CLIO TALKS BACK: Fatima Mernissi on the Future of the Arab World

Fatema Mernissi
Fatema (Fatima) Mernissi (b. 1940 in Fez, Morocco) is a persistent longtime advocate of women’s empowerment in the Arab world. A university-trained political scientist, a social investigator, and multi-disciplinary humanist and writer of considerable note, Mernissi has carefully studied the situation of women in Islam (historically and in the present), conducted interviews with Moroccan women on the street and in the marketplace, and has kept the world abreast of women’s issues – and advances – in the Maghrib. She is a fervent proponent of literacy and education at all levels, especially for women. Mernissi lectures at Mohammed V University in Rabat, and is also affiliated with the University Institute for Scientific Research. Her current projects concern the development of technological literacy for both women and men.

 This eloquent excerpt from her writings, published in English in 1996, contains the seeds of the projects she continues to pursue today:
 “The only Arab world worthy of being fought for and worth clashing over . . . is one in which the Arab brain can extend its capacities the way a free bird extends its wings to reach the heights. And that Arab world can only exist if – and on condition that – the chief educator of the brain also shares in this modern technological knowledge. And that chief educator is, I tell you, neither the army of educational experts (schoolteachers and university professors), nor the civil servants in the ministries of education and national culture. The chief educator is woman, who, as mother, nourishes the child, in the fateful first five years, with the knowledge she possesses. 
“The lesson of the Gulf War, a lesson you, the leaders of the Arab countries, will read in no Western document, is that the mother of all battles (umm al-maa’rik) is not the one you fight against the Americans, but the one you fight against illiteracy – the illiteracy of men and women. But, up to now, the impression has been that the budgets of the national education ministries are only for men. Thirty years after independence, 90% of Moroccan women in rural areas are illiterate and 100% of them politically marginalized. You will never be powerful, Mr. Arab leader, in a modern world where democratized and democratizing knowledge is both arm and ammunition. You will never be anything but backward outsiders in the world of satellite-borne information, whilst your mothers, sisters, wives and, most importantly, your secretaries, maids and women workers are illiterate. I omitted your daughters from the list because we all know an Arab man is hugely committed to the education of his daughter. She is the only woman with whom he identifies and whose future causes him concern. But we shall all, men and women, leave behind the mutilating law of the tribe-family and take our first steps in the space and planetary age the moment we realize that our destiny is linked to the most deprived, the most excluded of all: the poor woman, ground down in field and factory, on whom any arbitrary power whatever may be visited. The subjugated, scorned and humiliated Arab will be transformed into an autonomous, self-governing person the day he is suckled by an autonomous mother. And the path to the autonomy of the individual is through access to worthwhile knowledge. The day the political leader understands that the most faithful mirror to his strength is the reflection which comes back to him from the female citizens living in the remotest villages, the planetary Arab will be born.  
“An Arab at ease in the galaxies, interested in their movements and attuned to their secrets, can only be born of a woman who weaves her ideas around the satellite networks with the ease with which her ancestors wove a thousand geometrical flowers into their carpets.” 

Source: “Rebuild Baghdad? But in What Galaxy?” from Fatima Mernissi, Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory (1996), pp. 9-10. Translated from the French.