African Postman: Tributes to Fatema Mernissi, Visionary Feminist Scholar

Yes, I am determined to revive my “African Postman” series… And what better way to start it again? (By the way, “African Postman” is a great song by Jamaican roots reggae artist Winston “Burning Spear” Rodney, of whom I am an everlasting fan. I use it to preface interesting and unusual news from that great continent).

You know, we can get very wrapped up in our own island affairs, hardly looking beyond our shores – except, perhaps, northwards and north-eastwards from our Caribbean Sea. I realize I am guilty of this, myself. There is a huge and wonderful world out there, with men and women doing transformative work. I found myself learning recently about the life of a feminist pioneer of great stature in the Middle East and North Africa – but only two weeks after she had already left us. Fatema Mernissi passed away on November 25 in Rabat, age 75. I am sorry I did not know of her work before, because I realize she was a woman who made a difference in the lives of many women, not only in her native Morocco, but across the region, and beyond. She believed in a more peaceful and tolerant world, in breaking down barriers to understanding. We need more women like her. And more men with that kind of intelligent vision, too.

I cannot describe her in my own words, because I never knew her and was not familiar with her work; so I am reproducing these tributes below, which I found so moving. I hope it will give you a flavor of what a remarkable woman she was, not afraid to tackle difficult and complex issues in a rapidly-changing world. 

The first is a personal tribute by Mahnaz Afkhami, Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership International in Bethesda, Maryland. The second is by Devaki Jain, a feminist economist and writer.

You may also read a very good obituary in the New York Times at and listen to an archived interview on NPR at

A Rememberance of Fatema Mernissi

Online at:

L to R: Fatema Mernissi of Morocco, Mahnaz Afkhami of Iran, Deniz Kandiyoti of Turkey, and Yasmeen Murshed of Bangladesh, featured in a May 12, 1996, New York Times article on Muslim women movements.
L to R: Fatema Mernissi of Morocco, Mahnaz Afkhami of Iran, Deniz Kandiyoti of Turkey, and Yasmeen Murshed of Bangladesh, featured in a May 12, 1996, New York Times article on Muslim women movements.

December 1, 2015

Fatema Mernissi, the Moroccan sociologist widely known as a pioneer in Middle Eastern Women’s studies, passed away this week. It is difficult for me to speak of her – a friend, ally, and colleague of over two decades – in the past tense.

I first met Fatema at the Middle East Studies Association Conference in November 1992. Fatema, Nawal El Sadaawi, and I were speakers at the first and only MESA plenary ever dedicated to gender. It was an exhilarating time, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. There was a brief era of global peace and all things seemed possible. We were upbeat about the Middle East, about women, about human rights. Fatema and I connected instantly. She brought me the gift of her extraordinary compatriots Amina Lemrini and Rabéa Naciri, co-founders of L’Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc, which became one of the five founding partner organizations of Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP). There followed twenty years of exciting, interesting meetings in Berlin, Casablanca, Washington DC, and elsewhere. Fatema was a vibrant woman, blessed with a creative intelligence, who discovered new ways of looking at events, personalities, and subject matter. Books were not only sources of knowledge, but originators of life-changing ideas. She took pride in the strength, humor, imagination, and intelligence of women of her own background and saw their under-representation in the global dialogue on women a loss for the women’s movements. She worked hard to bring understanding of the complexity of MENA women’s lives to the West. She enjoyed her travels to the U.S. and her role as featured speaker at many prestigious venues. The Iraq war changed all that. Fatema said she would not come to the U.S. until the war was over, and she never did.

Her pathbreaking books, among them The Veil and The Male Elite, The Forgotten Queens of Islam, and Islam and Democracy, were standard reading at colleges and universities around the world. But she came to believe that her ideas would be better received and understood if she were to write fiction. She asked me to recommend a “how-to book” and was exuberant about Henry James’ The Art of Fiction. Perhaps she was right. Her Dreams of Trespass captures her humor and lively personality better than any of her other works. She was delighted that the book was translated into Chinese and that her works were being enjoyed and studied in India.

