I first met Fatima Mernissi, who died at the end of 2015 aged 75, in the 1960s when I was doing research for my doctorate in Morocco. Whenever I came to Rabat or lived there I made it my business to ring her up and visit her in her Agdal apartment. A parade of people made the pilgrimage to see her and since she had become so renown she had to ration her time and be very selective about who she let into the sanctuary where she lived and held court with several female servants. I was one of the privileged few who saw her at home on the average of two times a week.
She was a wonderful friend, and every time I saw her she plotted with me to work out plans to make me famous, not knowing that I really liked my anonymity, something she refused to understand.
When you visited her apartment you would be led into her living room by one or another of the women who looked after her, prepared her meals, and kept her home clean. While waiting for her to appear, behind the banquet where visitors sat were a pile of art books and other special editions written by her friends and offered to her as presents, which lined the wall. Invariably I would pick out one or another book to read while I awaited her appearance. Then in walked Fatima loaded down with reading material that she would share with me. These included articles from the press which she had just discovered, a new book about cutting edge technology, and something that she had just written in English which needed editing. Could I do it for her while I waited for tea? She shared everything she found curious, old and new, and did it with such gusto that you were swept up into her vortex of discovery just like a small child who had found a new toy.
Her style of writing was all her own. She would begin by recounting ‘Khalid’s’ reaction to what she had just written. Was he real? Or just a foil to present a new argument? At any rate, it was her trademark and it worked, by drawing the reader into her vortex. Khalid told her this or that about her writing and in that way she would introduce a new subject to her readers. She wrote English as a native, but made small errors, which I promptly corrected.
She was a world renowned sociologist and writer; and a sought after celebrity at home. In a series of books – most notably Beyond the Veil (1975), The Veil and the Male Elite (1991), and Women and Islam (1991) – she painstakingly debunked the dominant traditional discourse that suppresses, degrades and relegates Muslim women to inferior position. She tackled a whole range of subjects, from polygamy to the harem, modernity to democracy, with fearless zest.
Fatima was born in Fez in 1940. Her family was affluent; and she grew up between two extended families, surrounded by a host of female kin and servants. But she found the harem into which she was confined suffocating. Despite the fact that her grandmother and mother were both illiterate, she was encouraged to attend school. Later, she went on to study sociology at Mohammad V University in Rabat. After a stint for graduate studies at the Sorbonne, she obtained her PhD from Brandeis University in the US. She returned to Morocco to teach at Mohammad V University; and began work on social and political reform – a passion that she maintained for most of her life.
Fatima was her own person. By the time she died she no longer worked on women’s issues. Rather, she spent her time examining how technology was transforming Morocco and the wider Arab world. She read profusely magazines from around the world including the Economist, Al-Ahram, and all the many women’s magazines in Arabic for clues as to how the society was changing rapidly. She always asked me to buy her books about new trends in the West and she knew which titles she wanted.
Over tea and cookies she would take out of her see-through plastic folder article after article that she had just found, which she wanted to share with me. She would make me read the articles right then and there so that we could discuss their contents. Her curiosity had no limits and she questioned what I thought of a given piece or if I could add anything to what I had read. I always felt as if I was back in graduate school on these occasions, being grilled by Fatima about what I had just perused.
We used to go out often in her chauffeured car to interview people to find out what they thought. She would run into cyber cafes in the slums around Rabat to see what literature clients were reading; then she would stop people and ask them a million questions and the wondrous thing was that they would always answer her. She also loved nature and she would race to see the sun set, with its bright colours lighting up the sky. She even had a false wrought iron window on her beach front summer home, which the state granted her during her lifetime, and we would sit on the veranda watching the sun set in a rainbow of colours. When it rained, she could not work. The only productive times for her were days of blue sky and bright sunshine. Otherwise she was morose. Happily, there were many sunny days in Rabat, so she produced in mad torrents – always original stuff.
