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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fatima Mernissi: Rebel for the Sake of Women

Fatima Mernissi was born in 1940 in Fez, Morocco. She grew up in a harem along with her mother, grandmothers and other sisters. It was a harem guarded strictly by a janitor so that the women could not escape from it. The harem was well-maintained and served by a maid servant. Her grandmother, Yasmina, is one of nine wives but the same fate did not fall upon her mother. Her father took only one wife and did not choose polygamy since the nationalists rejected polygamy. Even so, her mother was illiterate because she spent all of her time inside the harem.

When she was born, Moroccan nationalists successfully decolonized the country from French rule. As she related,”.... if I was born two years earlier, I would not have obtained an education. I was born at the right time.” The nationalists who fought against France promised to create a new Morocco with equality for everyone. Women and men had equal access to education. The nationalists also sought to abolish the practice of polygamy.

Fatima was lucky that despite of her life in a harem, she got the opportunity to acquire a higher education. In her book The Harem Within, Mernissi tells us about her childhood in a harem in Fez but it’s only part of the book as her childhood was not as wonderful as depicted in the book. For example, although she illustrates life in the harem appealingly, she does not ignore the oppression for those inside. She explained how women in the harems looked up to the sky and dreamt about simple things like walking freely on the street, or how they might peep at the outside world through key holes.

To Mernissi, westerners always visualize harems as castles. She distinguishes between the high class harem (imperial) and the ordinary harem (domestic). The westerners imagination is about the high class harems of rich and powerful men with hundreds of female slaves guarded strictly by a kasim. This sort of harem ceased to exist in World War I when the Ottoman Empire was destroyed and those practices were forbidden by the new Western rulers. Mernissi lived in an ordinary harem of the kind which still exists in the Gulf countries.

Since she was a little girl, Mernissi was involved in the national upheaval of thought and raised wild questions for instance on the limits imposed between boys and girls. The little Mernissi asked, if there is an approved boundary between boys and girls, why is it only girls who are covered and limited. She only posed such questions to her grandma Yasmina who could not reply since it was too dangerous for her.

At that time she also had an ambivalent relation with religion, due to the difference and tension between the perspective of Alqur’an she perceived in the school of Alqur’an and what was taught by her grandma. She was taught strictly in the school where she should memorize Alqur’an everyday. She was constantly berated, yelled at and beaten whenever she made a mistake. Thus she viewed religion as something to be afraid of.

On the other hand, the little Mernissi perceived the beauty of religion through her grandmother Yasmina, who lead her towards the poetic side of religion. Her grandma frequently told the story about her hajj and enthusiastically told Mernissi about Mecca and Medina. She constantly talked about Medina and ignored the other cities like Arafah and Mina. This influenced Mernissi so much that she became obsessed with Medina.

Mernissi nursed this attitude for many years. To her, Alqur’an depends on our perspective and on our perception toward it. These holy verses could be the gate to escape from or instead be an obstacle. To her Alqur’an can lead us towards dream or instead damage our fortitude.

Meanwhile, Mernissi’s mother always taught her how to behave and carry herself as a woman: “you should learn how to shout and protest just as you learnt how to walk and talk.” For example, she told her the story of how woman should behave wisely and prudently. She often told her the story of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. It’s about a Sultan who was very fond of tales. Once, Sultan Nebuchadnezzar found his wife engaged having sex with his guard. He was furious and killed them both. He hated women afterward and it led him to the bad habit of marrying woman one night and then killing her the next day. It constantly happened and led to the death of many women. This habit was finally stopped by a girl named Scheherazade who magnetized him through her stories so that the Sultan always delayed his plan to kill her.

The mother regularly recounted such wisdom. Nevertheless, we should highlight how the little girl asked: “How can we learn how to tell stories that please the King?” The mother, as if she was talking to herself, said that it is the life long task of a woman. Mernissi admitted that it was her mother and grandma who supported her in getting a higher education so that she could be independent.


