[anadolu home] [contents] [by authors] [by category] [subscription]
Volume 5, No 3, Fall 1995 [back]

Beyond the Veil
Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society

Fatima Mernissi; reviewed by Ayse G. Yesilyurt

Revised Edition, Addison-Wesley
ISBN 0-201-52321-3

This was the very first book I read of Mernissi, a Moroccan writer, who is not only very famous and well-published in the West for her open critism of Islam, but also is cherished and welcomed by many progressive Muslims all over the world.

Beyond the Veil was written in 1973 and published for the first time in 1975. The revised version includes a 1987 reiteration and evaluation of the following events that took place after that, such as Iran Islamic revolution, raising tide of fundamentalist Islamic movements in the Middle East, and North Africa, and even in Europe. Mernissi who predicted that women would go "beyond the veil" in 1973, reexamines and tries to explain these developments in this revision.

Born and raised in a deeply religious/traditionalist Moroccan society where most of the civil code is written in accordance to Malik ibn Anas's al-Muwatta', Mernissi lived in a harem until five years old. Her grandmother was a concubine (odalik). Educated in co-ed schools that were established under the nationalist government programs and later overseas as a sociologist, she became a strong voice in critizing religious/traditionalist life-style that, in her opinion, takes away the power from women.

The first chapter is a combination of author's thoughts and comparative examination on the traditional Muslim view of women and their place in social order. In the second chapter, a survey which was conducted among Moroccan women and some data obtained from listener letters of a counseling radio program are analyzed.

In the first part, she examines the Muslim concept of active female sexuality and compares it with the pacifist Freudian theory. She quotes from Imam Ghazali's writings on marriage on his Revification of Religious Sciences. In her view, Ghazalian theory links virtue of a woman to her sexual satisfaction, to social order, opposite of fitna (chaos). She sees the fear of female sexuality in these conclusions and supports her theory with examples from Morroccan folklore and hadiths on the subject. She analyzes the differences of opinions on sexuality in Western Christian (something anti-civil, animalistic and condemned), and, in Muslim theory as something natural and potentially beneficial as long as it is properly regulated. In her words, "...Freud viewed civilization as a war against sexuality... Muslim theory views civilization as the outcome of satisfied sexual energy."

As the regulation mechanisms of female sexuality, Mernissi points out poligamy, repudiation (divorce right of men), iddah (waiting period) and gives examples of hadiths from the life of Hz. Muhammad. She looks at the pre-Islamic Arabic society, different types of marital unions, rules and regulations of such unions. She narrates the reluctance and resistance of the pre-islamic (noble) Arabic women for the change of rules that regulated their sexuality and, in her view, their influence and power in their society, and how strongly and urgently they were fought off and quited by the Muslim authorities, namely men. The reader can get an interesting look at these practices and tribe-based life-styles of Arabic clans.

In the second part, Mernissi examines two groups of women. Since I found her classification very relevant in evaluating her work, I will include it here:

Traditional Women Modern Women
Litercay Illiterate Literate
Job Work within the home Wortk outside the home
Sexual Segregation Very Strict Very loose
Marriage Arranged by parents Women choose own partner
Age Born before WWII Born after WWII
(when the nationalists' influence opened up schools for girls)

She also includes the letters addressed to a qadi who councels masses through a radio program with his answers to questions, Qadi Moulay Mustapha Alaoui. From these she classifies the common problems of the listeners: the sexual tensions in the society, the clashes between old and young generations, and, sexual problems in urban and rural settings.

From her survey of women, Mernissi interviewed at length with women whom she found interesting and these conversations, often testimonies of very sad, odd and traditionalist (not necessarily religious) lives of some of the traditional women. With horror stories about abusive husbands, or mother-in-laws, or boxing marriages Mernissi tries to make a point about the helplessness and submission of women to the power holders in their lives, fathers, husbands, brothers, mother in-laws (she observes traditional Muslim women interact with their mother-in-laws more than their husbands, who hold absolute power in the domestic universe).

In her analysis of spatial boundaries, she divides the universe into two parts:

Membership of the two Universes
The Public Universe of the Umma The Domestic Universe of Sexuality
The believers. Women's position in umma ambigious; Allah does not talk to them directly. We can therefore assume that the umma is male believers. Individuals of both sexes as primarily sexual beings. But because men are not supposed to spend their time in the domestic unit, we may assume that the members are in fact women only.

Principals Regulating Relations between Members
The Umma The Family
Equality Inequality
Reciprocity Lack of reciprocity
Aggregation Segregation
Unity, communion Separation, division
Brotherhood, love Subordination, authority

Mernissi justifies her classifications with examples she gives all throughout her book. She claims women are subject to much injustice. They are to be fidel, but cannot expect the same from their husbands (poligamy). They are isolated at their homes, and are by law force to submit to their husbands' authority, and kept on their toes with the constant threat of poligamy or repudiation. Due to their sexuality, they are not trusted. Whereas, she finds that men, owning the public arena with unlimited access, are defined to be equal partners with their brothers, unity, trust, togetherness is emphasized in their relations to their fellow Muslims.

