The world-famous Moroccan sociologist and writer Fatema Mernissi celebrates her 70th birthday this month.
Martina Sabra of Qantara reports that Mernissi, currently a lecturer at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, really relishes academic discourse. Regardless of what she is writing about – whether it be women's rights in the Arab world, the West's fear of Islam, or cultural globalisation – the Fez-born academic and essayist succeeds not only in informing people, but also getting them to think and entertaining them at the same time.
Her books have been translated into more than 30 languages and she has received numerous prestigious international awards for her work, including the European Erasmus Prize and the Spanish Prince of Asturias Prize.
Fatema Mernissi began her career in a traditional Koranic school in Fez, where she was introduced to a peaceable Islam. "Writing is seduction," said the author during an interview at her home in Rabat, "and seduction is the opposite of violence. I learned that in the Koranic school. Why do you think books like the Koran and the Bible have been bestsellers for over one thousand years? It's simple: because they seek to seduce the reader through language, not with violence."
Mernissi grew up with the Islamic sources and the mystical, non-violent currents of Sufism. However, despite their dedication to tradition, her extended family was foresighted enough to send her to one of the first modern French-Arabic schools in Fez. The talented young girl grasped the opportunity that was offered to her: she completed her secondary school exams, studied social science, worked in England and France, and eventually ended up in the USA, where she was given a doctoral scholarship.
It was the 1960s, the era of the civil rights movement. The struggle of the women's movement in the USA for equal rights and sexual self-determination taught the young sociologist from Morocco that the oppression of women was not specific to the Arab Islamic world alone. Nevertheless, Fatema Mernissi discovered that she was considered particularly disadvantaged because of her North African and Muslim origins. Mernissi wanted to get to the bottom of these distorted mutual perceptions and wrote her doctoral thesis on gender and women in the East and West.
Her dissertation, which was published in 1975, was entitled Beyond the Veil (see above) and was translated into 30 languages: it is now considered a standard work of intercultural gender research from the USA to Malaysia. Another of Mernissi's works, published in France in 1987, is also considered a classic, The Veil and the Male Elite.
The central theory of the book is that the Koran itself does not actually justify the oppression of women. The misogyny actually comes from the male religious scholars who have interpreted the Koran as they see fit over the course of a thousand years and misused it to oppress women.
The Veil and the Male Elite was translated into numerous languages and published around the world. In Morocco, however, it was only available under the counter for many years. "I had stolen the show from the conservative religious scholars and the powers that be," explains Mernissi.
"Just imagine you are living in an absolute monarchy whose claim to power is rooted in Islam. Then along comes a woman and claims that anyone who is opposed to the freedom of the individual is opposed to the Prophet Muhammad. Hassan II's police state was not going to stand for that."
That being said, Mernissi was able to work pretty much undisturbed. In addition to her diplomatic rhetoric, her background – a well-to-do land-owning family and a number of relatives who occupied influential positions – provided protection. Mernissi actively used her name and her position to support democratic initiatives. Since the end of the 1980s, her preferred means of doing so has been the so-called "ateliers d'écriture", writing workshops with independent authors' collectives.
Several workshops under Mernissi's leadership led to ground-breaking publications: victims of torture wrote of the torment in their souls, human rights activists denounced the sexual abuse of school children, civic initiatives in southern Morocco reported about grass-roots democracy, carpet weavers wrote about their dreams.
Now, a new generation that is more interested in the Internet than in books is emerging in Morocco. The writing workshops are, however, still in demand, and Fatema Mernissi follows social media with great interest. She assumes that YouTube, Twitter and the like will lead to more democracy in Arab countries in the long run, because the powers that be will no longer have a monopoly on the most important resources in this regard: communication and information.
When Mernissi is not surfing the world wide web or supporting others in their creative writing efforts, she is busy working on her next book. Why the West is Afraid of Islam is the working title of a major new essay that is due to be published in English in the USA in 2011. The book is sure to cause a stir in the USA in the year that marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.