Mernissi, Fatima (1940–)

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Mernissi, Fatima

Fatima Mernissi is a world-renowned Moroccan sociologist who has written numerous books on the misogynistic way women are viewed in the Middle East and elsewhere. Mernissi has focused her career on expanding the ideas and general topics broached first in her dissertation. She has gained prominence in part by critiquing key concepts, such as the veil and the seclusion of women from public space and participation in the public sphere, which conservative elements in many Islamic societies consider fundamental to Islamic morality.


Mernissi was born in 1940 in Fez, Morocco. She studied at length in Qur'anic schools as well as at state schools and received a bachelor's degree in political science from Muhammad V University in Rabat. She went on a fellowship to France to study at the Sorbonne but soon moved on to Brandeis University in the United States, where she received a Ph.D. in sociology (1973) with a thesis titled "Effects of Modernization on the Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society." After her dissertation, Mernissi joined the faculty at the University of Rabat, and in 1980 began teaching at Muhammad V University in Rabat. As of 2007, she was a professor there in the Depart-ment of Sociology. Since 1973, she has published numerous books in French, English, and Arabic on women in the Islamic world.

Mernissi is deliberately provocative in the hope of effecting social change. The controversial aspect of her work derives both from a deep critique of received ideas and a polemical approach in her assessment that outrages the more conservative elements in society and even perturbs numerous relatively moderate academics. Mernissi does, however, make an effort to document examples of times and places in which women were held in high regard in the Middle East, in order to argue implicitly for the nonessential character of the chauvinism she critiques (in her The Forgotten Queens of Islam, 1993). The charge that she is overly influenced by Western ideas is also hard to support, given her general critique of chauvinism and the critique she makes of both so-called Orientalist misunderstandings of the Middle East and Western misunderstandings of women in particular (see her Scheherazade Goes West, 2001).


Name: Fatima Mernissi

Birth: 1940, Fez, Morocco

Nationality: Moroccan

Education: B.A. (politics), Muhammad V University, Rabat; Ph.D. (sociology), Brandeis University, 1973


  • 1973: Teaches at the University of Rabat
  • 1975: Publishes Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society
  • 1980: Begins teaching at Muhammad V University
  • 1991: Publishes The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam
  • 1992: Publishes Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World
  • 1993: Publishes The Forgotten Queens of Islam
  • 2000: Publishes Scheherezade Goes West
  • 2003: Receives Prince of Asturias Award in Spain; receives Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands

The conservative Muslim view of the veil and the head covering in general (the hijab) is that female dress must contribute to modesty and that modesty is essential to feminine morality. This is combined with a conviction that female hair is intensely erotic by nature, not as culturally constructed; that men, being weak, need to be protected from this severe temptation; and that women must therefore cover their hair. Historians of Europe have amply documented the changing nature of the erotic, as viewed from a male perspective, and although a few Westerners still find female hair intensely erotic those who do are generally thought of as more than a little depraved. This discussion has not resonated in the Islamic world where conservatives essentialize female eroticism and argue for the implementation of countermeasures that would be effective at all times and in all public places. Mernissi's first book, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (1975; a reworking of her dissertation), argues that the primary goal should be to eliminate the physical and symbolic exploitation of women, and that traditional attitudes need to change both because they damage the solidarity of the husband-wife dyad by focusing, implicitly, on sexuality, and because they divert attention from the need for change. She argues, however, that fragile Islamic states will be easier to influence than entrenched Western ones and that, whereas the latter will allow women's rights, it will be a long time before they do anything to prevent the symbolic exploitation of women's bodies.

This early stance was thus neither wholeheartedly pro-Western nor, in fact, critical of Islamic values promoting modesty over overt sexuality. Mernissi's more subtle position has been focused on critiquing the reduction of women to sexual objects both in the Middle East and in the West. A major strand of feminism in the West has responded to patriarchal notions not by a critique of any attempt to base identity on gender but by promoting a multitude of other gender roles as equal bases for identity construction. This argument for gender equality has an inescapable emphasis on sexuality as important to identity that fits poorly with Mernissi's de-emphasis on the essential sexuality of women and promotion of the concept that women, similar to men, are much more than sexual beings.


One of Mernissi's more analytical works, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam (1991), provides an analysis of a few elements of the Islamic tradition, focusing on misogynistic elements. She attributes this misogyny to biased misinterpretations, fabrication of hadith (an account of the sayings or actions of the prophet Muhammad), and willful reliance on authorities famed for their unreliability (such as Abu Hurayra). She argues that veiling and other female-restrictive practices contradict and go against the true revelation and practice of Muhammad. She claims they are central pieces of a misogynistic tradition reflecting a general phobia about women and their sexuality. Her argument is that the Prophet spent much of his time criticizing the preexisting misogynistic ideas in pre-Islamic (Arabic: jahiliyya, the Period of Ignorance) Arabia as well as in the Jewish tradition, and that ample evidence is available that he completely opposed these ideas. Thus, he insisted on women's right to inheritance and the unacceptability of prostituting slaves, and opposed violence against women consistently and frequently. Yet misogynistic ideas reasserted themselves in the years after Muhammad's death, according to Mernissi, entirely due to the bias of the times and despite the clear general tenor of Qur'anic revelation and the Prophet's behavior.


