Biographical Sketch of Fatema Mernissi (1940-2015)
Fatema Mernissi, in whose name the MESA’s Book Award is given, was born in Fes, Morocco, in 1940. Her conservative father registered her in one of the first private mixed schools in a colonized Morocco. After independence, she pursued her higher studies at Mohamed V University, Rabat, then in France and the US. She holds a Ph.D from Brandeis University and her thesis, which later became a book under the title Beyond the Veil, Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society (1975), won worldwide acclaim as the first book that deconstructed the patriarchal imaginary in the Muslim world. In parallel to her teaching at Mohamed V University since the 1980s, Mernissi developed a remarkable career as a sociologist, writer, novelist, artist, and civil society-promoter. Many of her books were translated into several languages and Fatema Mernissi quickly became an icon and a role model for women and men across the globe.
Fatema Mernissi’s legacy is unique in covering a large spectrum of themes that span the individual, the social, and the universal. It is also unique in never discarding mysticism, classical Islam, the harem, modernity and the concepts of love. A remarkable weaver of ideas and a powerful and yet elegant and exuberant voice, Fatema Mernissi leaves books that will continue to enchant us. For example, Veil and the Male Elite – A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (1987) is widely hailed as a pioneer masterpiece in the deconstruction of the misogyny in males’ interpretations of Islam’s sacred sources: Qur’an and hadith (Prophet’s sayings and deeds), a theme that is still vibrant today.
In Islam and Democracy. Fear of the Modern World (1993), Mernissi starts from an emotional and a linguistic base to ask the big questions of her era and penetrates the dilemmas of the Islamic society and its thinking in a remarkable way. Her Dreams of Trespass. Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1994) is an autobiographical fictional novel where Islamic feminism, Arab nationalism, and French colonization are intertwined with tradition, modernity and the magic of childhood in an elegant style and a sophisticated language. In The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1997), Mernissi highlights women that held authority in Islam in defiance of a tight patriarchal system. In Scheherazad Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems (2002), Mernissi contrasts the connotations of the term harem for men in the East and West, with the latter seeing in the term sexual fantasies where women are vulnerable and eager to attend to men’s needs, and the former seeing in the term a site of dangerous sexual power struggle between men and women resisting the domination of men. Fatema Mernissi also searched for terms that meant love in Arabic and embarked on spirituality as a way of giving a soul to globalization. In the last two decades of her life she focused on Berber women weavers as first-class artists in spite of their illiteracy.
For these and other works, Fatema Mernissi was widely honored and acknowledged as an exceptional writer, scholar, and woman. She won many awards, prominent among which is the Prince Asturias Award for Literature in 2003. In 2011, the Guardian categorized her as one of the 100 women that influenced the world. Seen as a “revolutionary princess,” a “towering intellect,” “a calm agitator,” and a “great listener,” Mernissi never failed to attract attention.
Fatema Mernissi died in Rabat on November 30, 2015. She left a legacy that will continue to inspire generations of men and women the world over. Her thoughts, visionary ideas, and extraordinary power of expression and communication could reach the minds and hearts of scholars, as well as those of ordinary people. Her death has not killed the life that was in her.
In establishing the Fatema Mernissi Book Award, MESA honors one of the greatest minds that Morocco produced. If Simone de Beauvoir’s feminism that started after World War II ushered a new era where equality became an issue in the West, Fatema Mernissi’s work started from an emotional and linguistic base to usher a new era in the Arab-Muslim world and beyond.
- Fatima Sadiqi, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, Morocco, January 2018