Fatema Mernissi and Islamic Feminism

Islamic feminism has been a widely discussed phenomenon since the emergence of the term in 1990s, oftentimes subject to a heated debate. On one hand, this debate is due to the ways in which it is embedded in the wider discourses concerning women’s rights and Islam, and the position of women in Muslim-majority societies as well as of Muslim women in societies where Muslim populations constitute a minority. On the other hand, the debate entangles to the controversies between the labelling practises and the positionalities of those who seek to resist the given labels: who is entitled to speak as and/or name someone else as an “Islamic feminist?” How are these labels accommodated, contested and eventually resisted? With these questions in mind, providing an exclusive definition of the term ’Islamic feminism’ would raise numerous concerns, given also the multiplicity of definitions concerning different ways of conceptualizing feminism, or different feminisms, and the debates concerning ’Islamic’ or ‘Islamist’ in connection with feminisms. Scholars challenging patriarchal readings of the Qu’ran and the Hadith  have demonstrated how it is not the texts themselves but rather their interpretations that have allowed for patriarchal traditions to persist.

feminism 2The Qu’ran contains principles of gender equality and wider issues of social justice, thus laying grounds for challenging patriarchal traditions. Therefore, for some scholar-activists, referring to feminism in order to challenge patriarchy would not be necessary. For others, what has been called – for descriptive and analytical purposes – as ‘Islamic feminism’ explicitly focuses on the process of unmasking these principles from the confines of patriarchal traditions; as an extension of the faith position instead of a rejection of this position. Advocates of the movement seek to highlight the deeply rooted teachings of equality in the Qur’an and encourage a questioning of the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic teaching through the Qur’an (holy book), hadith (sayings of Muhammad), and sharia (law) towards the creation of a more equal and just society.

Islamic feminists are critical of the subordinate legal and social status afforded to women by law and custom in Islamic nations and communities, but deny that Islam itself is responsible for this state of affairs. They argue that Islam has historically been interpreted in patriarchal and often misogynistic ways, that Sharia law has been misunderstood and misapplied, and that both the spirit and the letter of the Qur’an have been distorted Sharia, the body of Islamic religious law, is derived from the Qur’an (the religious text of Islam), hadith (sayings and doings of Muhammad and his companions), Ijma (consensus), Qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and centuries of debate, interpretation and precedent. Islamic feminists challenge the patriarchal interpretation of what they call “medieval male consensus” and cite female-supportive verses of the Qur’an and sayings from the hadith to promote the egalitarian ethics of Islam.

One of the major areas of scholarship and activism for Islamic feminists is Muslim Personal Law (also known as Muslim Family Law). MPL includes three main areas of law: marriage, divorce, and testation, the power of a property owner to determine who will receive it upon the owner’s death. Muslim countries that have promulgated some form of MPL include Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Senegal, Tunisia, Egypt, Indonesia, and Bangladesh. Nations with Muslim minorities that have operating MPL regimes or are considering passing legislation on aspects of MPL include India and South Africa.

In many of these countries, Islamic feminists have objected to the MPL legislation on the grounds that this type of legislation discriminates against women. Some Islamic feminists believe that a reformed MPL based on the Qur’an and Sunnah, which includes substantial input from Muslim women and which does not discriminate against women, is possible, and have been working on developing forms of MPL that acknowledge the rights of women. Other Islamic feminists, particularly some in Muslim minority contexts which are democratic states, argue that MPL should be rejected rather than reformed, and that Muslim women should seek redress, instead, under the civil laws of those states. Islamic feminists challenge the way in which MPL regulates polygyny, divorce, custody of children, maintenance and marital property, as well the underlying assumptions of such legislation, such as the assumption that the man is head of the household.

Fatema Mernissi and Islamic Feminism

Fatema Mernissi’s (1940 –2015)  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.

Mernissi’s Feminist Reading of Islamic Texts

One of the most courageous efforts of Fatema Mernissi has been to challenge the orthodox interpretations of Islam. In reinterpreting Islam, she begins by offering a very radical, and indeed, unconventional, view of Islam. Islam, she says, is “a set of psychological devices about self-empowerment and making oneself at home everywhere around the globe, in unfamiliar as well as familiar surroundings.” Mernissi argues that when the Arab countries were defeated by the west, the colonizers used all the available means to persuade the vanquished Arabs of their inferior, even primitive status, and related their alleged inferiority to their religious beliefs. In the orientalist discourse, Muslims were seen as promiscuous, and their women, victims of male oppression. The western colonizers took up the issue of women’s degraded condition in Arab society as a rhetorical tool for legitimating imperial domination. In doing so, they not only challenged the Arab culture, but also their faith, locating in Islam the reasons for the “intolerable” condition of women in the Islamic world. Mernissi clearly locates the prevalent stereotypical perceptions of Islam in the orientalist writings, and seeks to deconstruct that discourse, to recover Islam within a sensitive, human context, sensitive to the concerns of women, and seeking to create a society based on gender equality.

Mernissi begins by making a comparative assessment of women in the western and the Arab world, and comes to the conclusion that at both places, the position of women is clearly inferior and subordinate to men. At the same time, she points out the social, cultural and intellectual basis of gender inequalities is different in both civilizations. In the west, she argues, gender inequality, which she terms, “sexual inequality‟, is based on the assumption of women‟s biological weakness. A woman, in the western world, is perceived to be inferior to men, both physically and mentally. In the Islamic world, gender inequalities do not emerge from a belief in their weakness, but, quite the contrary, in their power, and dangerous potential. Sexual segregation should, she suggests, be seen as a strategy for containing the power and potential of women. Throughout, Mernissi is addressing several audiences simultaneously, alternately blaming and praising Arab readers, then Muslims and then western readers.


