Reading Fatima Mernissi

Fatima Mernissi (b. 1940 Fez, Morocco) is a Moroccan social scientist, an internationally recognized sociologist and writer. Many agree that the new age of the study of Middle Eastern women was pioneered by her. She has an excellent command over  French, Arabic, and English and her books have been published from twenty-six countries and translated into several languages including German, Dutch, and Japanese. She is said to be “one of the most eloquent voices of feminism” in the Muslim world. Some of her books include: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society (1985 [1975]); The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (1991); Women and Islam in the Middle East (2008 [1991]); The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1993), etc.

A well-known feminist, “Fatima Mernissi attempts to present the case for re-reading in a number of her works. She developed a critical approach to Islamic tradition over several years and ventured into hitherto ‘taboo’ areas. In a number of her works, she examines the Qur’anic text in the light of hadith, particularly those concerning women”, writes Abdullah Saeed in his Interpreting the Qur’an (2006). Another scholar writes about her in these words: “Moroccan scholar Fatima Mernissi places Qur’anic verses of gender-inegalitarian content into their historical context and calls for the adjustment of such verses to today’s socio-economic conditions”.

The primary issue for women in Muslim societies, according to Mernissi, is a set of laws and customs that ensure women’s status as that of subjugation. Primary amongst these are the family laws based on male authority. Numerous Muslim states, including Morocco, have signed the U.N. Declaration for Human Rights. This states that men and women have equal rights in relation to marriage. Yet traditional Muslim law does not grant these rights. Thus, there is a conflict between modern demands for equality and traditional Muslim  patriarchy. Moreover, modernization is frequently seen as synonymous with Westernization. Because Islamic identity, particularly that of radical groups, is often defined in antithetical relationship to the West. The traditional status of women is constantly being reaffirmed as an important marker of authentic Islam. Mernissi acknowledges the negative impact of colonialism in creating this situation: “The psychological result of foreign powers’ intervention into Muslim legislation was to transform Sharia into a symbol of Muslim identity and the integrity of the Umma.”  Thus, the struggle for greater social and political power for women is part of a much wider struggle for the assertion of post-colonial Islamic identity in the modern world.

Polygamy highlights the discrepancy between the control of male and female sexuality. Fornication (Zina) is a crime under Islam. Yet the institution of polygamy, while “civilizing” female sexuality, allows male sexuality to remain promiscuous. Mernissi’s treatment of women’s rights in polygamous unions is exceptionally personal and of particular interest to this analysis since it shares a first-hand experience of harem life. In Mernissi’s case, her grandmother was kidnapped on the Chaouia plain and sold in Fez where she, as a concubine, bore her mother. This history constitutes a distinct influence that guides Mernissi’s research and writing, showing that the belief that polygamy is not a challenge faced by contemporary women is false. Many of her university colleagues, for example, complain about jealous wives and girlfriends slicing their tiers to force recognition of their dissatisfaction about the men having or taking another wife. Her research reflects a perspective on polygamy’s damaging psychological effects on women in both the lower socio-economic and the educated class. Mernissi points out those women’s rights are not only challenged in the context of polygamous unions but by the very existence of polygamy as an institution. In support, she cites the incident that occurred in Morocco when a women association (Union d’Action Feminine) collected one million signatures against polygamy and divorce but were rewarded for their pains with the declaration of a fatwa (religious decree) against them by the fundamentalist press, thus striking a determined blow against women’s right to participate in law-making processes. According to Mernassie, a government that allows polygamy largely deprives the families in its constituency (men, women and children) of their right to happiness and emotional security. The revised Moroccan law of 2003 does not outlaw polygamy, but it determines that husbands would have to treat second wives and their children on an equal footing with the first.

Polygamy has a long history. Many societies and old religions allowed polygamy. In Judaism, it was a common practice and there were no limitations for men to have any number of wives at a time. Church and governments not only allowed polygamy, rather it practiced too. The French kings practiced polygamy too. Jews, Christians, Arabs unanimously and undisputedly believe and respect Prophet Ibrahim (AS). According to Bible, Prophet Abraham/ Ibrahim (AS) had three wives: Sarah, Hajirah and Qatoora. Similarly Prophet Jacob/ Yaqub (AS) had four wives simultaneously; and Prophet David/ Dawood (AS) had nineteen wives. In Hinduism, plural marriages are permitted and there is no restriction on having a number of women simultaneously. So was the case with Arabs; they were having many wives at a time. Polygamy was never forbidden nor even curtailed or regulated by Jesus Christ / Isa (AS).

From these statements, facts and figures, it can be concluded that Islam is not the inventor of polygamy but it was an old practice, Islam restricted it to four wives at a time. Islam also put obligation on men to provide other wives the same things what he does to the first one.

When this order revealed, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) stood up and declared that, if have more than four wives, should keep four of them and leave (divorce) the rest. Ghailan (RA) one of the companions of the Prophet (SAW) had ten wives. The Prophet ordered him to select four of them and divorce others. So we can say that before Islam came, polygamy was a common practice. Islam also allowed it and Islam put some restrictions on the number of wives and asked to establish justice between them; if you fail to do so then Islam is not allowing you to have more than one wife.

Ishfaq Nissar Padder is an Islamic Studies Teacher in Dubai (UAE).