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A Woman’s Voice

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The lives of academics are usually not exciting enough to lead to feature films. As with many other aspects of her life, the Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi (1940–2015) is an exception. It was announced in 2020 that Mohamed Abderrahmane Tazi, a well-known Moroccan director, is making a film on Mernissi, with a prominent actress taking the leading role. In his words, Mernissi is a good subject for a film because “she listened to a transforming Morocco, constantly observing what was happening in society” (Khtib, “La vie de Fatima Mernissi au grand écran prochainement”). As a researcher, prolific author, and public intellectual, Mernissi was internationally famous to the level of being interviewed on European and American television. Her academic work makes frequent reference to her own experiences, which can help to flesh out a compelling biopic.

In a career spanning four decades, Mernissi addressed issues pertaining to women’s rights and roles in Muslim societies. Trained as a sociologist in Morocco, France, and the United States, she was ever concerned with social and cultural circumstances that affected people in modern societies. Somewhat unusually for a sociologist, however, her work also persistently suggested that addressing issues in the present is unthinkable without reimagining the near and distant past. Due to this characteristic, her work is an important corpus to understand the cultural politics related to history in modern Muslim societies.

Mernissi’s interest in amplifying women’s voices and presence in society was a constant through all her copious publications. Her strategy to accomplish this varied based on the data available for different types of contexts. In some cases, she documented women’s presence as speaking subjects, hitherto ignored by scholars. Where the evidence lacked reference to women, this very fact could be treated as a comment on the limitations of the archive. And in some instances, she found it necessary to render women present through fictional ventriloquizing.

The processes Mernissi used to inflect the past with her choices are quite common in all forms of historical writing. If her forensic, and sometimes creative, methods come across as unusual, that has to do with her focus on gender, which became a significant preoccupation in the study of Muslims concurrently with the years of her own career.

In addition to its interest in making women central in academic work, Mernissi’s work is instructive for appreciating the partial and manufactured nature of all narratives about the past. To highlight this aspect, I will address Mernissi’s representation of her own past and her interpretation of premodern Islamic sources and figures as a means to argue for transforming women’s access to social goods and authority in modern contexts.

Woman in a black abaya walks past a highly decorated wall and two equally decorated doors with closed latches.

A woman walks past the ornate outer walls and doorway of a mosque in Fez, Morocco.


Photo 24440340 © Paop |


A Woman’s Voice

A Fictional Autobiography

Mernissi spent her early life in Fez as part of an elite Muslim family invested in the city’s reputation as Morocco’s religious center. In 1994, she published a book in English entitled Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood that was marketed as an autobiography, told from her viewpoint as a child while growing up in a multigenerational household. Absent in the English version but indicated in a footnote in the French translation is the acknowledgment that the book was actually fiction of a certain type:

If I had tried to tell you my childhood, you wouldn’t have finished the first two paragraphs, because my childhood was dull and prodigiously boring. As this book is not an autobiography, but a fiction that presents itself as tales told by a seven-year-old child, the version of the facts about January 1944 told here is the one that was in my memories. Memories of what illiterate women told each other in the courtyard and on the terraces (translated in Bourget, “Complicity with Orientalism,” 33).

The discrepancy between the two versions of Dreams of Trespass gives insight on Mernissi’s attitude to the past. Presuming that the difference has to do with her goals for writing—and not a desire to deceive or cash in on celebrity status— paying attention to the publication venue and her statements regarding the fictional content in her work is especially productive.

The fact that Dreams of Trespass was first published in English tells us that in writing it, Mernissi had a global audience in mind, with an emphasis on North America and Western Europe. The word harem in the subtitle of this book (as well is in the titles of many of her other books) is a further clue. As a scholar has pointed out, Mernissi’s books were published at a time when harem was a word “unfamiliar in current Moroccan usage. If the space the word ‘harem’ designates existed historically, it has disappeared from Moroccan reality today” (Rhouni, Secular and Islamic Feminist Critiques, 132).

This means that when Moroccans, or other Arabs and Muslims, encounter the word in Mernissi’s works, they see a past purportedly of their own societies but refracted through the Western gaze. This is not to say that the seclusion of women denoted by the harem is unknown to them. Rather, naming such seclusion as harem is a function of using English or French (rather than Arabic) and comes encumbered with the orientalist imagination that has made the term familiar to Western audiences.