Mernissi on Sexuality

Citing the Quran, and re-interpreting its verses, Mernissi argues that sexuality is not an evil in Islam, and, therefore, even as women in the Islamic world is viewed as sexual, it is not with a view to degrade her, nor even to render her inferior to men. However, patriarchal interpretations have, from the representation of women as sexual, jumped to the conclusion that women in Islam are inferior and subordinate to men. Inverting the patriarchal ethos, Mernissi asserts that Islam recognizes women‟s irresistible power over men. The emphasis on gender segregation in Muslim societies, therefore, emerges not from the faith in women‟s subordinate position, but from the realization of their potential strength. Belief in women‟s potential strength has, argues Mernissi, led to the institutionalization of sexual segregation in the Islamic world. According to her, there are three sources that restrict the intimacy in a heterosexual unit: polygamy, men‟s unilateral right of divorce, and the authority of the mother-in- law in the family.

Mernissi considers polygamy as a great impediment in the development of conjugal intimacy. It keeps women‟s sexuality under control, while it gives men the authority to have multiple sexual relationships. This humiliates womanhood and render women inferior and subordinate to men. Similarly, men‟s unilateral rights in marriage impede conjugal intimacy, because it fosters a sense of insecurity among women, and obstructs the development of meaningful relationship between spouses. In traditional Islam there is a clear division between male and female spaces, and this too enables men to restrict and control women‟s sexual behavior. There is, therefore, a need to reinterpret Islam to let it become an instrument for gender equality and the empowerment of women. On the basis of her field work in Morocco, she argues that Islamic societies, in particular the women in these societies, represent a classic case of an anomic incompatibility between social norms and real life experiences. The influence of Durkheim is obvious here, and Mernissi borrows the Durkheimean term, “anomie” to refer to the lack of faith in the ethical system and the values in the contemporary Islamic societies. This anomie, she believes, can be overcome, not by rejection of culture (and faith), but, instead, by its gender sensitive re-interpretation.

According to Mernissi, the roots of female subjugation in the Islamic world do not lie in Islam, but in the patriarchal interpretation of Islamic ethics and beliefs. Islam was always defined and interpreted by men, and theological class that provided lengthy commentaries on the Quran and the hadith were all men, interested in defending patriarchy. She points out that during Prophet’s time, Muslim women in Medina had, like men, the status of companions (sahabi) of the Prophet, and could converse freely with him on issues of faith and morality. One of the ways, she argues, through which men have turned Islam patriarchal is through the manipulation, and more than manipulation even manufacture of the hadith literature. The most reliable hadith are those that were compiled by al- Bukhari, but among the 600,000 hadith that he actually collected only 7,257 were, on verification, found to be authentic. She points that if there were as many as 596,725 false hadith in circulation during Bukhari’s time, which is in less than two centuries of the Prophet’s death, one can easily imagine how many fabricated and apocryphal hadiths would be in circulation today.

According to Mernissi, Islam recognizes women as powerful, sexual beings. There is no notion of female inferiority in Islam. It, therefore, recognizes the potential equality between men and women, and if this is not the case today, it is, for feminist believers, simply because that potential has not been realized. While comparing the conceptions of sexual dynamics in Freud and Ghazali, Mernissi comes to the interesting argument that gender polarization is a characteristic of Freudian psychoanalysis, but is totally absent in Ghazali‟s thought. Both thinkers actually represent different intellectual trends. In the modern western thought, represented by Freud, gender difference is innate to human existence and the differences between men and women belong to the realm of nature. In contrast, in the Islamic world view, represented by Ghazali, gender difference is social, and the differences between men and women are not innate, but a result of the socialization process. There is then, concludes Mernissi, an acceptance in the latter of the potential equality between men and women. If this has not happened yet, it is because that potential has not been realized.


[1] Fatema Mernissi, Beyond the Veil: Male- Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim society, (Schenkman Publicating Co., Inc.Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1975)
[2] Fatema Mernissi, Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern world, translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, (New York Addison-Wolsey Publishing Co., 1992)
[3] Mernissi Fatema, Women and Islam-An historical and theological enquiry, translated by Mary Jo Lakeland, (Kali for Women, Women Unlimited New Delhi, 2004)
[4] Mernissi Fatema, the Forgotten Queens of Islam, (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997)
[5] Tohidi Nayereh, “The Issues at Hand” In HerbertBodman and Nayereh Tohidi (ed.), Women in Muslim Societies: Diversity Within Unity, (Boulder Colo; lynne Rienner , 1998).[6] Ahmed Leila, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1992)
[7] Mariam Cooke, Women Claim Islam; Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature, (Routledge, New York, London, 2001)
[8] Najmabadi, Afsaneh, Feminism In an Islamic Republic; Years in Hardship, Years of growth ,in Yvonne, Y.Hadded and John Esposito (ed.), Islam, Gender and Social Change in the Muslim World,(New York Oxford University Press, 1998)
[9] Claire Noon, „Islamic feminism as articulated by Faeima Mernissi and its implications for Christian mission‟
[10] http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/Public/fatima_mernissi.html
[11] http://www.iosrjournals.org/iosr-jhss/papers/Vol19-issue3/Version-4/E019342528.pdf



Categories: Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory

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