She also took under her wings young people, especially young women, and started writer’s workshops with them, to help them learn to write and get published. She told me once that she decided long ago to devote a third of her time to unpaid mentoring, whether for writers, or weavers of rugs, whose product she helped sell by organising caravans that roamed the country finding ready buyers. On one occasion, she decided that she wanted to see what women in the Rabat area were weaving in their houses. So, we jumped into her car and headed to the countryside where she stopped people along the road and asked them which women were weaving at home. Lo and behold, she found them, and we knocked at their doors, and they let us in, and we saw some magnificent specimens of rugs and tapestries being woven right next to the women’s beds. It was an eye opener and an aesthetic delight. She asked questions of people that no one else would dare pose. As an interviewer, I have never witnessed anything akin to what I heard and saw when riding around with her on her mini field trips.
On a particular visit to a slum, she discovered that one of the most popular booklets poor people read was one written by a Saudi shaykh giving advice to the love stricken. On another tour of the outskirts of Rabat we came upon a series of high walls hiding abodes of some very rich people. She had her driver stop her car and beckoned two young men in the vicinity. ‘Who lives behind these high walls,’ she asked. Without hesitation, she was told that the high walled compounds in the vicinity belonged to the Qatari royal family. We discovered Moroccan royalty kept other royal households happy and content in their Moroccan vacation palaces. If I had wandered alone and asked such questions of strangers I probably would have been arrested by the police. No one dared stop or arrest Fatima who went about her business without fear of being confronted by agents of the law.
One day, Fatima decided that she wanted to see how people lived who had been forcibly moved from their jerry-built homes in the bidonvilles, the tin can shanty towns that surround most Moroccan cities. They are moved into new concrete dwellings specially constructed by the state, which consider them unsanitary and a blight on the nation. We found a half-finished site which already contained people displaced from their homes by bulldozers. Having nowhere else to go, they had moved into unfinished concrete shells.
It was winter and evenings were chilly and families sat around charcoal braziers shivering while trying to keep warm. Fatima found a young girl in one family who she cosied up to and began a conversation. We discovered that she wanted to become a doctor and was determined to succeed. First, Fatimah and I looked at each other in astonishment. Then we concluded that with that spirit and fortitude, the young girl would achieve all her ambitions!
Towards the end of her life, Fatima began designing her own clothes in bright red colours to match her hair. She had a local tailor make them up, including bright turbans, which were her hallmark. She loved popular culture and whenever a Moroccan artist had an opening at a gallery or a public space Fatima would pop in to pay homage. Immediately, she would be surrounded by dozens of people. Invariably she would whisper to me to join her later on for dinner at her place – her sanctuary from celebrity.
I would show up at around eight o’clock. I would sit with her around her round table with a rotating lazy susan on top, starting with delicious Moroccan appetizers, then some fish and Moroccan brouettes that the women surrounding her had made for us. We would proceed to discuss in some detail the art opening we had just attended, going over the paintings or photographs that we loved most. Nothing escaped her interest or attention. The artists knew well that her presence at the opening of their show would confirm their artistic worth.
She received a constant stream of invitations to speak or to use her name for a cause. We would go over the list of invitations; and she would now and then ask me to research a particular group and let her know my opinion about whether or not she should say yes. Sometimes invitations came from far-right groups and I would let her know their political colour, allowing her to decline the invitation quickly and definitively. Sometimes a magazine would write a notice announcing that Fatima will appear at an opening – when she had made no such commitment. She would immediately call an editor at the magazine and let them know that she never agreed to attend such an event and demanded that they write that in the next edition of their publication. No one could refuse.
She was a superstar. Her books were best sellers, translated into many foreign languages. A generation of young people have grown up reading her work. Many were transformed by her writing which affirmed a positive view of the Islamic corpus. Fatima loved her culture and tried to find the best in its past that might be used to forge a brighter future. She believed firmly that the past had to be mined in order to help young people transform themselves into whole and healthy human beings. Many people – women and men – related to her work and appreciated her optimistic reading of their past, which might be applied to the present.
Her generosity knew no bounds. Her door was always open to a constant parade of young researchers who made their way to Agdal to visit with her and get guidance in their work. I sometimes wondered how she managed her schedule, since so many people wanted to meet her and pick her brain. She managed to see many people each day, giving them an hour or two as the queue mounted. Those who were fortunate enough to know her well appreciated her honesty and friendship. An icon and a dear friend has passed away and she will be sorely missed.
Fatima Mernissi, writer, sociologist, feminist, born 1940; died 30 November 2015