“A baobab tree has fallen to nourish the African soil to which she was so devoted. Fatima 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 or 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.
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.