During our years of friendship Fatema became ever more passionate about the role of civil society. In this – as in her academic work – she was original. She organized “Caravans” to the Atlas Mountains to introduce the work of grassroots women to western journalists and scholars. She was an early advocate of the possibilities of new technologies. She was ever hopeful that connecting civic activism and technology would make possible the kind of dialogue and advocacy across all borders, real and artificial, that separate people and would help build more peaceful, tolerant societies. We have lost a leader whose intensity, steadfastness, and innovative spirit have made a real difference in the work and lives of many.

Mahnaz Afkhami
Founder and President, WLP International

Fatima Mernissi's French publishers said she had carried on her work "until her last moments." (Photo: Getty Images)
Fatima Mernissi’s French publishers said she had carried on her work “until her last moments.” (Photo: Getty Images)

Fatema Mernissi (1940-2015): A dreamer who tried to bring Asia and Africa together
The Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist wanted to liberate the minds of Africa and Asia, to enable them to see their civilisations’ strengths.

Online at:

December 4, 2015

“A baobab tree has fallen to nourish the African soil to which she was so devoted. Fatema dedicated all her life to understanding African thought and the place and wisdom of women within it.” – Zanele Mbeki, South African feminist.

Fatema Mernissi was often poorly understood. The western world saw her as a breakout Moroccan feminist who unpacked Islam and made “it appear more radical than its symbols”. The international feminist circles knew her mainly for two of her path-breaking books Beyond the Veil and Rites of Passage. But that wasn’t all there was to her. Her real passion lay in liberating the minds of Africa and Asia, to enable them to see their civilisations’ strengths.

She died on November 25 in Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. She was 75.

To Mernissi, knowledge was the critical element in building peace and understanding. She would never stop talking of the Sufi scholars who walked across Africa and Asia to take back the knowledge learnt on their travels. Violence, she believed, was engendered by ignorance, and symbols such as Sindbad the Sailor and the Flying Carpet could help overcome antagonisms. It did not surprise me to know that the title of her last book, which alas remained unfinished, was Chama’s Dream: Flying without Visa.

Mernissi had the most innovative ways of explaining symbols. One time, when she decided to call an initiative The Casablanca Dream, the head of the United Nations Development Programme in Rabat – a fine European – smiled sardonically and said: “But you do know that dreams are too much like vapours? It is not reality if you call that project Casablanca Dream.” Mernissi raised her body to its full height and beauty and retorted: “No, sir, dreams, in our view, are the most creative experience in our life. It is in dreams that we capture new ideas and learned thoughts.”

Similarly, to her, the Flying Carpet was the journey of the mind across differences, and Sindbad the Sailor was someone learning to relate to the other, to understand the other, all to diffuse antagonisms.

Explaining with symbolism

Over time, Mernissi got involved in understanding, interpreting and enabling the female carpet weavers of north-western Africa’s Atlas Mountains. She recognised that their art and the mind behind that art were being killed by the mechanisation of carpet weaving in Morocco. So to empower those women in recording their oral histories, she decided to study their work.

When it came to expressing herself though, Mernissi preferred using the most brilliant calligraphy and symbolism I have seen. Once for a conference in Casablanca that fulfilled her dream of bringing together women of Asia and Africa, she wrote a paper full of calligraphy and pictures of carpets. Titled Women Weave Peace into Globalization, the paper interpreted carpets with jokes, one of which had the punchline “That is not a dollar, you stupid. That is a snake.”

It is safe to say that Mernissi was furious with the West. After the 9/11 attacks, she threw away her American visa. And, recently, when I invited her to come to England with her book, she said: “No, I will not go to the UK. I think the new leadership have simulated the war in Syria as they are interested in the oil. So they are responsible for the massacre in our region.”

Troubled by today’s environment of violence, she put together a volume of essays by intellectuals in her region and called it Violence against the Young. The introduction to the collection begins with a conversation between her and an intellectual friend who is alarmed by the police’s atrocities on young men merely because they suspect every young man of being a terrorist.

Colonised minds

In Mernissi’s death, we have lost a great political leader whose intellectual and moral strength was beyond the potential of most of us. Unfortunately, one of the realities of our world is that unless you travel to the West and show up in their lobbies, you are not a global figure. Mernissi refused to travel to the West and, therefore, we don’t see the kind of tributes, the kind of obituaries that would normally be dedicated to great feminists in newspapers around the world, including in India.

Still, we need to celebrate Fatema Mernissi in all the dimensions, in a colonised world that has yet not decolonised itself.

Devaki Jain

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