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The Two Fatimas: Social Activism & Education in Morocco

The Two Fatimas: Social Activism & Education in Morocco

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Fatima al-Fihri and Fatima Mernissi are remarkable Moroccan women who significantly changed education and social activism. Although they lived in very different times, both women were very interested in promoting education and improving the lives of women and people from marginalized groups in Morocco.

Women’s rights activists and teachers in Morocco and elsewhere are still inspired and influenced by these great women, their lives & actions, and how they changed Moroccan society.

Fatima al-Fihri

Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihriya al-Qurashiyya, sometimes spelled Fatima al-Fihriya and Fatima al-Fihri, was an Arab woman born in Kairouan, Tunisia in 800 A.D. who was credited with constructing the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque in 857–859 AD in Fez, Morocco. She was famously called the Umm al-Banin (the mother of the children).

The Jordan Museum displays a statue of Fatima al-Fihriya, an early pioneer of social activism who worked to improve education and quality of live for Moroccan women and marginalized groups.
Statue of Fatima al-Fihriya at The Jordan Museum

In the year 880, Al-Fihriya passed away. Her life’s details are not available, yet her legacy lives on. In the annals of women’s history, she stands out as an early example of women’s prominent leadership roles in the Muslim world, both historically and now.

Fatima al-Fihri founded the world’s first University, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, in Fez, Morocco. Her legacy has survived for over 1,200 years, and the University still stands as a testament to her vision of education and learning.

In 1963, the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque Madrassah transformed into the present University of al-Qarawiyyin by establishing a teaching institution inside its walls. Ibn Abi Zar (1310 – 1320) recounts her life in The Garden of Pages (Rawd al-Qirtas), claiming that Fatima was the first founder of the mosque.

She was born into a wealthy family in Kairouan, Tunisia. Her father, Muhammad Banu Abdullah al-Fihri, was a well-educated merchant who passed his love of learning to his children. Fatimah’s father ensured she was well-versed in Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and Hadith (authenticated stories and sayings from the life of the Prophet Muhammad).

Although little is known about Fatima’s early life, her family moved from Tunisia to Fez, Morocco, when she was a child. After the deaths of her father and husband, Fatima inherited a large fortune. As a result, she immediately began to use her wealth to benefit society.

Interior of Al Quaraouiyine (or al-Qarawiyyin) Mosque and university in Fes, Morocco.
Interior of Al Quaraouiyine (or al-Qarawiyyin) Mosque and university in Fes, Morocco.

Fatima was very devoted, and she knew that her skills and resources were gifts to be used to help other people. Thus, her main passion was education. She was known as the “Mother of Boys” because of her focus on creating learning opportunities for the youth of Fez. In 859, Fatima built the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, naming it after Tunis, the place she loved most.

This University predates Al-Azhar by about 100 years and the University of Bologna by about 200 years.

In The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Education in Islam and the West, George Makdisi shows how terms such as “fellow” were replaced by “chair.” Placing on, or students “reading” a subject and getting “degrees,” as well as inaugural lectures, oral defenses, mortarboards, tassel-like exercises, and academic dress can be traced back to seminary practices.

Fatima founded the institution to serve the community. During the University’s existence, Islamic theology and law were heavily emphasized. However, it went beyond these subjects. At their peak, students studied poetry, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, grammar, geography, science, math, and other traditional subjects. All these courses were provided free of charge.

Al-Qarawiyyin became well-known among both Muslims and Christians. Many of its graduates, like the philosopher Ibn Rushd (1126–1198) and the historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), are well-known scholars who have significantly impacted Islamic history.

Classical Greek ideas, like those of Aristotle and Plato, were passed down to the Muslim world. Ibn Rushd became a famous commentator whose work is still used by philosophers and students today.

The Qur’an and other works of Islamic scholarship influenced classical philosophy and theology in the West. The great Jewish philosophers Maimonides and Gerbert d’Aurillac are said to have studied there.

Gerbert d’Aurillac brought Arabic numbers to the West and later became Pope Sylvester II (999–1003). Later, in the 1600s and 1700s, scholars from Europe, like Nicholas Kleinarts and Jacobus Gaulius, came to the University.

The University is still functioning today, attracting visitors and students alike. It is one of the oldest libraries in the world and has over 4,000 manuscripts. Fatima’s diploma is still on display.

After a life of service, purity, and generosity, Fatima al-Fahri passed away in 880. Her persistence, wisdom, and determination left an indelible mark on the world and still inspire many men and women today. Al-Qarawiyyin University, a landmark of Islamic intellectual achievement, plays this vital role because of a woman’s vision.

Fatima Mernissi

Fatima Mernissi was a Moroccan feminist, writer, and sociologist generally considered one of the Arab world’s most prominent women. She was a pioneer for women’s rights, and her work was critical in the battle for gender equality in Morocco and beyond.

Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist, writer, and sociologist, receiving the Erasmus Prize in 2004 for her work and activism.
Mernissi receiving the Erasmus Prize, 2004

The Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi was born in Fez on September 27, 1940. She grew up in an intelligent household with her aunts, cousins, and servants in the harem of her wealthy paternal grandmother. For her primary education, Fatima attended a school set up by the nationalist movement, and for her secondary education, she attended a school only for girls, paid for by the French protectorate.

