.

When the radio first arrived in the Muslim world, Fatima said it transformed people’s access to information, especially for illiterate women, because the mullah and his sermons were no longer the only source of news and views. In this century, she says, it is the Internet that has revolutionised Muslim societies, enabled people to realise their democratic impulses and aspirations. The revolutions of 2010–2011 across North Africa, she believed, wouldn’t have been possible without its supra national presence.

But her analysis goes much deeper. She used to say, whoever controls time – and therefore the future—controls space, and because the West controls time, “post- industrial western society obliges all other cultures to fall in line with its rhythm”. Time becomes the measure of all things: work, distances, even history. In the days when Fatima worried about the rise of fundamentalism in Muslim societies, she postulated that fundamentalists, because they know they cannot control the future, insist on controlling the past. It was a startling insight.

Fatima thought of her books as memory-ships, as vessels journeying back in time, and of herself as a writer who raised the sails and lifted the veils in order to “glide towards a new world, towards a time both far and near, when women had their place as unquestioned partners in a revolution that made the mosque an open place, and the home a temple of debate.”

Ritu Menon is a feminist writer and publisher.