By Zubeida Mustafa
FATEMA MERNISSI, the Moroccan sociologist and academic who created quite a stir when she wrote her first book Behind the Veil, is working on a new project. When she completes it her next book will roll off the printing presses — she is not sure when. Titled Is the Satellite Reawakening Sindbad, the book will focus on the satellite revolution in the Arab world. She has already published in French her book Les Sindbads Marocains: Voyage dans le Maroc Civique and two essays on this subject, “The satellite, the prince and Scheherzade” and “Sindbad and the cowboy: who will be the globalization winner”. She is excited like a child with a new toy about the discoveries she is making in the course of her research.
Mernissi has no time for anything else. Her brochure states clearly, “I do not answer last minute invitations… I practice Tadbir (long term planning)… [which] implies that you never embark on last minute opportunistic adventures.” Hence it came as a surprise and honour for me when she agreed to see me at short notice. For me a visit to Morocco would have been incomplete without an interview with this legendary figure. What helped me in getting an appointment was partly her friendship with Attiya Mahmood, our suave ambassador in Rabat, through whom I approached Mernissi. There was another factor that helped. Mernissi’s fascination for Pakistan and India is incredulous. The subcontinent is also central to the new theory she is working on. According to her, the Arab world gets its strength when it turns eastwards. She visited Pakistan in 1987 when Simorgh, a feminist publishing house, was being launched in Lahore. She was touched by the vibrancy she felt in the women’s movement in Pakistan at the time.
As we settle for our interview in Mernissi’s tastefully furnished apartment in Rabat, she puts me at ease by coming to the point straight away. “I want to tell you about my new project, and through you your readers,” she says. This is infinitely more exciting than covering old ground which a stereotype interview would have entailed. I don’t have to worry about the questions I had so assiduously put together. She has so much to say and talks incessantly. She also wants to know something about Pakistan.
Mernissi believes that the impact of satellite television on the Arab world is immense since it has emerged as a powerful means of oral transmission of information. In the process it has dwarfed state controls. “My findings sustain Marshall McLuhan’s prediction of a television-driven oral revolution,” she observes. Television channels have proliferated in the Arab world and the state no longer has a monopoly over information.
The satellite is also opening new opportunities for women to enter the power game. “There is a rising demand for articulate intellectuals who combine writing and television experience in new communication wars,” she observed in her essay “The satellite, the prince and Scheherzade” which was reproduced in Transbroadcasting Studies in 2004. Intelligent viewers see through the propaganda that is broadcast by many channels and demand credible communicators. As such, “the Scheherzade profile, that of the brainy self confident storyteller, is in big demand”. According to her, many Arab men craving for their own emancipation from authoritarian censorship de-connect power from sex. They are beginning to identify themselves with the strong and confident anchorwomen, female journalists and reporters now seen on the Al Jazeera channel. Mernissi is trying to interpret this phenomenon. Is it a transient fad? Or is it a civilizational shift?
She also links this male fascination with the women in satellite broadcasting with the cosmic vision of the Sufis who played a very important role in spreading Islam. They never perceived women as a threat. In fact for the Sufis, the sexual differences were enriching as they conventionally celebrate diversity.
Another thesis that Mernissi is developing is that of the cowboy and Sindbad. In the globalization phenomenon of which satellite television is one manifestation, there is a fear of strangers who will get easy access to any country as state frontiers dissolve. But the cowboy hero crafted by Hollywood who shot and killed the strangers appearing in his land is not a universal phenomenon. In Scheherzade’s Thousand and One Nights, the natives’ reaction to strangers was just the opposite. Sindbad was a foreigner (coming originally from Sindh) but he was a hero to the people of Baghdad as he gathered a fabulous wealth of knowledge and information by travelling to India and China and meeting the strangers there.
It is on this analogy that Fatema Mernissi has drawn up her thesis of communication. Sindbad is the key to her thesis and she lays down four strategies to win control of the “globalized planet”. To explain these she gave me four cards with beautiful calligraphy by the artist Ouida. Each card summarizes the essence of her Erasmus Prize speech on November 4, 2004 spelling out the winning strategy of allying with the stranger.
