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.