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Truth Behind the Veil

March 1, 1998

Donna Soper

To many Westerners, guided by stereotypes of Muslim women, Moroccan-born Fatema Mernissi, with her bright make-up, stylish coiffure and unveiled visage might seem an anomaly within her culture. In reality, however, Mernissi, a well-educated and internationally respected sociologist and Tulane's spring 1998 Mellon professor, says she represents the mainstream in the non-oil- exporting Arab economies such as Morocco, where contemporary working women constitute a significant number of the taxpayers.

In these countries, Mernissi says, the veil is not a public issue. The women dress as they like and are more concerned with unemployment, educational opportunities and health insurance.

"Everyone thinks that Muslim and Arab women are in harems," Mernissi says. "This is absolutely ridiculous. This is a fantasy--that women are paralyzed in private spheres."

Current statistics, Mernissi says, indicate that Muslim women have infiltrated numerous professional fields, including medicine, law and broadcast media, and they constitute one-third of all university professors in Arab countries. Mernissi's Mellon lecture, "The Vanishing Orient: How Papa's Harem is Shifting to Mama's Civil Society," and accompanying photo exhibit scheduled for March 12 (see Inside calendar), will explore this new class of Muslim women and the concept of feminism in Arab society.

Raised in what she calls a "domestic harem"--a monogamous arrangement where three generations of women in her family resided--Mernissi received a traditional education in a Koranic school, graduated from Rabat Mohammed V University, studied at the Sorbonne and received her PhD in sociology from Brandeis University. She has been studying the link between gender and power in Muslim politics for more than 25 years.

Her dissertation, Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Moslem Society, was published as a book in 1975 and continues to be used by students worldwide as a guide to the gender dynamic in the Middle East. That dissertation was the beginning of her scholarly consideration and broadening of the concept of a "harem," a term that Westerners often misunderstand. In fact, Mernissi's forthcoming book will contrast the traditional domestic harem with the more popularized notion of the European imperial harem, often characterized by polygamy and slavery.

"For me, the word 'harem' is a metaphor," Mernissi says. "Wherever you find a barrihre, a boundary, a limit, you are in a harem. Wherever there is a space where some people are deprived of privileges and others are not, that is a harem." Even an American woman can be in a harem, she says.

For example, "If you are a woman working in a company with men and are getting paid less than men for the same job, you are in a harem." The goal of her Mellon lecture and exhibit is to convey that Muslim women are beginning to make inroads toward a more equal, democratic society. Yet, in the Arab world, women are not struggling against men, she says. They are struggling against the confines of an autocratic society.

"Their empowerment lies in empowering democratic forces." Consequently, the feminist movement in the Arab world is different from the feminist movement in the West, Mernissi says. "For the last five years, I am no longer just a woman. I am 'civil society' because women have joined forces with men in the fight for democracy."

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