Fatima Mernissi’s Struggle with Islam and Democracy

Fatima Mernissi’s book The Forgotten Queens of Islam is a historical study that analyzes women’s place in the public sphere and their relationship with power. Her book explores the ironies and oxymora of women and power through Islamic history. Mernissi transcends the historical to discover the bits and pieces of the situations surrounding political women in today’s Muslim societies.

Starting off through the example of Benazir Bhutto, Mernissi argues that despite religious leaders’ rejection of her access to power, Bhutto was neither the first female with political power nor the only one to cause such a fuss. Mernissi explores the lives of numerous women including influential jawari (female slaves in harems) and malikas (queens) to discover that women held both private and public power all though Islamic history.

Nonetheless, far from optimistic on Muslim women’s struggle to assert their place in the public sphere, Mernissi shows the unbalance caused by a female presence in the public sphere. Starting through the issue of the Caliphate, Mernissi points out that even when women can occupy a position of political power, they can rarely claim spiritual power. Women are automatically disqualified from the position of Caliph as the term denotes unquestionable masculinity.

The book further digs into the irony of women’s place in power by unveiling the constant struggle between different Muslim sects to determine the lawfulness of inheritance of power through women, such as in the case of Fatima, Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. Mernissi’s book explores the challenges that different interpretations of political Islam pose for both Shi’ism and Sunnism.

Nevertheless, as in Mernissi’s other books, it is possible to see how femininity and sexuality become political when it comes to power and succession. Something that for her plays such an important role that she claims that Arab women have been in constant disadvantage in terms of the private-political sphere due to the difference in sexual morals and ethics. Women, especially female slaves, who were able to access power, were often sexually close to politically active males.

Although power was more easily available to women through the private sphere, women’s presence in the mosque through the khutbah asserted women’s place in the public sphere. Mernissi emphasizes the importance of the khutbah, and to some degree, she measures a woman’s political success in terms of her ability to get the khutbah said in her name.

Thus, Mernissi emphasizes the success of the Yemeni queens Asma Al-Hurra and Arwa Al-Hurra (titles that denote freedom) and the Fatimid princess Sitt Al-Mulk, whose lives often challenge Shariah and Islamic interpretations of particular sources. Mernissi comments on their success as rulers and their capabilities. She highlights their spiritual and political importance only to bring about the problems that female figures pose to Islamic exegesis especially when it comes to women like the Queen of Sheba.

It is through the Queen of Sheba and the stories of the other three women that Mernissi, once more, emphasizes that even though femininity is a challenge to power (and vice versa) women can hold political power; yet, the cannot hold spiritual one.

Mernissi introduces the challenges that Shariah pose to women’s role in public life through the discussions on women’s ability to be imams. Unlike some perceptions about Mernissi, she heavily relies on traditional and contemporary Islamic sources. Thus, she is able to show the disagreements among different classical Islamic scholars on this topic.

Through this and other examples, Mernissi points out that women are oppressed by religion rather than by culture. She argues that it was Yemen’s cultural background that allowed two very successful queens to rule, rather than Yemen’s attachment to Ismaili Islam.

Further, she puts in context the way in which political Islam has been used to undermine women’s role. Mernissi resources to the example of Caliph Al-Hakim, who prohibited everything that produced pleasure and even banned women from being seen (something that even Hanbali considered extreme), and then to the case of  Mecca’s 17th century fatwa to prohibit women from ruling, to argue that political Islam does not have place for women unless it is through a male figure. Going back to Bhutto, arguably her own claim to power through her father guaranteed her success.

Mernissi´s book is an excellent historical source and a very well-developed argument on the challenges faced by Muslim women in Muslim societies. Yet, although her historical account of women’s place in the public sphere and transmission of power provide us with an overview of the wrongdoings of political Islam since the killing of Umar and Ali, Mernissi’s book is quite pessimistic on the battle that Islamic feminism is fighting.

The first challenge that Mernissi poses to the feminist struggle is the polarity between Islam and democracy. She claims that since democracy requires individuality and gender equality it has no place in Islam. Islam seems to grant women a second-class citizen status while undermining monogamy. Mernissi believes that democracy is the only way in which women can be better off politically, socially and economically.   This is a challenging assumption as we see that democracy around the world has not delivered its gender-equality promises yet. Even in the West women have scarce access to power and even figures like Hillary Clinton may have a claim to power through a male figure (i.e. her husband).

