By Moha Ennaji
December 3, 2015
Morocco has just lost the great progressive sociologist Fatema Mernissi, who was one of the cultural and intellectual icons of the country. The deceased spent her entire life defending gender equality, women's rights, moderate Islam, the Islam of mercy, love, and tolerance. She dealt with contemporary issues with scientific rigor, objectivity and boldness, often breaking taboos.
Fatema Mernissi has immortalized her name by wonderful books such as "Beyond the Veil", "Political Harem", "Dreams of Trespass," "The Veil and the Male elite", and "Women in Islam".
Mernissi became aware of the dynamics of male-female segregation very early in life. Her autobiography novel, “Dreams of Trespass”, which met wide acclaim and has been translated into no less than 24 languages, expresses this awareness and her attempts to understand and trespass the hududs (frontiers) of Arab-Muslim space-based patriarchy.
Mernissi’s subject matters are diverse and far-reaching but three main themes are recurrent: women, modernity, and Islam. For her, sexual inequality is a prominent feature of both Islamic and Western societies in spite of the fact that the underlying concepts of female sexuality in Christian and Muslim traditions are very different.
With the death of Mernissi, our country has lost one of the greatest sociologists in Moroccan history, and one of the emblems of the feminist movement, a good honest charismatic woman who dedicated her life to defending the rights of women in order to free them from the grip of oppression and exploitation in any form. In doing so, she lit the flame of knowledge and tolerance in this dangerous world, and illuminated the way for Moroccan and Muslim women to continue the struggle and work for freedom and the common good of their communities.
Using her scientific publications, Fatema Mernissi was a beacon of enlightenment in the realm of university research, contributing a multitude of books and participating in the development and prosperity of the Moroccan university. She wrote in Arabic, French, and English and published her work in the best of international publishing houses. She was translated into several foreign languages and lectured and taught in the most prestigious European and American universities. Her attention was focused on issues of democracy in Muslim societies, in particular the status of women and the analysis of the evolution of Islamic thought, as well as recent developments related to globalization and the Middle East.
Her writings have also focused on the conflict between tradition and modernity and on crises that afflict our societies and how to ensure progress, growth and development, and openness to the other.
In parallel to her academic work, Mernissi conducted a constant struggle in the context of civil society for gender equality and women's rights, and organized and participated in numerous workshops, meetings and other social activities, including "civic synergy" and "citizenship caravan".
Mernissi was among the first women to attend a school established by the nationalist movement during the French protectorate, and was able to lift high the torch of Moroccan women thanks to her abundant contributions and leading interventions in conferences and seminars across the globe.
She has impacted generations of scholars (men and women) not only in Morocco, but also in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. Her legacy is unique and is the impact of her work. Navigating between the local and the international, she was able to reach people of all ages, political backgrounds, and schools of thoughts.
Born in 1940 in Fez, Mernissi received her primary and secondary education in bilingual schools in Morocco. She then studied sociology at Mohamed V University in Rabat before pursuing her studies in France and at Brandeis University in the US. Back in Morocco, she taught sociology at Rabat University and was nominated as member of the University Research Institute and a member of the UN University Council.
In 2003, Mernissi was awarded the Prince of Asturias Award along with Susan Sontag.
She will remain an icon of freethinking about women, modernity, and Islam in a troubled era. A staunch belief in her ideas and her vast knowledge single her out as an outstanding Arab-Muslim writer and scholar.
Moha is President of the South North Center for Intercultural Dialogue and Migration Studies in Morocco. He is professor of gender and cultural studies at Fès University. His most recent book is titled Muslim Moroccan Migrants in Europe (Palgrave-Macmillan 2014).