Fatima went to the Sorbonne in Paris in 1957 to study political science, and in 1974, she went to Brandeis University, Massachusetts, in the U.S., where she received her Ph.D. in sociology.

She returned to work at the Mohammed V University in Rabat from 1974 to 1981 and taught sociology, family sociology, and psychosociology at the Faculté des Lettres. She was also a research scholar at the same University’s Institute for Scientific Research.

Mernissi wrote Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society for her Ph.D. thesis, which was later turned into a book that shows how powerful Muslim women are in the Islamic religion. Mernissi is known for her sociopolitical ways of talking about gender and sexual identities in Muslim countries, especially in Morocco. She was seen as an essential feminist because she was a well-known public speaker, scholar, teacher, writer, and sociologist. Mernissi died in Rabat on November 30, 2015.

Mernissi’s work contributed significantly to feminist thought, notably in the setting of Islamic countries. She argued for a more inclusive and egalitarian view of Islam, challenging old interpretations that perpetuated patriarchal hierarchies. The legacy of Fatima Mernissi’s work deserves recognition for its contribution to feminist and Islamic discourse. Mernissi, a Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist, was a trailblazer in her field, challenging patriarchal norms and advocating for gender equality in the Muslim world.

Fatima’s work has had a profound impact on feminist thought and opened up new avenues for dialogue between the West and the Islamic world. A prolific writer, Fatima Mernissi wrote over 20 books covering various topics related to feminism, Islam, and Moroccan society, and her books have been printed in multiple languages.

Some of Fatima’s best-known works include Beyond the Veil, Tales of a Harem Girlhood, The Veil and the Male Elite, and Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World. Her writings have significantly affected how people in the Middle East and North Africa talk about gender, religion, and society.

Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society, Mernissi’s first monograph was released in 1975. In 1985, a revised version was released in the U.K.; in 1987, a new edition was released in the U.S. The book is considered revolutionary. Mernissi challenged the ethnocentric stereotypes Western society had developed about Islam, especially Muslim women. Her critique of Western feminist feminism distinguishes Muslim women from homogenized “third-world women.”

Mernissi also tried to change the idea in the West that Muslim women were helpless victims of their religion and men. This book has become a standard reference for anybody studying women’s lives in the Arab world, the Mediterranean, or Muslim civilizations. Mernissi was an Islamic feminist primarily interested in Islam and women’s roles and looked at how Islamic philosophy has changed over time and how it is used now.

The Forgotten Queens of Islam:  As Fatima Mernissi shows in this book, early Islamic history was steeped in social and political identities that created forms of discrimination against women. She examines women’s positions in early Islamic history from the point of view of their social and political identities. Fatima’s goal was to disprove the idea that women in early Islamic history did not have political or authoritative roles by showing how important they were to the growth of Islam.

By looking at women’s roles as leaders in Islamic history, Fatima wanted to change how people think women are portrayed in history. According to her, women held powerful political positions despite religious titles given to men. Fatima illustrates this through her numerous historical accounts about fifteen women and their active roles in pre-modern Islamist politics.

Mernissi did most of his fieldwork as a sociologist in Morocco. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, she interviewed people to create a social map of how people felt about women in the workplace. She did research as a sociologist for the Moroccan government, UNESCO, the International Labor Organization, and other groups. At this time, Mernissi wrote for various media, focusing on the experiences of Moroccan women and the relationship between women and Islam both historically and in the present day.

Fatima Mernissi won several awards and honors throughout her career for her work in literature and women’s rights. In 2003, Fatima was given the Princess of Asturias Award, one of her most prestigious awards, for her work in the social sciences, and in 1990, the American National Women’s Committee gave her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award.

In 2004, the Council of Europe gave her the North-South Prize, and the Dutch Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences gave her the Erasmus Prize. Fatima also received honorary doctorates from universities like the University of Pennsylvania and the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Her legacy and impact are still praised, and as a result, Mernissi is still a significant person in the feminist movement.

2023 Princess of Asturias Awards ceremony
2023 Princess of Asturias Awards ceremony

Mernissi’s work had a tremendous global influence, notably in the context of the Arab women’s rights movement. As a result, her support for gender equality and women’s empowerment motivated many women to strive for their rights. Fatima’s work has influenced worldwide dialogues regarding feminism and Islam. Her emphasis on the compatibility of Islamic ideals with feminist ideas challenged common conceptions of Islam. It contributed to a more nuanced understanding of Islam and its relevance to women’s rights. In addition to her scientific activity, Fatima was an active member of the Moroccan political and social movement. Also, she spoke out about the autocratic regime, advocating for democratic changes and increased political engagement for women.

Fatima Mernissi was a pioneer in the Arab world for women’s rights, and her legacy continues to inspire and empower women today. As a result, her contributions to feminist philosophy and activism for social change have had a significant global influence. Fatima’s work is as important now as it was during her lifetime.

We may turn to Fatima Mernissi’s life and work as an example of the ability of intellectual inquiry and action to bring about significant change as we continue to battle with challenges of gender equality and social justice. Mernissi was a passionate campaigner for women’s rights in Morocco and the Islamic world. As a result, her work centered on challenging conventional gender stereotypes and empowering women via education and social change.

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