Mernissi’s work is heavily invested in trying to dispel incorrect understandings of Muslim women she felt were common in the West. Does this mean that her use of the term harem was a cynical ploy to sell more books? It seems to me that the situation is more complex and has to do with the way colonial and orientalist projections regarding the Islamic past play a determining role in modern Muslims’ self-understandings. Mernissi’s ultimate purpose was to effect change in societal attitudes as well as legal regimes as they pertained to women. Such change is largely a prerogative of national governments and international discourses such as that of universal human rights. Intervening in these domains requires writing in European languages in which harem is a native term and is the most efficient way to name the problem. Counterfactually, if Mernissi’s concern were solely to affect the discourse among Arabic speakers, the harem would have been irrelevant and she would have had to use different terms.

Mernissi’s prominent deployment of the word harem was a kind of bait-and-switch tactic. It drew readers to her books, whether titillated by the vast Western reservoir of sexual fantasy or seeking to liberate oppressed Muslim women from presumed servitude. What they found in her descriptions (including in the pseudo-autobiographical Dreams of Trespass) was a complex reality in which seclusion was presented as a situation of disempowerment but not of desubjectivization or dehumanization. The women she described resisted impositions and had lives that were joyful as well as difficult. The lesson in her works was directed toward people in the West and elites within places such as Morocco. The harem for these audiences was, in her view, a basic fact of the Islamic past whose tentacles reached into the present. By first enticing and then adding complexity, Mernissi’s work was a discursive interruption into this fabric of thought.

If we grant sincerity of purpose to Mernissi, her presentation of a fictional narrative as autobiography makes sense because of the subject position she understood herself to occupy. To put it simply, she was a Muslim woman writing to cause change in her own society via addressing herself to people who presumed her to have been formed by a historical imperative structured along the lines of a harem. To say that the harem was an irrelevant word and the social situation of her concern was more complex would not garner the audience’s interest. Conversely, enticing by citing the harem and then providing an eminently readable account, put in the mouth of a child presumed incapable of guile, was a highly effective strategy. Through this, she adopted the name the presumed audience undertook to represent reality and attempted to imbue it with nuanced content.

Dreams of Trespass is a highly artful text. Reading without knowing that it is fictional is likely to seduce many readers into thinking it represents events, especially if one is inclined to think sympathetically about Muslim women. This accounts for the book’s extensive adoption in universities in Europe and North America as a text representing Muslim women’s lives in the early twentieth century. Should we think of this situation as Mernissi having duped readers by a fake? Her own response to this issue was oblique: she suggested she was narrating a truth conveyable only through invention.

The first-person voice she had manufactured for the work was a reliable narrator, an adult who had a lifetime of experience as a woman in Morocco and articulated it through the constructed voice of a precocious child looking to the future. The book consisted of anecdotes she had heard, and taken to be true, rather than experienced. Additionally, the manufactured autobiographical voice allowed experiences coming from multiple sources to congeal into the narrative of an individual.

Mernissi’s conceit was that her awareness of women’s lives in Morocco was such that an invention she posited as her own consciousness as a child was an appropriate vessel to narrate the collective recent past. The autobiographical ruse was akin to how a historian may narrate the salient characteristics of an age through the biography of a paradigmatic person. In such a work, the life of the protagonist acts like an artificial center that allows arranging others around them to create a picture of the surrounding world. The key for Mernissi was the need to create a personable story that would ring true as the description of a time anterior to the late twentieth century when her book was published. And this story’s ultimate purpose was to generate sympathy and better understanding in the target audience, based primarily in Western countries.

The Premodern Past

Although written in a different mode than the pseudo-autobiography, Mernissi’s more directly academic works also deploy the tactic of rethinking the past for present ends. Her intentions are stated directly in a book highlighting premodern Muslim women who held political authority:

It is time to begin to rewrite the history of the Muslims, to go beyond the Islam of the imam-caliph-president, of the palace and its ‘ulama; to move beyond the Islam of the masters, and doing that means going into the swampy, dark areas of the marginal and the exceptional.…Islam, a civilization of 15 centuries, which embraces the lives of millions of individuals of different sex, class, and ethnicity, cannot but be the history of complexities, tensions, and rejections. To say today that ‘Islam forbids women access to the field of politics’ is certainly to speak the truth. But we understand our history a little better if we admit that that is one truth among many others (Mernissi, Forgotten Queens of Islam, 84–85).

Mernissi’s strategy for rewriting history included positing that Islam’s original doctrines and social prescriptions had been egalitarian but were corrupted into hierarchical forms in the imperial setup that became dominant from the late eighth century onward. This argument hinged on two interrelated words—hijab and hajib—that signify separation and the creation of a barrier.

