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Fatema Mernissi

Fatema Mernissi

A Contemporary Scheherazade's Tales of a Borderless World

By Maggie Huff-Rousselle
Shortened version of an article for the Cairo Times, May 2003

(...) Like a modern day Scheherazade, it is perhaps Fatima Mernissi's destiny to turn our world into a fairytale, many fairytales, told with varied twists and turns, over and over and over again. She is the modern day Scheherazade of the Arab world, and Scheherazade reigns as the mythical queen of Arabic literature, not because of her physical beauty (which is taken for granted), but because she combined creativity with the shrewdest intelligence.

Beginning with her first book, Beyond the Veil: Male/Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, a seminal and still classic analysis based on her doctoral thesis in sociology at Brandeis, Mernissi established herself as an intellectual with solid credentials. She had taught herself how to think clearly and creatively, and how to communicate her thinking in ways that would be both engaging and persuasive. Many, perhaps most, academics develop skill in collecting and presenting relatively conventional data in relatively conventional ways. Perhaps they are capable of no more. Perhaps they fear the exposure - the risks - of not following accepted intellectual orthodoxy.

Intellectually, Mernissi goes swaggering off in unorthodox directions, barely acknowledging that she has strayed from a conventional path that she probably considers unworthy of consideration. "Beyond the Veil" is still controversial, but, for many, it established her as an Islamic scholar because of her use and interpretations of the Koran. For others, this and her subsequent books established her as a "refreshing" voice, an "imaginative Moroccan scholar and author [who] enters new territory" and "finds an innovative answer to the shared myths of the Arab world." (...)

Her subject matter is diverse, and she is much more than a Koranic scholar. "Beyond the Veil" was followed by other books with a gender focus, such as Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan women; The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam; and The Forgotten Queens of Islam. Her most recent book, Scheherazade Goes West, a tongue-in-cheek attempt to explain the Western female as trapped in an invisible socio-cultural harem, develops that feminine/feminist perspective from a different angle.

While that perspective is an important characteristic in much of her work, it is not central. Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World is probably the best known among those texts that represent her political analysis. Written and published after the first Gulf War, it was re-published with a new introduction after September 11. Mernissi herself sees The Political Harem as her most important book. More recently, her passion has been with grassroots civil society. Les At-Débrouille (The Resourceful Tribe), a lesser-known publication available only in French, was initially produced for the World Bank. This book explains "social capital" (a concept related to solidarity and trust within societies) through the story of a group of rural non-governmental organizations in the High Atlas.

Although known for her scholarly analysis and essays, Mernissi would describe the best-seller among her collected books as a work of fiction. Publishers promote Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, as a memoir, but the book, now in 24 languages, is a necklace of fairytale vignettes strung out like semi-precious gemstones that bring the reader - through the provocative sensibility of a girl-child - into the private and very domestic harem of an old Moroccan family post-World War II. It begins with a true fact and moves on: "I was born in a harem in 1940 in Fez, a ninth-century Moroccan city some five thousand kilometers west of Mecca, and one thousand kilometers south of Madrid, one of the dangerous capitals of the Christians." The fairytales for adults in "Dreams of Trespass" are like the classic and universal fairytales: they provide insight into the human condition and a moral framework based on our common humanity, not on a specific religion or culture.

Although most of her texts are non-fiction essays, Mernissi often uses the techniques of a fiction writer. In Les At-Débrouille, for example, she invented Aunt Acha, a composite of real characters living in the High Atlas, to help her tell the story of the NGOs working there. There is even a photograph of Aunt Acha in the introduction to the book. For Scheherazade Goes West Mernissi invented two Western males, also composites of men she knows, to help explain the male perspective. Readers, she felt, would distrust a female narrative voice discussing male perspectives on females in the West, but they would not question a male voice explaining the same perspectives to the female narrator.

Mernissi is acutely conscious of her intended audience. Although she spent only a half-dozen years living abroad (in France, England and the US) and returned permanently to Morocco 30 years ago, she always writes in English or French. Early drafts, not yet scrutinized by a copy editor, will have a riot of mechanical spelling and grammatical errors, but specific words have been selected with the delicacy of the finest gemstone expert choosing jewels for a monarch's crown. There is a logical and seductive flow of ideas, with transitions as smooth as silk. Les At-Débrouille, intended for a Moroccan audience, was written in what Mernissi describes as Arabic-French: she used French words but incorporated the rhythm and structure of Arabic. Whether she is writing in French or English for Western audiences, she often uses an italicized Arabic word, followed by a well-honed definition which provides insight into Arab-Islamic culture. She mixes science, through scholarly analysis, with literary art.

