When I traveled around the world five years ago, I thought of it as a simple act of exploration—an experience common to many young Westerners. Yet I discovered that my yearning to see the world stemmed from some deep, inexplicable frustration and sense of urgency that I needed to assert my independence as a woman. It was as if I had inherited these feelings from my grandmothers, who, living in Morocco through the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, could not leave home unaccompanied by their husbands.
After a year of battling inner fear and resistance, I finally took flight, embarking solo on a year-long journey across the globe. I had been unaware of where my strong desire to travel and explore came from, but now I realize it stemmed from my family’s intergenerational resilience.
Reading Fatema Mernissi (1940–2015), a distinguished Moroccan professor, writer, and feminist, reminded me of my grandmothers’ experience. Mernissi, who lived a few blocks away from my paternal grandmother, tells stories of real women living behind the closed doors of the Harems. She speaks of the frontier that separates women from the outside world, a boundary drawn by a conservative, patriarchal system.
In her book “Dreams of Trespass,” Mernissi asks her aunt Habiba how women grow wings. Habiba answers: “There are two prerequisites to growing wings: the first is to feel encircled and the second is to believe that you can break the circle.” Strengthening this belief in women’s hearts was one of the writer’s life missions.
After gaining independence in 1956, Morocco started to open to modernity. As Leila Ahmed, an expert in Islamic feminism, put it, there was a quiet revolution across parts of the Arab world as women unveiled and grew more free in their movements. However, until a profound reform of the family code and women’s rights laws in 2004, women like my mother could legally travel abroad only with the consent of their husbands.
With Mernissi’s torch to guide me, I yearned to unravel the stories of my mother and grandmothers, and learn how they embraced modernity as women in a Muslim country. The examination of my feminine lineage shows the subtle progress of Moroccan women’s emancipation. The courage that drove this movement forward is a direct result of an old Arab and Muslim heritage that I am proud to claim.
story: a struggle for
My maternal grandmother, Fatma Alami, was born the day King Abdelhafid abdicated to the French. The Treaty of Fez was signed and Morocco became a French protectorate on March 30, 1912. Violent protests exploded that day—the people were angry at the king for “selling the country to the French.” Meanwhile, my great-grandfather feared the midwife would not arrive in time for his daughter’s birth.
My grandmother later became the fourth and last wife of a wealthy man who died around her 35th birthday. He left her with greedy stepchildren, who forced her to work to provide for the six children of her own.
Before her husband’s death, the tall, beautiful, and graceful young woman ventured outside her home only to go to the bath house every Thursday, to visit family, or to travel with a male escort. She lived in her own stately Riyad, a traditional Moroccan house with a garden in the center, provided by her husband. My grandfather was an exceptionally charismatic businessman and philanthropist. His own father had been the doctor of the king Hassan I. He never held back on giving her jewelry and expensive silverware, and providing resident nannies and other domestic help.
After his death, everything changed. Aspiring to independence, my grandmother smartly sold everything she had to buy a building, start a rental business and, for the first time, confront the world.
Proud and poised with impeccable posture, she had an impressive aura. To go out, she would wear her jellaba, her ltam (a traditional Moroccan veil used at the time), and her infallible faith in God. Today, along with Turkish cookies and Saudi oil, the kingdom has imported non-Moroccan veils, the most aggressive of all being the Burqa. It is still marginally used, often rejected because it is perceived as a foreign transplant.
My grandmother Fatma was illiterate, but she was particularly creative. She created her own accounting system and engaged in numerous legal battles against her stepchildren—with the help of lawyers—to obtain her share of the inheritance. Her efforts reached a peak when she personally handed a letter of complaint to King Mohammed V. Unfortunately, despite her five prayers a day, his injunctions to help her got lost in a bureaucratic maze.
When I started traveling, I found myself illiterate in many ways. Alone in the foreign streets of India or Japan, I relied on my inner strength, just like my grandmother did. Her goal was to reestablish justice and give her children a life that met her husband’s high standards of education and comfort. My goal was to open myself to the world without an intermediary (men, media, or society) and meet the other as they are and not as others depict them.
My grandmother Fatma’s story is one of struggle and faith, fearlessness and vulnerability. She outlived the protectorate period by seven years, but although Morocco gained its independence in 1956, she did not get to fully enjoy hers.
The power of
In Arab Muslim architecture, the beauty is on the inside. The maze-like streets of the Fez medina might be raw and dusty but the houses’ interiors are of utmost refinement. Similarly, for Mernissi, power can lie beyond what appears to the eye.
She wrote about Scheherazade, the storyteller from “The Arabian Nights,” using silence as an instrument of power. In the book, as revenge for his wife cheating on him, the King spent one night with almost every single virgin in the land and then killed them all. Scheherazade tries to stop the carnage by seducing the King with her stories. She tells him one each night, ending with a cliffhanger to keep him intrigued enough to spare her life so she could continue the tales the next evening. “But dawn broke and morning overcame Scheherazade, and she lapsed into silence,” the narrator intervened each time. Mernissi explains that Scheherazade, like all women, did not speak during the day; only men did. Thus silence saves her life.
Even when women are confined in their homes, their imaginations have no limits. The transmission of femininity from one generation to another goes far beyond learning to run a household from older female relatives. The stories they tell, words of encouragement they whisper, and marks of affection they offer to a young woman finding her way are subconsciously absorbed into her soul.
In my family, as in the families of many Moroccans, we are told tales of fierce Arab women and taught that they are an integral part of our common heritage. Mernissi shows us that women like Sherazade can overthrow men’s rules using their intellect, femininity, and wit. Moreover, our robust tradition of oral history gives women opportunities to recreate the stories as they tell them, making the female protagonists more empowered.