"Two scenes, two calendars, two identities—sovereign citizens there; submissive, faithful Muslims here. In order to survive, we are forced to learn to dance to the disjointed rhythm of what one might call the 'Medina democracy' … The tongue of the believers is monofunctional; to recite the knowledge of the ancestors is its duty and raison d'être. In contrast, the tongue of citizens is multifunctional; it can certainly repeat the learning of the ancestors, but everyone is encouraged to say new things, to imagine not only new knowledge but a new world. Believers do not have the right to say or write whatever they want, and especially what comes into their head, which should contain no thoughts that tradition has not sanctioned."


A typical misogynistic tradition reported by one of the compilers of the sunnah (collection of hadiths), al-Bukhari, was that Muhammad said that three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse. This is considered a reliable hadith even though it is well known to scholars that the Prophet's favorite wife, A'isha, claimed that Abu Hurayra misreported this and that actually Muhammad said "May Allah refute the Jews! They say three things bring bad luck, house, woman, and horse" (1991b, p. 75). The misogynistic character of the tradition is further exemplified both by the regular use of this false tradition to cast aspersions on women, even as the reputation of the horse remains unsullied, and because even the notion that a man from the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula or from Arabia more generally would have claimed horses were bad luck is implausible. By contrast, the interposition of woman between house and horse in A'isha's version would seem to be a strong attempt to counter any aspersions on women. Mernissi suggests that if the counterintuitive interpretation has come down as truth, it must be seen as indicative of the strong misogynistic elements that have come to dominate in the Islamic tradition.

Mernissi recounts the tradition of how the first verse (Qur'an 33:53 ff) dealing with the hijab was revealed by God and points out that it was initially a verse that came to Muhammad just after he lowered a curtain as he went into a room to be alone with his new bride, Zaynab, in order to separate them from a male companion, Anas ibn Malik. It thus had to do with the right to privacy of a man and wife and was followed by a recommendation for women to avoid harm by dressing modestly in turbulent times. The term hijab saw broad use in Islamic history and was the term for the barrier to direct perception of God—something caused by ignorance and something that mystics endeavored to overcome. The term historically had three dimensions: It demarcated what is hidden from sight, what is spatially set apart, and what is ethically forbidden. More generally, Mernissi argues that the term's current, almost exclusive, use to refer to a prescribed covering for women whenever in public is part of an obsession with female sexuality and a reductionism that drains the concept of its true significance.

Positive Exemplars

One of Mernissi's other concerns is to write about female exemplars in Islamic history who illustrate alternatives to the wife as veiled, crushed, and silent. In The Forgotten Queens of Islam, Mernissi discusses a series of historical women who held positions of significant political power and uses these accounts to discuss the question of sovereignty in Islam and the possibilities for women to step outside the harem or household and assume a public role. Mernissi examines nineteen women at length, including two Shi'ite heads of state in Yemen, Asma bint Shihab al-Sulayhiyya and her daughter-in-law Arwa bint Ahmad al-Sulayhiyya, who coruled the Sulayhi dynasty with their husbands (1036–1138 CE) and who are both mentioned in the Friday prayer (khutba), a key attribute of an Islamic head of state. She also discusses Khayzuran, the power behind the throne for three caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad—al-Mahdi, al-Hadi and Harun al-Rashid—and the brief rule of Sitt al-Mulk in Cairo during the Fatimid dynasty.

These cases are used to problematize the notion of al-nushuz, the term for rebellion of a woman against the will of her husband, and to argue that the definition of citizenship in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights implies the right of an individual to exercise free will and hence is incompatible with claims that women must be subservient to men politically, socially, or sexually. Mernissi goes so far as to claim that the architecture of the Islamic caliphate is doubly threatened by universal suffrage: Removing the segregation of women by the hijab legitimizes their right to public action, and the removal of the veil that separated the sultan as the head of state from the public threatens the traditional elitist hierarchy by making heads of state accountable to the public.


By likening the Muslim household to a harem (Arabic: harim) on the basis of its traditional division of space between a public or male area and a private female or family space, Mernissi has developed a criticism that offends many. The term harem became popular in Europe around 1704 as a word for an exotic feature of Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid when A Thousand and One Nights was translated into French. Mernissi's admitted obsession with the idea both gains her easy popularity, even trendiness, in the West and the condemnation of some in the Islamic world who feel she is exploiting both etymology and history to make the Islamic world look bad even though she applies her analysis to the West as well.