Some artists work with fabric, some with paints and canvas or clay. Some chip away, finding the visions they imagine within a rock. Like her mythical ancestor, Scheherazade, Mernissi is an artist of the intellect. She works, not with tangible materials, but with ideas. She creates new theories and concepts by reinterpreting the past or the present and imagining the future, or spinning more conventional thinking together in odd and unexpected patterns that elude conventional thinking. One of the many Arabic concepts she uses as a theme is jadal, the art of dialogue and debate.

In practicing jadal herself, Mernissi has one theme that dominates: boundaries, frontiers, the things that divide us from the "other." The hijab (veil or curtain) is central in Beyond the Veil, and the hudud (sacred frontier) is a theme in this first seminal work and most of her other books. The introductory paragraph to Dreams of Trespass moves on to explain that she was "born in the midst of chaos, since neither Christians nor women accepted the [sacred frontiers]." In both introductions to "Islam and Democracy", she jousts with the words hijab, sometimes used to describe the recently fallen iron curtain, and hudud, used to describe many very different kinds of frontiers and boundaries. "Who among us," she asks, "is about to imagine a city of peace without boundaries, without separations, without hudud, without walls, without hijabs?"

The boundaries that Mernissi visits, over and over again, are the frontiers that divide us in a kind of modern-day tribalism. The commonalities that affiliate us - gender, race, religion, language and nationality - fashion a sense of solidarity that makes us feel safe and protected behind the invisible boundaries and frontiers we build around that solidarity. But these frontiers are ultimately destructive of what should be a far greater and more diverse solidarity: that of the human race. In Arabic, one says: kuluna fil howa sowa, we are all together in the same air. The English equivalent is: we are all in the same boat. This is a common moral in the fairytales that Mernissi tells us.

Scheherazade outwitted authority and conventional power - the status quo. Mernissi has done no less. Attempting to capture her in a few paragraphs is as foolhardy as attempting to pin down any specimen of a rare species. As a writer, she makes her audience perceive, understand and even "believe" in things that were always there (or so Mernissi would have it), but - because of conventional thinking - were not obvious before she made them come true for us.

Using ideas and language, she spins and weaves or strings necklaces for adults, fashioning nuanced and textured designs from interrelated and unconventional concepts, constructed both with careful analysis and interpretations that may startle. One can accept and believe in the ideas she spins and weaves or strings together, or not. Much depends on one's sense of optimism, because Mernissi's worldview is analytical, imaginative and staunchly optimistic. Stubbornly optimistic.

A few weeks after the little tribe of the Caravane Civique [April 2003 at Zagora] had scattered from the Moroccan desert, Mernissi was selected, from among 20 nominees, by the judges for the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters. "It gives me hope and vibrancy," said Mernissi when she learned of the award. "It gives me hope for the Arab world, for civil society." She will share the prize this year with Susan Sontag. As with the Nobel Prize, judges select, not on literary merit alone, but because of what the writer has to say. Both women were praised for "having developed a literary work in several genres that, with a profoundness of thought and aesthetic qualities, tackles essential issues of our time."

Those living in "our time" can learn much from Mernissi's quirky and insightful feminine-feminist worldview, from her effusive optimism, and from her seductive shadi (sweet voice). If this modern-day Scheherazade's stories were heard by today's rulers, they might be enchanted, and, like the cruel ruler in Scheherazade's mythical world, transformed into believers in jadal (dialogue and debate) rather than the force and violence used to build and defend the invisible and terrifying frontiers that divide us. Fairytales can come true - when one believes in them.

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Related links:

Beyond the Veil
Male/female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society

Doing Daily Battle
Interviews with Moroccan Women

The Veil and the Male Elite
A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam

The Forgotten Queens of Islam

Scherazade Goes West
Different Cultures, Different Harems

Islam and Democracy
Fear of the Modern World

Dreams of Trespass
Tales of a Harem Girlhood

Les Ait-Débrouille
ONG rurales du Haut-Atlas

Maggie Huff-Russell
Maggie Huff-Rousselle at the 7th Caravane Civique at Zagora

  • Expert in the Public Health Sector
  • Founder and president of Social Sectors Development Strategies, Inc.