Not a goodbye

December 6, 2015

Remembering Fatima Mernissi for the range of her scholarship, her courage in opening spaces for critical and creative thinking, and most of all her feisty and dramatic persona

Not a goodbye

Fatima Mernissi, a world renowned feminist, passed away in Rabat Morocco on November 30, 2015.

Those familiar with her work and her enormous contributions, especially to the debate of women’s role and status in Islam, feel the loss of a scholar who had fundamentally impacted this debate; others recall the influence her work had on them personally and how she enabled them to understand what is problematic in any religion; still others have written of their personal loss remembering the time and moments spent with her, and of her lectures and presentations.

A running theme in her obituaries highlights the range of her scholarship, her feisty and dramatic persona, her courage in opening spaces for critical and creative thinking. All mention the key scholarly contributions that she gifted to feminists, to academia and to Islam.

I was fortunate enough to have had access not only to many of her books but also to her larger-than-life persona and the energy she radiated when she walked into a room.

Fatima was a tall woman, often overshadowing most women and men, with flaming red hair and clothes that were a mix of many a fashion, tradition, culture, and aesthetic that she had put together. Nothing was ever out of place, nothing jarred. "I am Fatima", the persona seemed to say, "Nothing can define me and nothing can hold me within spaces that they have determined".

Before I met Fatima, I had read her with interest but not with passion. I was and continue to be uncomfortable with interpretations of religion, no matter how radical or feminist, since I am not convinced that fighting on a religious turf will ever bring about the changes that we seek. Privileging religion, even if for strategic reasons, can only ultimately reinforce it.

My passionate commitment with Fatima came when the two of us were speakers on the same panel in a conference in Montreal in 1985. A ‘global’ woman that Fatima was, she followed developments everywhere and was very familiar with what we were going through under Zia ul Haq. She was acutely aware of and impressed with Women’s Action Forum (WAF) and its resistance to Zia.

I was struck by her hair, height and clothes. Wearing a red spaghetti strap dress, high heels which made her even taller, and a stunning shawl from Marrakesh, she spoke of women in Islam and how the Quran has been misinterpreted by the Muslim male elite.

That made me immediately comfortable since there was no explaining necessary. But I was struck by her hair, height and clothes. Wearing a red spaghetti strap dress, high heels which made her even taller, and a stunning embroidered shawl from Marrakesh, she spoke of women in Islam and her position on how the Quran has been misinterpreted by the Muslim male elite. In the audience were a large group of Muslim men who had come to mock or heckle this panel of ‘Muslim renegade women’.

A Pakistani man, in particular, refused to stop interrupting Fatima, yelling at her and disagreeing with whatever she said. He went further and declared that no Muslim woman would wear the clothes that Fatima was wearing -- he called these ‘Kafir’ clothes, as I recall. Fatima stood up, threw her shawl into the air exposing even more of her kafir clothes and challenging him said she would only speak about the Quran in classical Arabic and if he could then she would be happy to continue the debate.

It was her ability to laugh -- at situations, at herself and at the narrowness and simplicity of Muslim men, her spirited quest for knowledge, her exploration of the unknown -- that made for a hilarious but very rich relationship between us, transcending what may often have been our personal and political differences over religion.

Another book had by then been published by a Muslim woman called Woman in the Muslim Unconscious which looks at Muslim men’s ‘obsession’ with female sexuality and at their own latent insecurity about their own sexuality. Few know that the author Fatna A Sabbah was in fact Fatima Mernissi (the book is hilarious while making important points, but too dangerous to publish in her own name especially since a rigid Islam was also on the rise in the Maghreb with very conservative interpretations of Islamic law being legislated in Algeria in 1984).

Not being able to claim ownership, Fatima laughingly still used the ideas expressed. In an article for a book published by Kali for Women in Delhi, she quoted from the book saying she "agreed with Fatna A Sabbah". She laughed more since humour riled even the most progressive Muslim men.

On one occasion, while discussing Islam with a male colleague at the university, she joked about an aspect of Islam and was told she couldn’t laugh at such things. Since ‘joking was not allowed in Islam’, she hurriedly wrote a hilarious booklet called Women in Muslim Paradise, a treatise on what women should expect from the paradise that Muslim males dream of. The booklet was published by the Simorgh Collective in Lahore. The royalty she asked for the book was "bangles and more bangles".

Fatima believed in writing; she wrote fast, often responding immediately to a situation. Few who have read the book The Forgotten Queens of Islam have read her introduction to it. When Benazir Bhutto was elected, the debate in Pakistan and in the Muslim world in general on whether women can be heads of state or government, sent Fatima delving into libraries and archives. What she found, even without researching all the centuries and countries, was enough for a book to get ready for publication. The Forgotten Queens was for Benazir and others in her position.

The ASR Resource Centre published the Pakistani edition shortly after it was published internationally.

Fatima and I met up several times subsequently in India, Spain, the Netherlands, the US and other countries, in Finland where I was invited in 1991 to a conference on women of the Maghreb. Typically Fatima. She had fired up the Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan women and told them how ‘inspirational’ Pakistani women were (particularly WAF but also so many others since the ASR book on feminist poetry in the Zia period had been published in 1991). I walked in a bit late and, true to her humour, Fatima got all of them to go into a sort of dramatic sajda at my feet.

I met up with Fatima in Meknes, Morocco in 1998 and had amazing two days with her. We did not see each other again but kept in touch.

I got involved in the Institute of Women’s Studies, Lahore focusing on South Asia while Fatima focused on the Maghreb and conducted writing workshops for women to encourage and teach them to write. For Fatima "everyone carries a treasure inside them hidden even to themselves which they must develop, share, give and shine". Writing for her was a form of a prayer, the most "ancient form of prayer" and it touches not only the writer but those it communicates with.

One night, in my room in Lahore, Samina Rahman and I were trying to explain how Islam was interpreted and lived in Pakistan. Schooled as she was in the Quran and classical Islamic works, she was just not able to understand the Islam in Pakistan -- both the ideological and political aspects of it. For this we got into tradition and of course the most traditional of activities -- weddings.

Samina and I spent hours explaining the ritual of mayun (rarely done now when the bride is to be in dressed in yellow for 10 days and secluded), the mehndi ceremonies and traditional wedding, including looking at your spouse for the first time in a mirror, none of which are Islamic.

We continued in this vein, with Fatima getting increasingly confused. And then eureka! "Ooh la la", exclaimed Fatima, "you are Hindoooo!"

This is not goodbye Fatima. Keep us laughing!

Not a goodbye