Haram, a closely related noun, means forbidden or off-limits in Arabic and there is clearly a sense in which the private sphere of the household is thought to be off-limits (to the public), yet that household private sphere is not generally viewed by men as filled with concubines or women whose primary purpose is to provide sexual services for a licentious male. Mernissi's feminist perspective, however, implies that equation and justifies it through both argument and examples that suggest that, in the popular mind, women in the Islamic world are primarily valued for their sexual services while their capacities for moral and intellectual agency are devalued. Most Muslims would, instead, view the household as an institution whose purpose is to help women to raise moral children and to provide moral support for the husband. Mernissi implies throughout her work that this is not a sufficient role for women to fill and may often, in practice, not even be the key function of the household.

In Scheherazade Goes West (2001), Mernissi develops a series of insights into the harem, taken here metaphorically as a term for summarizing Western men's images of the ideal woman: French male views of ideal women in painting, Immanuel Kant's view that women can choose to be learned or beautiful but cannot be both, or American notions that women should be thin (size 4 to 6) and youthful or they are ugly. Her analysis fits into what has been considered literature about "the gaze": women as objects to look at or even to be observed as they regard themselves but without voice or real agency or interaction with the (male) observer. Under Mernissi's scrutiny, the Islamic tradition clearly differs from Kant by attributing great intelligence and education to the most beautiful female figures in history, and she ascribes this at least in part to the tradition of intense competition between jariyat (female slaves; literally women who run) who used education in every field to excel and command attention. She contrasts this view of intelligent women with the popular misogynistic dismissal of women's intellectual and moral value. Mernissi suggests that whereas Islamic society uses space to segregate women and keep them in their place, the West uses time: Age is declared ugly, as is weight, so women are declared ugly unless they appear youthful and have adolescent figures. Misogyny in the West is expressed in the view that normal maturity for a woman is to be ugly. Mernissi claims this view similarly demeans women, making them feel as bad about being female as Middle Eastern claims that women have no proper role in the public sphere and are so intrinsically, and dangerously, sexual that they should be hidden away.


Mernissi's body of work provides a coherent feminist critique, but not one that fits well with mainstream feminism in the West. She emphasizes the deleterious character of sexual reductionism and holds out an ideal of male-female relations that embraces the value of intelligence, education, and pluralism rather than shaping the other into an erotic or neurotic image. Although most of Mernissi's work takes a deceptively simple essay form, it addresses key issues in the modern world and proposes a well-thought-out radical feminist position. This is enhanced by Mernissi's classical Arabic skills, which allow her to unsettle many less educated advocates of the status quo in the Islamic world. Fortunately for Westerners, her critique cuts just as deeply into the complacencies of both modern business and Western feminist scholarship with their different, yet similar, twentieth-century obsession with sexuality. Mernissi's themes of choice, and her often-acerbic phraseology, have regularly led her to be dismissed or even aggressively attacked. After recounting an incident in Malaysia when she was verbally attacked when she discussed the case of Sukayna, a woman born among the Quraysh tribe in the Hijaz in 671 CE who refused to be subservient and had marriage contracts written specifying she did not have to be, Mernissi writes, "What a strange fate for Muslim memory, to be called upon in order to censure and punish! What a strange memory, where even dead men and women do not escape attempts at assassination, if by chance they threaten to raise the hijab that covers the mediocrity and servility that is presented to us as tradition" (Mernissi, 1991b, p. 194).

Much of Mernissi's writing is deliberately provocative, but there is no evidence that it would have had the notoriety or the influence it has had if, instead, it had been written in more understated tones or buried in a greater array of footnotes. Her feminism, just as other attempts to paint the world in broad strokes, suffers from serious oversimplification. The notion that all Muslims obsess over female sexuality or that all Europeans still think as Kant did in the eighteenth century or that all Americans prefer skinny, immature-looking women has little chance of being accurate, but this does not make the caricatures she paints any less intriguing. Her critique of the Middle Eastern overemphasis on female sexuality and the Western overemphasis on sexuality, in general, is unlikely to please traditional Muslims, indoctrinated Western businessmen, or academics focused on the primacy of sexuality, but it remains a coherent perspective in a humanist and pluralist tradition.

Mernissi has been honored by receiving the Prince of Asturias Award in Spain in 2003, and on 4 November 2004 was awarded the Erasmus Prize in the Netherlands for her studies on the living conditions of Muslim women, her role in critiquing male discourse about women, and her support for women's emancipation in the Islamic world.



"Effects of Modernization on the Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society." Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 1974.

Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society. Cambridge, MA: Schenkman Publishing, 1975.

Women in Moslem Paradise. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1986.

Can We Women Head a Muslim State? Lahore, Pakistan: Simorgh, Women's Resource and Publications Centre, 1991(a).

The Veil and the Male Elite. A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1991(b).

Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1992.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1993.

Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1994.

Harem Within. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Women's Rebellion and Islamic Memory. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Zed Books, 1996.

Scheherazade Goes West. Different Cultures, Different Harems. New York: Washington Square Press, 2001.


El Saadawi, Nawal. Woman at Point Zero. London: Zed Books, 1983.

――――――. The Nawal El Saadawi Reader. London: Zed Books, 1997.

                                             Thomas K. Park