Remembering Fatema Mernissi, the magician among the Casablanca Dreamers

Fatema- mernissi

Shuba Chacko pays tribute to renowned Muslim feminist and sociologist, Fatema Mernissi by remembering an exciting feminist gathering organised by Devaki Jain. Mernissi passed away in Morocco on November 30th. Her most celebrated book, Beyond the Veil, reviewed Islam from a feminist perspective rejecting its age-old patriarchal interpretations

‘The Casablanca Dreamers’ is the evocative name that Fatema Mernissi gave to our informal group of feminist scholars and activists. We had come together to think through an alternative framework for ensuring that justice is built into macro economic ideas and policies. We were a diverse bunch drawn from varied backgrounds, of geography, specializations and perspectives. Devaki Jain was the brain behind the idea and brought this exciting group of feminists together. And we met in Casablanca because Fatema, the magnet, was there. (

Fatema’s broad, civilisational imagination swept the group and we undertook a magical journey. She thrilled and inspired. She dressed flamboyantly, laughed loudly, her eyes twinkled as she wove long and beautiful stories. And when she said “Voila” we wanted to clap as she, the magician held us captivated.

Below are some of the thoughts and visions she shared – though unfortunately without the liveliness of her telling.

For Fatema Mernissi the borderlessness that globalisation promises, that is – the dissolution of borders between nation states to facilitate the flow of goods, services and finance capital, is skewed. She argued for breaking down of the walls of the mind. She evoked Sindbad the sailor, a popular character in Arabian folklore and contrasted him with the cowboy – a figure around whom many American stories revolve.

For Sindbad strangers were sources of joy; of being enriched – while the cowboy was fitted with gun and holster to take on the unknown. Sindbad challenged the traditional notion of wealth – for him travel in itself was an enriching process; whereas for the cowboy he was driven by a need to protect his cattle, even while trying to poach on other people’s livestock.

The theme of travel as a means to explore and know new worlds both literally and figuratively appears many times in Fatema Mernissi’s writings. The exploring and learning leads to progress that is mutually beneficial – it is not a blind copying from another culture but the active process of deriving, adapting, adding, changing that allows cultures to intermingle and converse rather than clash. These thoughts are reflected in the tales of Sindabad as well as the countless other seers and poets of the Arab world who exhorted people to travel, and counted the gains from these journeys in terms of “entertainment, livelihood, self-discipline, knowledge and the opportunity to be in the company of splendid creatures.”

‘The journey’ however is not restricted to new outward frontiers but also encompasses travels within, to know the ‘self’ better, as the inward movement ‘unveils the hidden face of the traveller’. Mernissi insisted that this self-knowledge was important for establishing the norms of ethical behaviour.

When one approaches strangers with this view, then it is possible for one to be open and able to conquer the fear of them through dialogue. Dialogue entails commitment to translation, to creating fora that allow for these conversations and to master “the art of communication and demonstration”. In this worldview being insular is seen as causing poverty and ruin. Movement is viewed as natural and perpetual and in a philosophical sense that “the fate of the human being is to tune to the universal movement”.

This recognition of the constant motion meant that recognition of survival depended on weaving a symbiotic partnership. The need to communicate with strangers is embraced, not just with humans but across species – including birds and sea-monsters.

Some of the rulers have adopted this approach. The Caliph al Mansur, the second Abbasid Caliph (for example), who created Baghdad, adopted the concept of adab or allying with the stranger. Building bridges requires the art of communication that is respectful of the ‘other’. It is this desire to understand and know new ‘truths’, new ideas, new histories that pushed the rulers and scholars of this Caliphate to undertake huge translation missions. They believed that talking and listening and other forms of cultural exchange was the only way to grow richer and sustain themselves.

This attitude Mernissi insists is most relevant for a truer globalization because strangers will be constantly trespassing into our neighbourhoods and lurking on our street-corners.

The encounter with strange things and events must stimulate us to enlarge our horizons. The need is to invest in books and research and in understanding each other and become more familiar with other world views, idioms and value systems. This she points out is in contrast to the current trend of wanting to subjugate the ‘other’.

Our arrogance means we are often caught up in our narrow views that tend not look beyond the obvious – for example we confuse the desert with nothingness and then go on to condescendingly hold “training programs which teach the local population” about their local habitats. The wealth of knowledge that they hold is unacknowledged and dismissed and they are not supported to know more about the exceptional wealth of the region, that will build their pride and help shape their new vision of the desert as a wonderful paradise of life in all its forms, where they are enabled to manufacture new identities for themselves. This she underlines is the missing ingredient which explains the failure of bureaucrat-led development programs, be they promoted by the local state, or the international agencies such as the World Bank. This ability of information to empower and validate is often overlooked in a mechanical attitude to information.

New technologies do offer hope in that they hold “the magic power, for the first time in modern history, to engineer their own image on-line, and not only for their restricted local consumption, but for the universe at large”. However this power has to be harnessed and used for “imagination-nurturing creatures on one hand” while the ruling elites will try to wrest control yet again and want their specific interests to dominate. This ‘digital chaos” Mernissi argues is an opportunity for creative growth

The task is to work collectively –drawing from each other and enhancing each other “Any group who gather together to pursue a higher goal could enjoy the dazzling effect which comes from mirroring each others’ beauty.”

Fatema, thank you for everything. Your deeply insightful words echo through my head now and then; as does your laughter. You, I am sure, will continue your Safar.


Safar (travel) as self-discovery-an example of Fatema Mernissi’s use of calligraphy and illustrations

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