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Remembering Islamic Feminist Fatema Mernissi


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember a woman who was described in today's New York Times obituary as a founder of Islamic feminism. Fatima Mernissi died November 30 at the age of 75 in Morocco. She was a sociologist whose books include "Beyond The Veil" and "Islam And Democracy." Mernissi grew up in Morocco in a harem, which she wrote about in her memoir "Dreams Of Trespass." Her family shared a compound with her aunt, uncle, cousins and grandmother. Upstairs in more modest quarters lived the divorced or widowed women in her extended family and their children. Mernissi was born in 1940 in Morocco and grew up in the first generation of girls who were allowed to go to school. Her mother was allowed out of the harem only for special occasions and religious festivals. When I spoke with Mernissi in 1993, I asked if her mother felt like a prisoner in the harem.


FATIMA MERNISSI: Oh, she hated it, of course. She hated it, mostly because already the Arab world then was completely, completely entranced with the idea of progress. And the nationalist songs, you know, about freedom and self-fulfillment and all that - she would hear it on Radio Cairo. And Cairo and the Ottoman - Turkey - was then the center of an incredibly powerful feminist movement. And so she could just compare how sad was her confinement.

GROSS: Did your mother try to not wear a veil when she went out?

MERNISSI: She fought in the limits which were granted to her. What she did was instead of wearing the haik, for example, which is this seven meters long piece of white cloth, she wanted to take men's djellaba, which the long robe with trimmed sleeves which give much more freedom to the movements. And that was a huge battle because it was like when the French women or the American women took the liberty to wear men's pants. It was the same thing.

GROSS: So there was a different standard when you were growing up between what you were supposed to do and your mother. Your mother still had to wear a veil, but you weren't expected to?

MERNISSI: Absolutely. One cannot understand what's happening to women in the Middle East if they don't realize that the mothers are a strong, progressive force. The mothers push the daughters to get out of the harem, to get the education, to achieve what they could not even dream of.

GROSS: You studied in the West in college. You studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. You studied at Brandeis University. A lot of people who come to the West to study stay there. You returned to Morocco, in spite of all of the limitations on women's freedom there. You continue to live in Morocco. What has kept you there?

MERNISSI: Oh, my God, I think if you know Morocco (laughter), you'll understand my situation. Morocco is such a beautiful place. It's incredibly beautiful. And also it is captivating place because for a writer, you feel that you make impact. I mean, when I write something in the press, the day after in the fish market, people will be discussing it. Either they're attacking me or they like what I've written, and then two men will get into a fight with each other. One is for me and the other against me. You are umbilically linked and rooted in this society which has its own, of course, worries and fears about modernity.

GROSS: You've written several books basically giving a feminist interpretation of women's rights in Islam. And to challenge certain beliefs that people have - the beliefs that Islam is an inherently sexist religion and culture. You've gone back to the texts and said that that's not so. So I take it you've remained a Muslim even though you've challenged a lot of people's beliefs about Islam.

MERNISSI: Absolutely. And you see one of the frontiers I crossed is actually the act of analyzing the memoir and the religious text and the historical text and how history is made and framed and produced and packaged. And I just by looking and doing that - I mean, reading history for myself - I discovered, first of all, that the Prophet is a wonderful person and any Muslim woman could claim it as an inspiring model. And this is on one hand. And on the other hand, that I showed that - and the real mistake of women was to let the memoir, the collective, the history, space of producing history - to let it in the hands of men. I started this slogan. I, as a Muslim woman living in 1993, I want to have two things - the mosque and the satellite, both at the same time. And no one can mutilate me by telling me I cannot have the mosque or the Koran. Someone else is going to read for me or go at my place to the mosque, and/or to tell me you shouldn't take anything from the West because the West is the enemy and so on. It is to me to decide. I am intelligent enough to be critical towards the West and take what I need and reject what is bad for me.

GROSS: Fatima Mernissi, recorded in 1993. She died in Morocco November 30, at the age of 75. Her books include "Dreams Of Trespass: Tales Of A Harem Girlhood" and "Beyond The Veil." If you'd like to catch up on interviews you missed, check out our podcast, which we just found out is iTunes' most-downloaded podcast of 2015. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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