A Look at Modern Islamic Feminism: Beyond the Veil WITH FATEMA MERNISSI

Mernissi is an infamous feminist Islamic scholar who gained notoriety after her PhD thesis, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society, was published as a book in 1975. She tackles discussions around sexual and gender identity within Arab/Islamic communities. 

Beyond the Veil was the first of Mernissi’s work to be considered a classic theological and sociological study. As someone who grew up Muslim but ‘liberal’ or non-traditionally, I can understand why. Beyond the Veil, a play on the Muslim head covering(s), is a thesis that lifts and uncovers hypocritical patriarchal norms and views that many Muslims seem to hold. 

She successfully manages to question the place of religion and culture within Islamic societies, and it is fascinating how she does so while making comparisons between the Middle East and the Western world. As I read her thesis, I was amused at how differently she viewed Western female liberation to other feminist women of colour; a particularly memorable quote was: 

“In western culture, sexual inequality is based on belief in women’s biological inferiority. In Islam, there is no such belief in female inferiority. On the contrary, the whole system is based on the assumption that the woman is a powerful and dangerous being.”1

Which, in my opinion, holds truth – when you hear stories from the Qur’an and the Hadiths, women who were wives, daughters, sisters, friends and even the workers who lived in the Harem are discussed, not from the male gaze, but from a narrative that was in awe at how much strength these women had, how knowledgeable they were and how much importance the Prophet Muhammed gave to them. 

Muslim male scholars interpret Islam and the teachings of the Qur’an and the Hadiths from a male perspective. For example, women cannot ask for a divorce or have a say in whether or not her husband marries another wife,  this is not according to the teachings of Islam but is widely believed to be a fundamental ideology of Islam rather than a global system of patriarchy. 

Western feminism revolves around the premise that men and women must be equal, but, as Mernissi purports, we are very different. That’s not to say that we don’t deserve equal rights , but in early waves of Western feminism, especially around the 1980’s and 90’s it was widely believed that gender inequality was the main issue faced by women in developing countries, that patriarchal power takes priority in the analysis of women’s status, even over other marginalising forces, and that categories such as race and class are less important than gender.2

What Mernissi is getting at is that equality without acknowledging the different life experiences of the group being marginalised can be oppressive in itself; we see this in phrases like “I don’t see colour” when discussing racism.  When confronted with the idea of a mass sisterhood fighting for equality, that “equality” often drowns out the voices of non-white women. This system doesn’t acknowledge systems of colonisation, capitalism, and the way modern proxy wars have dehumanised non-Western women, decentralising their voices, their culture, and their own interpretations of feminism. 

Mernissi points out the internalised misogyny some Western female liberation movements have, and we still see it today. For example, a hijab, a headscarf devout Muslim women wear, is considered oppressive for many Western feminists, while movements like #Freethenipple are centred around choice. But that choice seems to be a one-way street.

Islam is portrayed as a harmful religion that has brainwashed any practising Muslim woman to the same ideals, but the Veil that needs to be lifted here are the social stereotypes surrounding Islam. Muslim women in France still face persecution for wearing a Hijab, Niqab, Burkini, in a supposedly secular country, and sector’s known as “Muslim quarters” in French cities face heavy police presence and constant state-sanctioned harassment.3 

Mernissi’s acknowledgment about how Muslim women are left out of specific conversations is refreshing for someone who grew up Muslim; because the historical, social, political and economic tale and plight as a Muslim woman is unknown to anyone who is not a Muslim woman. So, while Muslim men who fail to push female narratives, tales and even perspectives (explicitly concerning the Qur’an) are scrutinised, Western feminists who fail to include Muslim women’s voices in their fight for liberation are also wrong. 

In 1970, Mernissi was extremely controversial, but now,  Muslim women are creating a feminism that takes into account their cultural experiences, upbringing, and their personal voice.4

Footnotes
  1. Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. London Saqi Books, 2011.
  2. Neuma Aguiar et al., “DAWN Founding Committee Members Development, Crises, and Alternative Visions Monthly Review Press • New York,” 1987, https://www.dawnnet.org/sites/default/files/articles/devt_crisesalt_visions_sen_and_grown.pdf.
  3. Mernissi, Fatima. Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory. London Zed Books, 1996.
  4. https://library.oapen.org/bitstream/id/d8e10662-57f1-4f8a-a282-14c4d15f39f3/626984.pdf.