Too often, the discussions Americans hear in the media about women in the Muslim world are marred by ignorance, distortion, politics and just plain bigotry. The subject is far too broad and deep to be elucidated by news bites, especially the kind found on right-wing media outlets.
As a partial antidote to the media noise, let me suggest that you check out another fabulous North African Muslim woman writer—Fatima Mernissi. (Click here for my previous post on Ahdaf Soueif.)
Fatima Mernissi is a Moroccan, Muslim, feminist sociologist who used to teach at Muhammad V University, in Rabat, Morocco. Most of her published writings are scholarly rather than creative, with the notable exception of Dreams of Trespass, her memoir.
She has written many highly acclaimed books; the ones I’ve read are Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society, Sheherazade Goes West, and Dreams of Trespass.All of her works focus upon gender roles and Islam, each with a slightly different focus.
A central argument recurring throughout Mernissi’s work is that there is nothing inherently sexist about Islam. Rather, she argues, the gender imbalance in Muslim societies is a result of the all-too-human male tradition of the ulama’—the male theologians/jurists who manipulate Islam to their own patriarchal ends.
Another argument central to her work is that Islamic sexual ideology stems from its fear of female sexual power. Female power left unchecked would, according to this ideology, would wreak havoc on the social order and thus must be contained.
A third point she makes is that the current Islamic fundamentalist backlash against women that we hear so much about in the U.S. must be remembered as just that—a backlash against the very real gains women have made in Muslim societies—especially in terms of education. She notes that “The conservative wave against women in the Muslim world, far from being a regressive trend, is on the contrary a defense mechanism against profound changes in both sex roles and the touchy subject of sexual identity. The most accurate interpretation of this relapse, is as an anxiety-reducing mechanisms in a world of shifting, volatile sexual identity” (xxxviii).
In other words, she claims, the noise made by the fundamentalists can actually be read as an encouraging sign. It means that women have made real gains, which scares the pants off of some people.
Her work is obviously more complicated than this brief posting suggests. Don’t take my word for it. Read Fatima Mernissi yourself if you want a smart, erudite, feminist, Muslim woman’s view on her own religious and cultural traditions.