First is Adab, the norm of ethical behaviour but here it means the discipline of self-teaching. This envisages communication as a source of knowledge and therefore power. “We have to decide whether to kill or to dialogue. We have to choose between the pen and the sword,” says Mernissi. She vehemently recommends the dialogue which has become possible through the satellite television and the internet. It resuscitates the communication strategy of 9th century Baghdad when the Abbasids expanded travel, trade and dialogue which created and sustained an international Muslim community. The Abbasid’s approach was to encourage the translation of foreign books in order to facilitate an understanding of the stranger. That is how the book of Sindbad came to be translated. “Adab is to add the brains of others to your own,” she quotes from Jahiz to emphasize her point.
The second strategy is Safar (travel) as self-discovery. The communication expert of the Abbasids, Jahiz, was strongly of the opinion, “Staying too long at home is one of poverty’s causes. Movement creates prosperity,” Jahiz recommended, “Travel far to communicate with the stranger.” Another Arab scholar, Abu Tammam, said, “Travel. It is the only way to renew yourself.” Fatema Mernissi links this to the Sufis’ concept of movement (haraka) which identified movement with life and inertia (sukun) with death.
The third principle is Iqd (contract) which implies the individual’s global responsibility. This dwarfs geographical limits and imposes the responsibility of honouring contracts on the individual rather than the state. The idea was to make travellers responsible traders by equipping them with information and awareness.
The final principle on the fourth card states, “The principle of the Universe Movement… If it stops moving it will return to non-existence”. According to Mernissi, the final conflict will be between the sword and the pen. Mernissi quotes the Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu, “to win without fighting is the best”. She, however, objects to his peace strategy as being “geocentric”, that is being based on the concept of defence of a territory perceived as the primary source of wealth. Mernissi prefers Jahiz’s strategy that is based on the belief that a gravitational force is experienced by all matter in the universe. According to this theory, propounded by the Sufis, geography has no importance in the life of a person since the fate of the human being is to tune to the universal movement and to be in constant motion. In this case to invest in a planetary global security that is geocentric is a waste of the tax payers’ money.
Fatema Mernissi is now elucidating these concepts. As she entertains me with mint-flavoured Moroccan tea and urges me to eat the Moroccan biscuits, she travels back into time to explain how her mind got working on these ideas. When she visited Pakistan and India she was struck by the beauty of the Mughal gardens. She was also struck by the link between the people in India and Pakistan and the Arab world from where many of their ancestors had come, settled down and intermarried. She is now exploring the fascination the Arabs felt for Asia. She relates that to Sindbad’s frequent travels to the east.
“I am going to Bahrain in spring 2005 to check on Sindbad’s boats in the Bahrain National Museum and participate in seminars organized by Prof May al-Khalifa,” she tells me.
Why is all this so important for her? She feels that a rebirth of culture and civilization can only take place if we re-interpret our past. For instance Prof May al-Khalifa, the Bahraini historian, is doing just that by rewriting her country’s history through the eyes of a woman. Mernissi wants to study Sindbad’s techniques because she is convinced that they would provide the key to success in the globalization struggle.
In Morocco, she is a part of the communication revolution that is taking place. She conducts writing workshops with groups of people — rural youth, environmentally concerned experts, film makers — and this ultimately leads to new books from people from different walks of life. The Synergie Civique comprises a group of highly motivated intellectuals who want to help the youth develop self-confidence by teaching them communication skills. Through this interaction, Fatema Mernissi attempts to assess the renaissance she believes is coming is actually round the corner. But no one can fail to be inspired by her dynamism and devotion to her mission of imparting communication skills to people around her.
Fatema Mernissi: Profile
Born in Rabat in 1940
Education: Studied political sciences at the University of Rabat, the Sorbonne in Paris and Brandeis University (Massachusetts, USA)
Books: Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Modern Muslim Society (1975); The Forgotten Queens of Islam (1990); Women and Islam: An Historical and Theological Enquiry (1991); Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World (1992); The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (1992); Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood (1995)
Awards received: Erasmus Prize (2004); Premio Principe de Asturias de las Letras (Spain) (2003)