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From Harem to Civil Society: The Journey of Fatima Mernissi

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by Yassin Adnan. For some years, Fatima Mernissi has remained absent from the limelight. While she has written books that have shaken both Arab and Western opinion for two decades, she now devotes most of her time to working in faraway places, on the margins that have always formed the basis of her research. Has the Moroccan writer and world figure changed? Or has she tired of honor ceremonies and the role of the feminist activist at seminars and conferences? Regardless of the reasons, the key point is that she has resumed her field research, which forms the foundation of her views and justifies her endeavors.

 In her relatively recent book, “Scheherazade Goes West,” (reviewed in Al Jadid, Vol. 8, no. 41.) whose Arabic translation bears the title “The European Harem,” Fatima Mernissi reveals to the West its own special brand of the harem, one that does not differ much in essence from its Eastern counterpart. Muslim males, for instance, assert their dominion by isolating women within closed environments, forbidding them to enter into the public domain. Western males, on the other hand, brandish time as a weapon in the faces of women, placing them under the sword of eternal youth. Either they retain the freshness of youth, and so retain their important role as centerpieces, or they allow the wrinkles of middle age to overtake their features and are cruelly relegated to the darkest recesses of forgotten shelves.

In this book, Mernissi has once again taken up her courageous endeavors. She catches her Western readers off guard and comes at them from a direction they don’t expect. She has already won their applause for her book, “The Political Harem,” a work in which she severely anatomizes masculine constructs in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

However, unlike her heroine Scheherazade, Mernissi does not head out to crisscross the West. In a statement published on the Internet a few years ago, she announced that she would not go to the West at all through the year 2002. She apologized up front for her inability to accept any invitations to seminars or conferences. They would force her to spend most of her time traveling in airplanes, and such heights, she declared, were not suitable for a woman whose true profession is to observe the developments in her society up close. This year, Mernissi has been even clearer, publishing on her web site:

One reason I do not answer last minute invitations is that most of the letters from those who contact me reveal that they have no idea about my current research focus: the impact of the satellite TV on the Arab world. The other reason is that I practice Essays & Features tadbir (long-term self-governance planning), a discipline I was taught in my Koranic school in Fez, developed by Ibn Baja, known in the West as Avempace (a 12th century Andalusian scholar who was born in the Spanish city of Zaragosa and died in Fez in 1138 A.D.). And tadbir implies that you never embark on last minute opportunistic adventures. Tadbir means that you stick to working with the few selected local and international partners who are focused on the same issues, read your publications and help you advance by providing criticism and logistic support.

In the Arab East, Mernissi’s readers have wondered about the reason for her sudden absence and uncustomary silence. Perhaps they were unaware that this Moroccan social scientist, famous since the early 1980’s for her courageous preoccupation with the position of women, has somewhat changed her emphasis and shifted away from an exclusive concern with women’s issues.

She has chosen, instead, to look toward the South in search of a civil society that is still in the process of formation. As Mernissi explains, “I am not a militant feminist who can be preoccupied with women only.” Rather, she adds, “I have embarked upon studying the dynamism of civil society because it is a space that does not place women in opposition to men, but instead allows them to work together in order to undertake remarkable endeavors. If politics cuts down and marginalizes women, civil work redeems their worth through involving them in its dynamism. Civil society is my new horizon. For this reason, whenever anyone contacts me to talk with me as an official spokesperson for Moroccan or Arab women, I tell them to seek others. We have excellent activists who work for women’s causes, but our news media only seek the stars. As for me, I do not wish to play that role.”

No doubt there are more serious roles awaiting Fatima Mernissi. For years, she has supervised writing workshops that have benefited many students, professors, women, and ordinary folk. The workshops have resulted in daring collections, including books on rape and sexual molestation. In these volumes, the victims have been able to speak out directly for themselves without the need for intermediaries. Several political prisoners have joined Mernissi’s workshops immediately after their release. Some of the amazing testimonies and stories they have written include “The Story of Darkness” by Fatima al-Biyeh, “We Have Stolen Laughter” by Aziz al-Wadia, “Never Without My Son” by Nour al-Din al-Saoudi, and “The Delicacy of Rock” by Abd al-Latif Zraikem. In addition, many students, teachers, and activists who work to promote tourism have gathered around Mernissi in the small desert city of Zagora, located more than 700 kilometers from Rabat, where Mernissi organized a workshop for collecting works to form a book aimed at ordinary readers that would serve as a cultural tour guide of the area.

 Areas that are far removed from the center are not an accidental or occasional element in the intellectual path of Mernissi, for all the subjects she has approached in her research belong to the margin. In the early 1970’s, she examined the relationship between the sexes in Islamic society, culminating in her doctoral dissertation the sociology of the family in 1973. She researched the changes that the Moroccan family was undergoing, particularly regarding mothers, widows, and divorcees. These studies were followed by “Sexual Behavior in an Arab-Islamic Environment” (1983) and “Western Women: A Sociology Study of the Women of Western Morocco” (1985). Her book, “Sex as Social Engineering” (1987), shed light in an unprecedented manner on the subject of the most marginalized of women such as maids, weavers, day workers, and villagers.

Mernissi has devoted herself to research, convinced that new cultural modes are required before women can effectively participate in national economics. Thus, in 1984, she helped to spearhead the first collection of research regarding the position of women and the family in Morocco. In addition, she launched and personally guided a series called “Muqarabat” (“Approaches”). Mernissi followed with another series called “al-Mara’awa al-mu’assassat” (“Woman and Institutions”), overseen by her colleague and translator Fatima al-Zahra’ Zriwel. As she delved into an examination of intellectual heritage, Mernissi was careful to tie the liberation of women to Arab Islamic tradition. Thus she revisited the history of Muslim women in the book “Sultanate Massiyate” (2001), which was translated as “Forgotten Queens of Islam.” This book is regarded as a serious attempt at reconsidering the hitherto-neglected heritage of Arab women.

Perhaps the stories of the harem remain dearest to Fatima Mernissi, even though today she considers the harem merely a legend that the West clings to more than the Arab East. Nonetheless, she did seem most excited when the hotel manager who welcomed her in Zagora told her that he felt unlucky not to live in the time of the harem. As she told the German television crew from Z.D.F. that had accompanied her in her travels through the south: “There’s a young man who longs for the time of the harem. You should tape him. This is a chance that cannot be overlooked!”

Translated from the Arabic by Pauline Homsi Vinson. The Arabic version of the article appeared originally in the Beirut-based Zawayya magazine. The English version of this interview appeared exclusively in Al Jadid Vol. 10, No. 49 (Fall 2004) with permission from the author and the editor of Zawayya.

Copyright (c) 2004, 2015 by Al Jadid