Born in Fes in 1940, Moroccan author and sociologist Fatima Mernissi grew up into Morocco’s most adamant advocate of women’s emancipation, and most prolific writer on the question of women’s rights in Islam. Her awareness of the position of women as being subordinate to men and socially, economically, and politically vulnerable started in her early childhood. In the harem, where she grew up, she realized the many physical/visible and mental/invisible hudud (sacred frontiers) set up for women not to trespass.
While men cherished unconditional freedom to roam about, her kinswomen were confined inside the walls of the harem, and would promenade only when chaperoned, or disguised in men’s clothing. When she questioned the restrictive rules imposed on women, her maternal grandmother, Yasmina, explained that those rules were made by men to deprive women in some way or another. “But why aren’t they made by women?” young Fatima would ask.
Fatima Mernissi’s journey towards the deconstruction of the misogynistic cultural practices that were attributed to Islam started from the very moment she questioned the validity of those rules as a child. The dream that preoccupied her juvenile mind thereafter was trespassing the frontiers and jumping over the walls to land on the ground of gender equality. Her book “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood” fictionally recounts the early days of her protagonist’s life – Fatima— and her growing awareness of the predicament of women in Muslim societies.
The book inventively brings to the fore the questions of cultural patriarchy, gender roles, public and private spaces, and gender inequality. In “Dreams of Trespass,” Mernissi argues that the oppressive act of restricting women’s mobility in traditional Muslim societies was meant to prevent women from becoming too smart and then gaining agency and autonomy. The ferocious battle that she subsequently committed herself to was to problematize and dismantle the foundations on which this cultural patriarchy rests.
Mernissi’s project of feminist scholarship was characterized by secularism at first, as she believed then that the reconciliation between religion and feminism was a lost cause. In this vein, she declared that Islamic religious patriarchy ostensibly “professes models of hierarchical relationships and sexual inequality and puts a sacred stamp onto female subservience.”
This stance threw so much confusion on her position that some Muslim scholars, including Islamic feminists, refused to consider her one of them. However, a deeper study of Mernissi’s thought indicates that she distinguishes between two Islams: orthodox Islam and authentic Islam. The former is the construction of years of subjective male interpretation of religious texts for political and ideological ends, while the latter is the one practiced during the times of the Prophet Muhammed.
The status of women in the Muslim world today, according to Fatima Mernissi, is not to be blamed on the Qur’an or on the Prophet’s teachings, but on the male elite whose interests conflict with women’s rights.
Authentic Islam, she claims, promotes spiritual democracy that does not discriminate between men and women and is, therefore, perfectly compatible with feminism. The status of women in the Muslim world today, according to her, is not to be blamed on the Qur’an or on the Prophet’s teachings, but on the male elite whose interests conflict with women’s rights.
In her book “The Forgotten Queens of Islam,” she revives the forgotten legacy of many powerful women who ruled in many Muslim kingdoms and Sultanates from India to Muslim Spain, and who outwitted their male rivals in matters of war and peace. The stories of the women leaders she cited attest to the legitimacy of women political engagement in early Islamic teachings.
The infamous statement, “Never – horrors! – has a Muslim State been governed by a woman!” raised by the Islamic Democratic Alliance in Pakistan against Benazir Bhutto when she won the presidential elections of 1988 was, accordingly, demystified and rendered groundless. “The Forgotten Queens of Islam” probes the question of Muslim women’s political activism which has been cast to oblivion by long and consistent processes of biased male historiography.
In her rereading and rewriting of Islamic history, Mernissi deployed a liberal feminist framework to reinterpret the relationship between the two major references of Islamic jurisprudence which are the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings by the Prophet). After years of in-depth textual analysis of these two sacred texts, she contested the veracity of many Hadiths for epistemological and methodological reasons. She argues that such hadiths do not reflect the spirit of authentic Islam that was practiced during the Prophet’s times.
Moreover, many hadiths about women disagree with each other and contradict the Qur’an as well. For instance, the hadith that asserts: “A people will never succeed who give their leadership to a woman,” which is used against women political leadership in many Islamic contexts, starkly contradicts the hadith that says: “Take (learn) half of your religion from Aisha.” Thus, the possibility that some hadiths were posthumously invented by a Muslim male clergy is very high.
Mernissi has always challenged the fundamentalist version of Islam or orthodox Islam, but she has equally defended authentic Islam against Western essentialist views.
Mernissi has always challenged the fundamentalist version of Islam or orthodox Islam, but she has equally defended authentic Islam against Western essentialist views that Islam is incompatible with democracy and human rights—including women’s rights.
In the preface to her book “The Veil and the Male Elite,” she posits that the Judeo-Christian Western context in which women have gained considerable social, political, and economic rights is no different than the Islamic context. Europe and the US, however super-modern they may seem, are also rich in “religious influences, in myths, tales and traditions.” They also have their Christian-style mullahs (religious leaders). If the Judeo-Christian West has succeeded in reconciling religion and democracy why, then, are some Westerners dubious about Islam’s capacity to embrace modernity with all its liberal and humanist values?
In “The Veil and the Male Elite,” Mernissi journeys “back in time [through her analysis of the hadith and the Qur’an] in order to find a fabulous wind that would swell our sails and send us gliding towards new worlds.” The new worlds Mernissi aspired to are those in which Muslim women will proudly derive their rights from the core of their egalitarian religion as was the case in the Prophet’s city of Medina, not import them from the West.
However, this aspiration would come to no fruition without debunking and challenging the stubbornly male constructed assumptions about femininity. Hence, her critical textual analysis of Islamic sacred texts demystifies the sphere of knowledge forged, perpetuated, and officially propagated through religious institutions by Muslim male theologists who simply and unscrupulously bet on women’s ignorance of Islam’s history. Mernissi eventually came to the conclusion that “not only have the sacred texts always been manipulated, but manipulation of them is a structural characteristic of the practice of power in Muslim societies.”
Mernissi’s voice was remarkably daring at the height of Islamic fundamentalism of the late 20th century. Her writings do not only speak truth to power but also shatter the foundations of the egotistic patriarchal discourse through a systematic study of Islam. To her, Islam was not revealed from heaven “to foster egotism and mediocrity.” Rather it has come “to sustain the people of the Arabian lands, to encourage them to achieve higher spiritual goals and equality for all.” Thus, Mernissi’s feminist scholarship set the foundations of a new feminist critique that is known today as Islamic feminism, which detaches itself from Western feminism and its supremacist and essentialist assumptions about Muslim women.
When Mernissi passed away in 2015, she left behind a rich theoretical legacy that continues to inspire generations of scholars worldwide.
 Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1994), p. 61.
 Fatima Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam, trans. Mary Jo Lakeland (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1991), p.10.
 Ibid. p.8.
 Ibid., p.ix.