December 1, 2015 By Shameer KS

Questions Mernissi Posed


While parsing the jibes and demurs in the social media motivated by a religious scholar’s latest misogynic comments, I read the sad news of Fatema Mernissi’s demise. In Kerala, Mernissi has, of all feminist-leaning Muslim authors, been read most avidly. That is because two works by her has been translated into the native Malayalam language. The Veil and the Male Elite was the first. The book came to be mired in controversy owing to mistranslation of religiously and culturally significant terms. The Kerala High Court ordered withdrawal of the book from stores. Before that, Other Books, which has translated and published Amina Wadud’s Quran and Women, organized a debate titled Muslim Women and Other Readings in which Mernissi has been discussed. Mernissi’s novel Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood has been translated from Arabic original by VA Kabeer. So the state of Kerala has not been unfamiliar with Mernissi and her thoughts. But, owing to more influence she has than even Amina Wadud, who has visited the state and sojourned here, it should be noted that her staunch-often anachronistic-criticism of Muslim tradition has set a template for Islam criticism, often overshadowing rather creative engagement of feminists like Amina Wadud, Asma Barlas and Kecia Ali who adopt nuanced understanding of Muslim tradition.

However, it can’t be overlooked that Mernissi is a towering intellectual of this time. The immensely fertile soil of Fez has nourished her intellect and creative genius. She later came to live in Rabat, capital of Morocco, where she taught at the University Institute of Scientific Research. As a sociologist, she was interested in the life of women in contemporary society. Historical development of the ideas and attitudes concerning women was the dominant theme in her narratives. Her oeuvre is rather extensive, beginning from Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society and ending in the edited volume Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women. The most widely read book by her was The Veil and the Male Elite, a rather critical reading of some of what is reported as Prophet’s sayings in the light of timeless ethical values in the Quran and from a historical perspective.

In Mernissi’s book The Veil and the Male Elite, Prophet’s wife Umm Salama is narrated as asking him a vital question: The hadith goes: I (Umm Salama) had asked the Prophet why the Koran did not speak of us as it did of men. And what was my surprise one afternoon, when I was combing my hair, to hear his voice from the minbar. I hastily did up my hair and ran to one of the apartments from where I could hear better. I pressed my ear to the wall, and here is what the Prophet said:”0 people! Allah has said in his book: ‘Men who surrender unto Allah, and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe,'” etc. And he continued in this vein until he came to the end of the passage where it is said: “Allah hath prepared for them forgiveness and a vast reward.”

This incident has influenced some of the elegant understanding about the role of women in Muslim societies. Asma Barlas. begins her article Women’s Readings of the Quran (In The Cambridge Companion to the Quran, edited by Jane McAuliffe) by citing the hadith saying that “if this had been an idle question on her part and nothing had come of it, the incident probably would not have found its way into Muslim tradition.” And she ends, “In the very connectedness of hermeneutical and existential questions, then, Muslims have a reason to struggle against social and gender inequalities. The example of Umm Salama beckons to us from nearly a millennium and a half ago.” Mernissi’s analysis of the Hadith is deeper and more precise: “The answer of the Muslim God to Umm Salama was very clear: Allah spoke of the two sexes in terms of total equality as believers, that is, as members of the community. God identifies those who are part of his kingdom, those who have a right to his “vast reward.” And it is not sex that determines who earns his grace; it is faith and the desire to serve and obey him.” (Veil and the Male Elite, page 129)

When some male scholars, with scant regard for noble lessons in the traditions, scorns the call for equality between sexes and arrogantly consigns only the role of giving birth (in a tone of suggesting its inferiority) to her, we need the model of Umm Salama for edification and correction. That is why we will be missing Fatema Mernissi.

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