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Sample Analysis: Fatima Mernissi's Childhood Memoir

Fatima Mernissi is a professor of sociology at Mohamed V University in Rabat, Morocco and an internationally recognized authority on feminism and Islam. This engaging account of her childhood includes descriptions of the secluded harem life she lived in the city as well as of the freer, happier time spent at her father’s country house where several of his wives lived. She depicts the calm garden and fountain in the heart of the city house, escape to the roof on hot nights, the view from the roof of the “outside,” forbidden to her in her adolescence, and a yearning to be free to go out into the world as her brothers could.


At the country house, by contrast, she hears stories about the wild wife who rode in on a horse and was “tamed” by her father, the wife who used to climb and sit in trees reading a book, and the picnic during which women swam in the river as they washed pots. It all sounds lyrical and pleasant. The city life confirms the Western stereotype of Muslim women being kept in seclusion against their will while the country life allows them license to control their actions.


Students at a Moroccan university described the book as autobiography, but many Moroccans call the story fiction. Other Moroccans simply dismiss the concern, saying that Mernissi writes for the West. Indeed, Western critics consistently have welcomed her works, especially this one. They applaud her ability to describe clearly a little-known culture that has long held fascination for the West. The notion that the book is fiction is based on the testimony of individuals who knew Mernissi as she was growing up and her own response to challenges in which she attests that the book serves to provide an accurate image of an amalgam of women’s situations.


The reader is left wondering what is true, yet the question of truth may have many answers. As a sociologist, Mernissi favors the case study approach to analysis, which can offer valuable insights. On closer examination, it is evident that her autobiography is not narrative, but a series of stories told to her by women of varied ages, classes, and backgrounds. Mernissi has used such storytelling technique effectively in several other nonfiction works. As a respected professor, an internationally known scholar, and an accomplished author and critic of Islamic law and custom with regard to women’s rights, Mernissi knows that her “Scheherazade” approach to communication, being a compelling storyteller, is an effective way to control and educate an audience without overt demonstrations of power. Ignoring criticism, she stands by her portrayal of life as it was for Moroccan women, confident that the picture she paints is accurate and informative.


As a teacher, I welcome the opportunity to draw all these contradictions into a conversation on the issues of truth and perception, especially in relation to the telling of a personal account. Mernissi’s views of growing up female in a traditional Islamic culture offer insight into stereotypes that she, a Muslim woman intimately associated with Moroccan culture, can offer. While everything she describes may not have happened exactly as portrayed, it nevertheless is representative of a Moroccan woman’s experience growing up in the 20th century. Mernissi paints a picture of life that is useful in offering insight into another culture, and more specifically, a woman’s particular place in that setting.


Furthermore, to some extent her portrayal of this as her life is indeed accurate in her own mind. After all, memory is selective: people’s responses to experiences vary and people’s memories of experiences change with time and influence. Events happen in a person’s life between lived experiences and recording those events can shape their telling. Mernissi’s account is valuable because it reflects her own internalization of the Moroccan Muslim culture in which she grew up.


It would be useful to compare Mernissi’s account with that of someone like a Daisy Dwyer’s 1978 study Images and Self-Images: Male and Female in Morocco or Susan Davis’s Patience and Power: Women’s Lives in a Moroccan Village (1983). Davis’s Western, anthropologically-oriented views offer good counterpoints. Mernissi’s description of growing up in urban and rural Muslim homes, with varying degrees of freedom, is true to the anthropological accounts of the region. Whether her personal account is literally accurate for her own personal experience or merely representative, it is nevertheless a valuable portrayal of one kind of life in a particular place and time.


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