In addition, Mernissi, who understands the veil as a symbol of confinement, argues that religion rather than culture oppresses women. This not only undermines the efforts of Islamic feminism, but also proves difficult as political Islam may not be every Muslim’s definition of Islam. She continues to advance this argument to claim that Islam lacks a concept of citizenship because it is opposed to belief. Mernissi sees citizenship in the earthly realm, which is incompatible with the idea of the caliphate, which is heavenly as well as earthly. Women’s lack of access to the caliphate further shows that democracy and Islam are incompatible.

Mernissi refers to the Middle East and North Africa as proof of the failure of democracy, and if this book was rewritten today she may reinforce this idea; however, acknowledgement of the colonial experience is necessary when studying Islam and it relationship to political power. Mernissi seems to think of democracy in modern Western terms, which make me wonder, why do we think that this is the ideal? And why should all of us import the same model?

Perhaps these questions are beyond the scope of the book. Yet, Mernissi brings out important points to consider when it comes to the inclusion of Muslim women in the democracy and the advancement of their rights. This book proves useful to demonstrate that women have been completely capable of ruling and even claiming spiritual power. It is up to the Muslims who read it to acknowledge Muslim women’s rightful place in the public sphere.

  • Dina

    “Mernissi believes that democracy is the only way in which women can be better off politically, socially and economically. This is a challenging assumption as we see that democracy around the world has not delivered its gender-equality promises yet. Even in the West women have scarce access to power and even figures like Hillary Clinton may have a claim to power through a male figure (i.e. her husband).”

    Democracy in the sense of every citizen being allowed to vote (irrespective of race and gender) for just a few decades. To say this system has not delivered its promise when decades are hardly enough to challenge centuries of discrimination rooted in the collective mind is far-fetched imo.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hi Diana, thanks for your comment.I completely agree that the system may not be able to challenge centuries of discrimination in few decades. However, the political discourse surrounding democracy, especially Western democracy, is that women and men are equal to the state and to the policy makers. This is far from reality, and a number of groups around the world challenge this. Despite the promise of gender equality and it use in political discourse we rarely see women in politics and even less women who do not have a claim to power through a male. In addition, we barely see formal political participation of the LGTB community as well. Yes, these are groups that have been discriminated for centuries, but in some cases it seems that the democracy discourse is used to say “you are equal already…. what else do you want?”

  • http://www.yasmin-raoufi.blogspot.com Yasmin Raoufi

    I agree with the author of this article that Mernissi is wrong in claiming that women are inferior to men in Islam. It is simply not true to claim that women are second to men in terms of spiritual power. The wife of the Pharoh and Mary mother of Jesus (peace be upon him) are held in high regard in the holy Quran. The Prophet also said that “Heaven is under the feet of the mothers”.

  • Asifa Akbar

    I disagree with both the author and Ms. Mernissi on a couple of points:

    RE: “The first challenge that Mernissi poses to the feminist struggle is the polarity between Islam and democracy…Mernissi believes that democracy is the only way in which women can be better off politically, socially and economically. This is a challenging assumption as we see that democracy around the world has not delivered its gender-equality promises yet…”

    And RE: “Mernissi refers to the Middle East and North Africa as proof of the failure of
    democracy, and if this book was rewritten today she may reinforce this idea;”
    To address the latter first: If anything recent events in the Middle East & N. Africa are proof of failure of dictatorships in the region, not of democracy. There have been many intellectual debates about whether Islam and democracy are/are not incompatible.

    A good example is contained in: “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy” (Khaled Abou El Fadl, John L. Esposito et al) – a collection of essays followed by a reply essay in which Abou El Fadl argues (and I agree) that “The moral and ethical values that inform democratic systems are not “exclusively Western in origin or nature….” and can be found in “the very fabric of Islamic law and theology”….citing for e.g. the Qur’an: (7:199): ‘Hold to forgiveness [as a way of life], promote that which is known to people to be good, and keep away from the ignorant.’ He says: “Freedom, forgiveness and tolerance, and the pursuit of overlapping consensual ethical commitments are virtues that are important for a democracy, but they are not exclusively Western.” He presents strong theological grounds to show that “democracy especially a constitutional democracy that protects individual rights, is the form of government best suited to promoting a set of political values central to Islam.” I agree with El Fadl and would point also to other aspects of Islam to support this view for. E.g. the concept of shura (Arabic) or consultation for e.g. mentioned on at least 3 occasions in the Qur’an (see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shura#Shura_in_Islam) – this concept of decision-making that is sanctioned in the Qur’an can and is being used by Muslim feminists who are working towards protecting and enhancing the equality rights of Muslim women in the world through deliberative, consultative (i.e. democratic) discourse.

