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Mernissi, Fatima

(b. 1940), Moroccan sociologist and writer. Born in Fez to a middle-class family, Mernissi studied at the Mohammed V University in Rabat and later went to Paris, where she worked briefly as a journalist. She pursued her graduate education in the United States and in 1973 obtained a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University. Returning to Morocco, she joined the sociology department at Mohammed V University. Mernissi currently holds a research appointment at the Moroccan Institut Universitaire de Recherche Scientifique.

As one of the best known Arab-Muslim feminists, Mernissi's influence extends beyond a narrow circle of intellectuals. She is a recognized public figure in her own country and abroad, especially in France, where she is well known in feminist circles. Her major books have been translated into several languages, including English, German, Dutch, and Japanese. She writes regularly on women's issues in the popular press, participates in public debates promoting the cause of Muslim women internationally, and has supervised the publication of a series of books on the legal status of women in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

Mernissi's work explores the relationship between sexual ideology, gender identity, sociopolitical organization, and the status of women in Islam; her special focus, however, is Moroccan society and culture. As a feminist, her work represents an attempt to undermine the ideological and political systems that silence and oppress Muslim women. She does this in two ways, first, by challenging the dominant Muslim male discourse concerning women and their sexuality, and second, by providing the "silent" woman with a "voice" to tell her own story. Her book Doing Daily Battle (1989) is a collection of annotated interviews with Moroccan women who present a lucid account of the painful reality of their lives as they struggle against poverty, illiteracy, and sexual oppression.

From the writing of her first book, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society (1975) Mernissi has sought to reclaim the ideological discourse on women and sexuality from the stranglehold of patriarchy. She critically examines the classical corpus of religious-juristic texts, including the hadith, and reinterprets them from a feminist perspective. In her view, the Muslim ideal of the "silent, passive, obedient woman" has nothing to do with the authentic message of Islam. Rather, it is a construction of the ulama', the male jurists-theologians who manipulated and distorted the religious texts in order to preserve the patriarchal system.

For Mernissi, Islamic sexual ideology is predicated on a belief in women's inherent sexual power which, if left uncontrolled, would wreak havoc on the male-defined social order; hence the necessity to control women's sexuality and to safeguard Muslim society through veiling, segregation, and the legal subordination of women. Mernissi's work explores the impact of this historically constituted ideological system on the construction of gender and the organization of domestic and political life in Muslim society today.

Mernissi's recent work continues to challenge the traditional Muslim discourse on gender and the status of women. In her book The Veil and the Male Elite (first published in French in 1987), she critically examines the historical context of Muslim law and tradition and argues that the original message of the Prophet Muhammad, which called for equality between the sexes, has been misrepresented by later political leaders and religious scholars. Turning her attention to the Arab world today, Mernissi situates the "woman question" within a more inclusive framework that links it to problems of political legitimacy, social stagnation, and the absence of democracy. Her most recent book, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (1992), is an impassioned plea for Muslims to reclaim the best of their tradition and to cast off their fear of the West. This can only be accomplished, she maintains, through a radical overhaul of the political, ideological, and social structures that have for generations conspired to deny the majority of Muslims, men and women alike, the modern benefits of equality, democracy, literacy, and economic security.

Bibliography

The following works by Fatima Mernissi are available in English:Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Rev. ed. Bloomington, 1987.

  • Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. New Brunswick, N.J., 1989.
  • The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass., 1991.
  • Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Translated by Mary Jo Lakeland. Reading, Mass., 1992.
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