Religion 317 – Women in Islam
10 May 2011
Fatima Mernissi: Evolving Feminism(s)
Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi is described by some as the “godmother” of Islamic feminism (Coleman 36). Much of her career and scholarship focuses on articulating and defending women’s rights in Muslim society. She is credited with publishing the first identifiable work of Islamic feminism, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam, in 1987 (Badran 9). This paper argues that during her career, Fatima Mernissi moved from a position of reconstructionist secular feminism during the early 1980s to a reformist position that contributed to and developed a foundation for Islamic feminism with her publications beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Mernissi challenges the patriarchal structure of the Islamic framework and advocates a societal reconstructionist attitude that enables access to women’s rights by applying a set of Western standard universal rights. Upon publication of The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi’s position evolves from a reconstructionist viewpoint to developing one of Islamic reformism that serves as important groundwork for Islamic feminism in the Muslim world. Starting with The Veil and the Male Elite, Mernissi bases her arguments for the rights of women on Qur’anic and Islamic facts by critically rereading, reinterpreting, and challenging current interpretations of the Qur’an and hadith reports. This approach is the primary method utilized currently by Islamic feminists to explore, discuss, and advocate women’s rights within an Islamic framework and discourse (Badran 247). While not ascribing to a specifically Islamic feminist identity, Mernissi’s later works serve as part of the basis of Islamic feminist discourse. This paper discusses the evolution of Mernissi’s feminist(s) approach with the intention of showing where Mernissi’s scholarship began and then the contribution Mernissi made to Islamic feminism. First, this paper supplies a little background information about Fatima Mernissi in order to provide context about this scholar. This paper then discusses Mernissi’s original articulation of her view of achieving women’s rights through secular feminism, often characterized by reconstructionist views, in Beyond the Veil. Next, Mernissi’s contribution to Islamic feminism is explored by focusing on Mernissi’s evolution of approach to Islamic reformist thought in her publication The Veil and the Male Elite. Significant to this discussion is Mernissi’s important role in asserting the right of women in Islamic society to engage in ijtihad and the responsibility of women to educate themselves and seek an understanding of the Islamic framework they struggle for equality within. Fatima Mernissi was born into a traditional and wealthy family in the city of Fez, Morocco in 1940 (Belhachmi 1411). Born into a harem, Mernissi was exposed to the conflict between tradition and modernity within Morocco from a young age (Coleman 36). Mernissi was constantly surrounded by women sequestered behind the high walls of her family home, who influenced her development and growth, as she later documents in her memoir Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood. Mernissi’s mother espoused ideas of gender equality, encouraging Mernissi to pursue her obligation to “transform the world” (Coleman 36). Mernissi attended religious school from a young age where she began to learn the Qur’an. Mernissi, growing up in a time of societal change in Morocco, was able to attend school and become literate; she was one of the first women in her family to leave the harem and become educated (Coleman 36-37). Upon Morocco’s independence from France, the harem life Mernissi was born into continued to disintegrate and disappear. She took advantage of the freedom of this change and achieved...