Fatima Mernissi passed away Monday in the capital of her home country, Rabat, Morocco. The 75-year-old author and sociologist leaves behind a brilliant legacy that both spawned and spearheaded the 20th century reconcilement of Islam and feminism.
Publishing monographs, essays and plays that regularly oscillated between French and English, Mernissi kindled social introspection and religious inquisition around the the world. Her most renowned book, “Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society,” written in 1975, examines a holistic scope of traditional Islamic texts and religious rulings — all before shattering their biases and reconsidering them through a feminist lens.
Her work liberated women as the objectified sin of social or religious evil and empowered us to define and reclaim faith for ourselves.
Mernissi graduated from the Sorbonne, where she studied political science before earning a doctorate degree at Brandeis University. Throughout her life, she maintained an active role at international activist organizations from UNESCO to the United Nations Population Fund. Most recently, she lectured at Mohammed V University in Rabat, while also researching at the university’s Institute for Scientific Research.
From human rights to democracy, Mernissi remained confident and intelligent in her quest to establish, both within and beyond religious contexts, women’s equality and empowerment — which she viewed as nothing more than core, genuine ideals of Islam.
Most crucially, Mernissi dedicated her life to analyzing work by some of Islam’s most thoughtful and compelling philosophers who frequently happened to, in fact, exclude women from their interpretations — sometimes even mounting women as the source of sin.
In “Beyond the Veil,” for example, she quotes distinguished theologian al-Ghazali by summarizing a famous, foundational key point of his work:
“The most precious gift God gave humans is reason. Its best use is the search for knowledge. To know the human environment, to know the earth and the galaxies, is to know God. Knowledge (science) is the best form of prayer.”
Al-Ghazali’s ideology encouraged the pursuit of knowledge, paired with the rejection of the temptation of beauty — a seemingly virtuous deed, which, as it turned out, largely referred to the temptation apparently put forth by women. Despite the outward inspiration in al-Ghazali’s captivating message, his logic was, in fact, heavily predicated on his fundamental definition of women as dangerous and impure.
Mernissi openly discussed and debated such passages and philosophies, ultimately advocating that women still embrace Islam for its overarching backbone underscoring rights and justice — rather than a dismissal of faith altogether.
To recapture Islam for women was, as it still remains, key. After all, she once wrote in “Dreams of Trespass” that “pessimism is the luxury of the powerful.”
“Writing,” Mernissi said, “is one of the most ancient forms of prayer. To write is to believe communication is possible that other people are good, that you can awaken their generosity and their desire to do better.”
Mernissi will be remembered as a bold and brilliant mother of modern Islamic feminism. Her ideas ignite our hope and belief in an Islam made, too, for women — and her published works sculpt no better example in the power of the pen and the might in our minds.
Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’oon.
Written by Zoha Qamar