Fatima Mernissi’s Struggle with Islam and Democracy

Fatima Mernissi’s Struggle with Islam and Democracy August 4, 2011

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.

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