When Mernissi became a teenager, she started having religious lessons. She found it heart breaking:

“….. Some Hadits (prophetic tradition) originated from Kitab Bukhari which are told by the teachers hurt me. They state that the Prophet said: “Dog, donkey and woman would annul anyone’s prayer whenever they pass ahead them, break off between the praying man and kiblah.” I was shocked to hear that sort of Hadits and never repeat it with the hopes that silent would wipe away this Hadits out of my mind. I asked, “How come the Prophet said that sort of Hadits which hurt me so much... how could the beloved Muhammad hurt a little girl who is in her growth, attempt to make him as pillars of her romantic dreams.” (Woman in Islam, p. 82)

Mernissi experienced an upheaval in her thinking. Yet despite the merits of the nationalists who allowed women to get an education, Mernissi admitted that many ideas of Arabic nationalism are still to be accomplished. Polygamy is not yet forbidden, women cannot achieve equal status and democracy has not yet become established in the Arab world.

Currently, Mernissi has obtained her master in politics from Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, and a PhD from Brandeis University in America in 1973. Her dissertation, Beyond the Veil, become a text book and a key reference in the west about women and Islam.

And at the moment, she works as a lecturer of Sociology at Mohammed V Rabat University where she graduated. She is well-known as a Muslim feminist in North Africa and is a prominent activist in the Islamic world.

Thought and works

I notice that Mernissi’s works stem from her individual experiences which triggered her to conduct historical research about things which have disturbed her religious comprehension. For example, in her work The Veil and Male Elite which she revised later as Women and Islam: A Historical and Theological Enquir, her investigation of the sacred texts of Alqur’an and Hadits is based on her individual experience, as for instance the case of the misogynist Hadits which equate a females position to that of dogs and donkeys.

Mernissi’s heartbreak deepened when she heard about Hadits regarding female leadership. Her motivation to investigate such Hadits seriously was instigated by the Hadits spoken by a trader in the market who negated female leadership. Surprised by her questions, the trader quoted the Hadit that “there is no salvation within society led by females.” To her, this indicates that the Hadits are embedded within the Muslim community and that therefore female leadership is still debatable despite the case of Benazir Buttho who became the prime minister of Pakistan and despite the fact that Alqur’an discusses the leadership of Queen Bilqis.

She is also concerned with another matter: hijab. The topic of hijab has dominated her intellectual career. The Hujab, which is a instrument of limitation, segregation and isolation which is used to keep women out of the public space. To her Hijab means segregation and is used as a medium of asserting heirarchy between the rulers and the people.

She communicates her understanding through interpretations of Alqur’an and Hadits and through historical research and sociological analyses. Her goal is to deliver an alternative interpretation through her books The Forgotten Queen in Islam and Islam and Democracy. In these works she attempts to show that the defects within Arab governments are not inherent in religious teachings, but that they are due to the manipulation of the religious teaching by rulers for their own interests. Nevertheless, Mernissi defends Arab countries when they are maligned by the western press (see Islam and democracy p. 26).

In most of her works, she attempts to illustrate that religious teachings can be easily manipulated and for that reason she believes that the oppression of woman is not part of the real teaching of Islam. That’s why she is careful not to oppose sacred tradition. Most of her articles regarding woman express these notions. We can see this, for example, in her book Rebellion's Women and Islamic Memory, (London & New Jersey: Zed Books, 1996).

In conclusion, her articles are rich in sociological analyses. In the works mentioned above and in her published dissertation, Beyond the Veil, she writes specifically about her research on Moroccan woman and about the sexual limits placed on woman. Nevertheless, her intellectual struggle and experience can be seen as representative of Muslim matters in general.

Referensi:, 01/05/2002

1 comment:

  1. Kalau kita baca sejarah Umat Islam, maka masa kekhalifahan yang penerapannya sesuai dengan prinsip-prinsip ajaran Islam, hanya sampai pada era Khalifah Ali bin Abi Thalib. Setelah itu, negara dan pemerintahan umat Islam, formalnya menggunakan 'daulah Islamiyah' dan jabatan 'khalifah' akan tetapi substansinya 'sudah' kurang memenuhi prinsip-prinsip ajaran Islam, seperti dalam hal penetapan 'khalifah' sudah semata berdasarkan dinasti keturunan semata. Contoh, di era moderen ini Kerajaan Arab Saudi. Wajarlah, jika posisi perempuan sudah ada yang kembali ke masa 'moyang'-nya pra sebelum Islam.