She maintained that in the original Islamic polity presided over by the Prophet, the governors and the governed, and men and women, were treated the same with respect to the ability to access and occupy authority. The political transparency involved here was marked by the lack of a hijab, the veil or barrier, as a structural device meant to denote separation. In this view, women’s veiling as a practice with wide social and even ontological implications became an aspect of Islamic self-understandings only in the postprophetic, imperial stage.

The first few caliphs who succeeded Muhammad as sovereigns continued the Prophet’s practice of rulers being available directly to ordinary people. This situation changed when the rulers gradually withdrew from public questioning and functions such as the imperative to give the Friday sermon. The separation was ultimately formalized through instituting the office of the hajib, a “man-veil” who stood between the ruler and the ruled, protecting the caliph from questioning and acting as the voice of authority toward the ruled. The

hajib “constituted a rupture with the Prophet’s tradition of the Friday khutba [sermon] being carried out by the sovereign in person. It is possible to imagine another political Islam, which little by little would have developed from the mosque, a mosque-based democracy, a real parliamentary practice of interchange and resolution of conflicting opinions and interests” (Mernissi, Forgotten Queens of Islam, 80).

Encapsulated in the hijab-hajib etymological connection, Islamic political traditions as they solidified were especially detrimental for Muslim women’s political status. As citizens subjected to the physical and metaphorical effects of the hijab, they were the group emphatically disenfranchised from the commonweal in a political system maintained through subjugation and lack of access to material and symbolic resources. While the populace at large suffered by being subjected to the hajib, women were the worst off because hijab-centered social institutions were the most encompassing implementation of the principle of separation.

Hoping to find resistance to the political system, Mernissi’s work Forgotten Queens of Islam was a search for women holders of authority in the margins of recorded Islamic history. She found quite a few, from the earliest Islamic decades through the middle centuries where some women, such as Raziya Sultana (d. 1240) in North India, had their status affirmed through the symbolic act of having coins struck in their names. Exceptional as these women were in the annals of Islamic history, Mernissi argued that they were a possibility to be reenlivened. Her effort highlighting the lives of these rulers countered prevailing Muslim political ideas through showing that historical data was diverse and could be operationalized to create alternative visions for the future. Stories of exceptional individuals from the past had the potential to catalyze change at the collective level in Muslim societies.

Large wall mural with a young woman offering a flower.

A large mural of a woman with short hair and a pink flower covers a wall in distinctive street art in central Casablanca, Morocco.


Image ID: 2BC4Y2X , Rosemary Behan / Alamy Stock Photo, 2017


A Woman’s Voice

The Imperative to Speak

Fatima Mernissi’s legacy as a major Muslim intellectual active during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries rests on her extensive list of publications and media appearances. Underlying all her activities was the need to speak, to give voice to the experience of Muslim women, including herself, and to insist that the public at large must listen to these voices. Imagining alternative futures, in which Muslim women might be positioned better, required unearthing and inventing alternative pasts through rereading sources and rewriting Islamic history.

At the end of her book Forgotten Queens of Islam, Mernissi conjoins her historical exploration with a story attributed to her own past. She states that as a child, she once came home with swollen feet after having been punished by her Quran teacher. When her grandmother asked her what infraction had led to the punishment, she had barely begun to respond by saying that she wanted to say something to the teacher when the grandmother interrupted her:

‘Child, don’t bother to go further. You committed a very grave fault. You wanted, you, to say something to your faqiha [female religious teacher]. You don’t say something at your age, especially to someone older. You keep silent. You say nothing. And you will see, you won’t get any more beatings.’,,, [M]y progress has always been interrupted by the dismayed advice of those who love me and wish me happiness. They always say the same thing: you must keep quiet if you don’t want to be beaten (188).

Given what we know of Mernissi’s autobiography, it is uncertain if the event described here involved her, if she heard someone else tell the story, or if she invented it altogether. I imagine that if asked, she would say it does not matter. Focusing on the story’s veracity as an event misses the point of why it was being told.

Mernissi’s grandmother’s advice cited in the story was something she went out of her to way to observe in the breach during her long career. Similarly to what she argued with respect to the forgotten queens, her life story as an adult was unusual for someone with her background. Her desire to imagine novel futures led her to highlight exceptionality in the past to the point of giving her own life a childhood that she did not experience. In her work, voicing and imagining are twinned activities, both concerned to transform the social realm through referring to the experience of individuals who might have bucked authority and regular patterns. For Mernissi, such individuals, especially women, from the past were crucial for improving Muslims’ social circumstances in the future.

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