    Case in point, the work of this transnational, global and inclusive organization of Muslim women scholars, activists, and specialists: http://www.wisemuslimwomen.org/about/shuracouncil/ which “declare(s) gender equality to be an intrinsic part of the Islamic faith…; that the Muslim woman is worthy of respect and dignity, that as a legal individual, spiritual being, social person, responsible agent, free citizen, and servant of God, she holds fundamentally equal rights to exercise her abilities and talents in all areas of human activity…(and) (f)urthermore, …that these rights are embedded within the Qur’an and six objectives of Shari’a—the protection and promotion of religion (al-din), life (al-nafs), mind (al-‘aql), family (al-nasl), wealth (al-mal), and dignity (al-‘ird).”

    Thus, I believe it is important to keep in mind that if women & other marginalized social groups under constitutional democracies still do not have equality, it is not because the concept of democracy itself is to blame, nor is it because Islam is incompatible with democratic values and processes and unable to protect individual rights; rather it is that formal democratic and equality rights are often rendered hollow due to rampant and entrenched systemic & procedural social-economic inequalities & discrimination….Things that various ‘democratic’ governments of the day must constantly seek to improve – with the help of VOTERS – including women voters and participants running for electoral office.

    To this end we need to look at political culture and how to apply principles and processes of democratic equality that can be found to have their bases in the Qur’an, hadith and sharia scholarship itself.

  • khany

    Thank you Eren for a wonderful review.

  • Dina

    “However, the political discourse surrounding democracy, especially Western democracy, is that women and men are equal to the state and to the policy makers. This is far from reality,..”

    absolutely agreed! similarly for minorities, which have a promise of equality in theory in hands, but experience stone walls/ceilings vis a vis that state quite routinely!

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Hi Asifa, Dina and Khany! I completely agree with Asifa’s comment on democracy. I personally believe that Islam has very strong democratic principles as we can see through the decision making process that used to take place during the early Islamic period. However, when we talk about democracy nowadays we often talk about Western democracy as the ideal, and Mernissi herself refers to Islam in opposition to Western democracy. My concern with this is that the Western model is not as perfect as we claim it is. The inequalities that democracy aimed to target still exist. Furthermore, inclusion within democracy is still scarce for racial, sexual and religious minorities. Is this the model that we want to “impose” to the rest of the world, or does Islam has principles that can perfection the values of democracy? Mernissi seems to disagree that Islam can even be compatible with democracy.

  • Asifa

    But, it must be noted that even in the “West” there is not just one model of democracy – there are a number of variations (e.g. Parliamentary, Presidential, Constitutional Monarchy etc.) & there are further variances in terms of ‘Govts.-of-the-day’ (e.g. there may be coalition governance etc.). There are also further nuances in terms of institutions & processes, including electoral processes (e.g. there could be elections by simply majority or via some system of proportional representation etc.). Also democratic governance may take place in various social & economic contexts (e.g. free-market; socialist; multi-cultural &/or multi-national) often with the need to make special accommodations for various segments of populations – (e.g. setting quotas for the number of electable seats for various groups). This is a complex topic. Thus making assumptions and generalizations that any or all of the various forms of ‘democracy’ are incompatible with Islam or a version of Islamic democracy in the “early Islamic period” is neither instructive nor constructive. What did democratic-decision-making processes in early Islamic contexts look like anyway? And to what extent would those processes be viable in the context of modern, including Muslim-majority, nation-states? Within modern democratic states (in the ‘West’ and elsewhere) there are a myriad of democratic institutions & processes which are intrinsically a work-in-progress & that necessarily evolve with changing political, economic and social interests & power dynamics. It is safe to say for e.g. that ‘direct democracy’ is no longer feasible due to the size & complexity of nation-states – i.e. unless voters can vote on every issue, we need to elect persons to represent our interests in legislative assemblies. Other questions that could also be asked include: Is there some set of basic common-denominator principles that modern ‘democracies’ must share, in order to be called ‘democracy’? For e.g. , does a democracy need to at least ensure free & fair elections? How about the rule of law? Respect for minority rights? Thus we can see this is a complex topic that would best be served by more in-depth academic treatment. The dichotomy of “West” vs. Islam is far too simplistic to understand what’s being compared and contrasted & whether they are incompatible or not. A clearer definition of terms, a showcase of examples, an examination of case studies, discussions of historical, social, political & economic context & a host of other factors would definitely shed more light on the discussion.


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