A personal favorite of mine is a tale from “The Arabian Nights” quoted in Mernissi’s book “Scheherazade goes West.” A beautiful bird-woman removes her feather dress on a beach to dive into the sea. A man gazes from afar and falls in love with her beauty. He hides her feather dress and marries her. She gives him two sons and during one of his extended trips, because she has never stopped searching, she finds her dress. She wears it, becomes a bird again (by the ordinance of Allah to whom belongs might and majesty), takes her sons and travels to her faraway native island. She left a message to her husband saying he could join her if he had the courage to do so.
Power and desire are naturally ingrained in women’s psyches, and therefore cannot be tamed or stifled for long.
My mother’s story:
coming of age
in a new world
Like her mother before her, my mother, Assya Mechiche Alami, was born during a period of significant change for women in Morocco.
In 1947 Princess Lalla Aicha gave a pivotal speech in Tangier. Not only did she appear in public unveiled, inspiring the next generation of women, but she also called on women across the country to join forces with men and fight for freedom and independence. She stood next to her father, King Mohammed V, a man who supported women’s entrance in the modern age. In 1957, the princess graced the cover of Time magazine for a story titled “The Emancipation of Muslim Women.”
Modernization took many forms. With respect to fashion, a smooth transition occurred from veiling to unveiling. On a societal level, Morocco saw the rise of independent houses (as opposed to several generations living under the same roof) and smaller families thanks to the introduction of birth control. It also became popular for young people to study abroad, mostly in France, and when they returned they brought bits of French culture with them, accelerating the pace of change.
Soon after their marriage, my mother joined my father in Paris, where he was studying medicine. She had a rare modern spirit. She lived a fiercely glamorous and creative life as an assertive and powerful designer. Seeing her mother’s struggles, she was determined to take the reins of life into her own hands and exhibited unwavering strength and confidence. She is fearless when it comes to defying authority, including any male-imposed rule. If my mother could take any one thing from my grandmother, it would be the words: “Fear only God and me.”
She also grew up, like all Muslim women, hearing the story of a wealthy businesswoman named Khadija, who was determined to thrive as a merchant. Khadija proposed to a much younger employee and the man, who was the Prophet Mohamed, said yes.
In her book about the prophet and his wives, Mernissi depicts Khadija as a supportive wife. She once told writer and interfaith activist Eboo Patel*, “I wanted to be like that—intelligent, independent, successful, but also a strong partner.”
My mother has always derived her strength and sense of self-worth from her faith. Therefore she was never concerned with what others thought of her personal choices or religious practice.
He For She:
In her first groundbreaking book “The Veil and the Male Elite,” Mernissi states that Muslim women can find the principles of modernity and equal rights in the very roots of Islam.
“Any man who believes that a Muslim woman who fights for her dignity and right to citizenship excludes herself necessarily from the umma and is a brainwashed victim of Western propaganda is a man who misunderstands his own religious heritage, his own cultural identity. The vast and inspiring records of Muslim history so brilliantly completed for us by scholars such as Ibn Hisham, Ibn Hajar, Ibn Sa´ad, and Tabari, speak to the contrary. We Muslim women can walk into the modern world with pride, knowing that the quest for dignity, democracy, and human rights, for full participation in the political and social affairs of our country, stems from no imported Western values, but is a true part of the Muslim tradition. Of this I am certain, after reading the works of those scholars mentioned above and many others. They give me evidence to feel proud of my Muslim past, and to feel justified in valuing the best gifts of modern civilization: human rights and the satisfaction of full citizenship.”
Men play a critical role in creating a favorable environment for the implementation of women’s rights. The more open and forward-thinking they are, the more autonomous and free the women in their family become. My father always supported my mother with unconditional admiration and love. His father was certainly a role model, as he had an unrelenting adoration for his wife as well, a tall and beautiful woman always dressed in vibrant silk traditional dresses and who loved to wear turbans resembling those of Simone de Beauvoir. She was a great hostess and true heiress of the Fez traditions.
Rooted in tradition,
but free to flow in
the 21st century
My own birth in the 1980s coincided with a growing awareness of feminism, a movement spearheaded by Mernissi and other intellectuals. The fight for equal rights culminated with King Mohammed VI’s legal reform of the family code in 2004. Led by Islamic feminist Asma Lamrabet, the Islamic Studies Faculty for Gender Equality opened in 2013, and female imams started to practice in mosques. Beginning in 2015, a national debate began over inheritance laws and continues to challenge the status quo and raise new questions around gender equality in Islam.
Today, thanks to my elders and all the Moroccan women who fought (and still do) for more freedom, “I am rooted, but I flow.”* I draw my sense of security through millennial traditions and a lineage of both real and imaginary Arab women. Their bravery, intellect, and audacity propelled me to expand my territory. I have embraced new languages, stepped outside my mental maps, confronted new fears, journeyed away from the community, and explored the world alone. It all led me to question the role of women in the public space and meet a brilliant mind that brought us all back together, the late Fatema Mernissi.
As an avant-garde Islamic feminist, Mernissi explains how illegitimate male domination is. Using the same religious and social groundsmen use to oppress, Mernissi demonstrates how women have all the prerogative to conquer their rights and powers. With her Sufi, tolerant heritage, her humanism and her unique humor, she raises awareness by bringing shadows to light, and the unconscious to the conscious. Her body of work (more than 20 books and numerous publications) supports social justice, human rights, and women’s rights. She constantly urged the youth and women to engage in dialogue, write, and share. “Writing is seduction and seduction is the opposite of violence. I learned that in the Quranic school. Why do you think books like the Quran and the Bible have been bestsellers for over one thousand years? It’s simple: because they seek to seduce the reader through language, not with violence,” she would say. Her writings continue to inspire me after her passing late last year and I am proud of her legacy.