Mernissi examines the realities of 1973, and the diminishing hold of power of Muslim men in their lives. She points out, with the submission to the government, these men, who were trained to be in-charge, do no longer hold such power. The economic difficulties force them to send their wives to work outside of their homes, although the traditional fabric of the society (an in her view, religion) suggest otherwise. This loss of power, and widespread education of females she concludes, is going to bringing much change to the society and liberating women.

In her revision, she explains the return of fundamentalizm with the identity crises in Muslim societies. She writes "the secret of Islam's sweeping resurgence today is that it gives men at birth and inherited right to claim world hegemony as a horizon and a guiding dream....The ability of Islam to equip its members to see the entire universe as their playground is stunning to anyone who takes the time to go through the classical religious literature."

She concludes the call for return of veil is due to the fact that women are taking them off. She claims this might be due to a class conflict expessing itself in acute sex-focused dissent. She underlines the fundamentalists and unveiled women as two opposite groups, same age (young), same educational privilege. She observes men seeking power through religion are from newly urbanized middle and lower-middle classes, unveiled women are predominantly of the urban upper and middle class.

In her analysis of "anatomy of a fundamentalist", based on the studies done by Hamied N. Ansari and Saad Eddin Ibrahim, she concludes, contrary to the stereotypes of Westerners, fundamentalists are "educated, particularly brilliant high achievers". Interchanging fundamentalist and Islamic militant terms, she looks for the roots of their "violent behavior". Acknowledging that they come from 'normal' families, with no tragic events in their lives, and goals of raising good honest families in their minds, Mernissi looks at geographical characteristics of militants. She writes "Militants can be expected to be found in two kinds of places: urban slums and expanding provincial towns in economically stagnant areas. But you need the combination of two factors: unplanned rural migration coupled with the mushrooming of state-funded universities."

She finishes her revision with pointing out that women have taken part in the education of population to the dismay of fundamentalists. She concludes this is "a definite revolution in the Islamic concept of both the state's traditional relation to women and women's relation to the institutionalized distribution of knowledge."

I withheld my views as much as I can upto this point to give the readers a relatively fair perspective. Personally I found the book to be very unfair and misrepresentative of the teachings of Islam. Mernissi went out of her way to blame Islam for all the social ills and traditional practices in her society. Her picture of unhappy, hysterical, lonely Muslim women might be/have been real (even she admits that, say, poligamy which was practiced by 6.6% in 1952 in Morocco (!) is in decline), however, not necessarily due to the Islamic teachings, perhaps because of the traditional ways of holding back of women from powerful social positions, which exists to one degree or another in all "modern" societies. I am unable to understand how she can conclude umma doesn't include Muslim women, and God didn't speak to them directly. Or, how all fundamentalists are male and 'militant', while their opposition is only consisting of unveiled women, without considering the populations who benefited economically from the changes in social order and very much opposed to Islamic rules. I think her entire book is written from a one-dimensional and sexist point of view, and oversimplifies many complex problems of today's Muslim societies. In my view, her book deserves a complete book to point out her biases and mistakes in her data collection and analyses.

Actually her reactionary attitude and misconceptions about Islam are not a surprise, neither her popularity among some Muslims. There is a great pressure from certain parts of Muslim umma (I must add, predominantly men), who tries to convince women to literally stay at their homes, never to be seen by others by the power of some 'hadiths' without sound references. Some of the popularity Mernissi enjoys among Muslims is due to her later work on reconstructing the female role in an Islamic society from the writings of famous scholars such as At-Tabari. She worked hard to unearth the examples of powerful women in first centuries of Islam, sensing the interest of Muslim women who are struggling to sort out centuries of traditional and cultural restrictions from Islam's message. She is right in her observation that women are no longer so easy to dismiss due to their access to education. They do raise questions, they want to participate public life, and they are ready to question traditionally unquestionable sources, such as hadiths.

Mernissi helps air out some of the stereotypes about Islam, and complaints on traditional undermining of women's role in Muslim countries. Historically questions and complaints on female sexuality and social status have been overlooked in Islamic studies. Most of the books that are written about women and Islam are about veil and women's duties towards their husbands, children, parents. Women were influential, visible, active participants of public life in the Medina society of 7th century, there is no reason they cannot be so today. In today's world, unless questions raised, thoroughly answered, and the misconceptions are removed, it is almost impossible to resist to the overwhelming negative propaganda against Islam, among non-practising Muslims and future converts. Simply pushing "take it, if you are a Muslim, and don't question traditions" attitude is not do it.

©1995 anadolu
This article can be reproduced provided that full credit is given to anadolu
Bu yazi anadolu'ya atif yapilmak kaydiyla kopyalanabilir.

For your comments / Yorumlariniz için anadolu@wakeup.org
Please reference the article title, volume, and number
Lütfen yazi basligi, cilt ve numarayi belirtin