Fatema Mernissi is a Moroccan feminist and sociologist who is renowned for her work on women’s rights within Islam. Beyond the Veil is the result of her doctoral research and was first published in 1975; the edition I have, from 2011, includes a new introduction addressing the Islamophobia that currently permeates European politics and the West’s obsession with the veil.
So far I’ve only read the first few chapters of Beyond the Veil , and before I say anything about them I want to acknowledge a few things, namely that as a white European whose knowledge of Islam is limited I’m likely to get things wrong. Obviously it’s no one’s responsibility but my own to try to get them right, but I think that acknowledging my perspective and letting you all know that I’m more than open to hearing from people more knowledgeable than I am will make for a more productive discussion. So if I happen to be wrong, feel free to correct me, and if you happen to be knowledgeable about feminism and Islam, I would love to hear from you.
In the introduction to the original 1975 edition, Mernissi says the following:
In this book I want to demonstrate that there is a fundamental contradiction between Islam as interpreted in official policy and equality between the sexes. Sexual equality violates Islam’s premises, actualised in its laws, that heterosexual love is dangerous to Allah’s order. Muslim marriage is based on male dominance. The desegregation of the sexes violates Islam’s ideology on women’s position in the social order: that women should be under the authority of fathers, brothers, or husbands. Since women are considered by Allah to be a destructive element, they are to be spatially confined and excluded from matters other than those of the family. Female access to non-domestic space is put under the control of makes.
Paradoxically, and contrary to what is commonly assumed, Islam does not advance the thesis of women’s inherent inferiority. Quite the contrary, it affirms the potential equality between the sexes. The existing inequality does not rest on an ideological or biological theory of women’s inferiority, but is the outcome of specific social institutions designed to restrain their power; namely, segregation and legal subordination in the family structure.
The point Mernissi makes in the second paragraph seems particularly important to me: gender inequality is not inherent to Islam, but is the result of specific religious interpretations having been actualised into law, policy, and social practices. There are historical reasons for why these anti-equality interpretations trumped more progressive ones, and I can’t wait to read more of Beyond the Veil to find out what they were.
And of course, I’m also really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book.