Honouring Fatima Mernissi

Submitted by Musawah on Thu, 03/03/2016 - 12:26

by Ziba Mir-Hosseini

February 2016

"There are years that ask questions and years that answer." ~ from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

As fate would have it, the day that Fatima Mernissi left this world, Musawah was in Morocco holding one of its capacity building courses - Islam & Gender Equality and Justice (I-nGEJ, pronounced 'I engage'). It was Sunday 30 November 2015, the second day of the course; we were at Dar Eddiya, only an hour away from Rabat. The news reached us around noon, during Amina Wadud's session on "Reading for Gender in the Qur'an: Text and Context", with Zainah Anwar as facilitator. It was Amina's first visit to Morocco, and she was keen to meet Fatima for the first time. Asma Lamrabet had arranged to bring them together over lunch, but Fatima was too illl to come; there was no chance to schedule another meeting, as Asma had travel plans, and Amina was leaving before the end of the course. So they never met.

Asma had left Rabat on the day Fatima died. On 5 December, the last day of the course, she sent us this email from Lisbon:

Just wanted to share with you this last words on the phone with Fatema when she apologized for not attending the lunch with Amina... she said "tell her that she is a pioneer and Musawah is the future." With a very weak voice. She was suffering but still with hope for the future... Rahimaha Allah.

When writing this piece to honour her I came across this sentence from a 1937 novel by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston: "There are years that ask questions and years that answer." Hurston's words captured for me what appear to be two phases in Mernissi's writings on Islam and gender issues; those phases also marked the journey that some of us shared with her (though not all at the same time) and that brought us together in Musawah.

With Fatima and leading Muslim feminists in Rabat (2015)

Mernissi's first book, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society was published in 1975. It was based on research she did for her doctoral thesis. In the first part, she explored what she called "the Muslim ideology of sexes as revealed through the institution of family"; in the second part, focusing on Morocco, she analysed "the modernizing trend as embodied in women's gradual acquisition of the right to be educated and to compete for jobs." She had something new and different to say; her book was a rich tapestry of arguments, assertions, observations and insights that she drew from different sources, ranging from her readings of early and contemporary Muslim sources to psychological and sociological theories and her own data from Morocco.

She contrasted ideas of sexuality in Muslim and Christian traditions and the different ways in which they were manifested and shaped the form and scope of women's subordination; as well as the conflicting trends and values that Muslims had to negotiate and the options open to them. The book's main aim was to throw light on "the link in the Muslim mind between sexuality and the Shari'a" and how this link was further reinforced in the course of the 20th century as a response to Western colonialism and intervention. It was this link, Mernissi argued, that shaped the ideological history of the Muslim family and has now become one of the main barriers to economic development and democracy, which Muslims cannot achieve without a major transformation of family structure and sex roles:

I want to demonstrate that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality between the sexes. Sexual equality violates Islam's premiss, actualized in its law, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah's order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance (pp. 18-19)

In Islam's ideology of women's position in the social order, women are subject to male authority. Allah considers women to be socially destructive, so there must be laws that seclude them inside the family. These laws, Mernissi argued, place women under the authority of fathers, brothers or husbands and, by mandating sexual segregation, deny women equal access to public space, to work and education.

There is a paradox here, as

[c]ontrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women's inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of woman's inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain her power: namely segregation and legal subordination in the family structure. Nor have these institutions generated a systematic and convincing ideology of women's inferiority. Indeed, it was not difficult for the male-initiated and male-led feminist movement to affirm the need for women's emancipation, since traditional Islam recognizes equality of potential. The democratic glorification of the human individual, regardless of sex, race, or status, is the kernel of the Muslim message (p. 19; emphasis added).

But if Islam affirms the potential equality of sexes, why has it neither been reflected in law nor achieved in practice? This, Mernissi argued, has to do with how sexuality has been perceived and the laws devised to regulate it. Sexuality is valued and need to be fulfilled through channeling sexual desire in the right direction, so as not to disturb the sacred ideology and the social order. Since the assumption is that women are powerful and dangerous beings, they must be controlled; their sexuality is a potential danger to order and distracts men from serving Allah. Hence, there is a close link between authoritarian political and family structures; one cannot function properly without the other. This is what makes equality between the sexes and love in marriage such a threat to authoritarian political order and culture in Muslim society.

Read the full article here (PDF).


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