When analyzing the dynamics of the Muslim world, one has to discriminate between two distinct dimensions: what people actually do, the decisions they make, the aspirations they secretly entertain or display through their patterns of consumption, and the discourses they develop about themselves, more specifically the ones they use to articulate their political claims. The first dimension is about reality and its harsh time-bound laws, and how people adapt to pitilessly rapid change; the second is about self-presentation and identity building. And you know as well as I do that whenever one has to define oneself to others, whenever one has to define one’s identity, one is on the shaky ground of self-indulging justifications. For example, the need for Muslims to claim so vehemently that they are traditional, and that their women miraculously escape social change and the erosion of time, has to be understood in terms of their need for self-representation and must be classified not as a statement about daily behavioral practices, but rather as a psychological need to maintain a minimal sense of identity in a confusing and shifting reality.

To familiarize you with the present-day Muslim world and how women fit into the conflicting political forces (including religion), the best way is not to overwhelm you with data. On the contrary, what is most needed is some kind of special illumination of the structural dissymmetry that runs all through and conditions the entire fabric of social and individual life — the split between acting and reflecting on one’s actions. The split between what one does and how one speaks about oneself. The first has to do with the realm of reality; the second has to do with the realm of the psychological elaborations that sustain human beings’ indispensable sense of identity. Individuals die of physical sickness, but societies die of loss of identity, that is, a disturbance in the guiding system of representations of oneself as fitting into a universe that is specifically ordered so as to make life meaningful.

Why do we need our lives to make sense? Because that’s where power is. A sense of identity is a sense that one’s life is meaningful, that, as fragile as a person may be, she or he can still have an impact on his or her limited surroundings. The fundamentalist wave in Muslim societies is a statement about identity. And that is why their call for the veil for women has to be looked at in the light of the painful but necessary and prodigious reshuffling of identity that Muslims are going through in these often confusing but always fascinating times.

The split in the Muslim individual between what one does, confronted by rapid, totally uncontrolled changes in daily life, and the discourse about an unchangeable religious tradition that one feels psychologically compelled to elaborate in order to keep a minimal sense of identity — this, as far as I am concerned, is the key point to focus on in order to understand the dynamics of Muslim life of the late 1970s and the 1980s.

If fundamentalists are calling for the return of the veil, it must be because women have been taking off the veil. We are definitely in a situation where fundamentalist men and non-fundamentalist women have a conflict of interest. We have to identify who the fundamentalist men are, and who are the non-fundamentalist women who have opted to discard the veil. Class conflicts do sometimes express themselves in acute sex-focused dissent. Contemporary Islam is a good example of this because, beyond the strong obsession with religion, the violent confrontations going on in the Muslim world are about two eminently materialistic pleasures: exercise of political power and consumerism.

Fundamentalists and unveiled women are the two groups that have emerged with concrete, conflicting claims and aspirations in the postcolonial era. Both have the same age range — youth — and the same educational privilege — a recent access to formalized institutions of knowledge. But while the men seeking power through religion and its revivification are mostly from newly urbanized middle- and lower-middle-class backgrounds, unveiled women by contrast are predominantly of middle-class, urban backgrounds.

As a symptom, the call for the veil tells us one thing. Telling us another thing is the specific conjuncture of the forces calling for it — that is, the conservative forces and movements, their own quest, and how they position themselves within the social movements dominating the national and international scene.


Islam is definitely one of the modern political forces competing for power around the globe. At least that is how many of us experience it. How can a “medieval religion,” ask Western students raised in a secular culture, be so alive, so challenging to the effects of time, so renewable in energy? How can it be meaningful to educated youth? One of the characteristics of fundamentalism is the attraction Islam has for high achievers among young people. In Cairo, Lahore, Jakarta and Casablanca, Islam makes sense because it speaks about power and self-empowerment. As a matter of fact, worldly self-enhancement is so important for Islam that the meaning of spirituality itself has to be seriously reconsidered.

What was not clear for me in the early 1970s was that all the problems Muslims faced in recent decades are more or less boundary problems, from colonization (trespassing by a foreign power on Muslim community space and decision making) to contemporary human rights issues (the political boundaries circumscribing the ruler’s space and the freedoms of the government). The issue of technology is a boundary problem: how can we integrate Western technological information, the recent Western scientific memory, without deluging our own Muslim heritage? International economic dependency is, of course, eminently a problem of boundaries: the International Monetary Fund’s intervention in fixing the price of our bread does not help us keep a sense of a distinct national identity. What are the boundaries of the sovereignty of the Muslim state vis-à-vis voracious, aggressive transnational corporations? These are some of the components of the crisis that is tearing the Muslim world apart, along, of course, definite class lines.

Naive and serious as only a dutiful student can be, I did not know in 1975 that women’s claims were disturbing to Muslim societies not because they threatened the past but because they augured and symbolized what the future and its conflicts are about: the inescapability of renegotiating new sexual, political, economic, and cultural boundaries, thresholds and limits. Invasion of physical territory by alien hostile nations (Afghanistan and Lebanon); invasion of national television by “Dallas” and “Dynasty”; invasion of children’s desires by Coca-Cola and special brands of walking shoes — these are some of the political and cultural boundary problems facing the Muslim world today.

However, we have to remember that societies do not reject and resist changes indiscriminately. Muslim societies integrated and digested quite well technological innovations: the engine, electricity, the telephone, the transistor, sophisticated machinery and arms, all without much resistance. But the social fabric seems to have trouble absorbing anything having to do with changing authority thresholds: freely competing unveiled women; freely competing political parties; freely elected parliaments; and, of course, freely elected heads of state who do not necessarily get 99 percent of the votes. Whenever an innovation has to do with free choice of the partners involved, the social fabric seems to suffer some terrible tear. Women’s unveiling seems to belong to this realm. For the last one hundred years, whenever women tried or wanted to discard the veil, some men, always holding up the sacred as a justification, screamed that it was unbearable, that the society’s fabric would dissolve if the mask is dropped. I do not believe that men, Muslims or not, scream unless they are hurt. Those calling for the reimposition of the veil surely have a reason. What is it that Muslim society needs to mask so badly?

The idea one hears about fundamentalism is that it is an archaic phenomenon, a desire to return to medieval thinking. It is frequently presented as a revivalist movement: bring back the past. And the call for the veil for women furthers this kind of misleading simplification. If we take the Egyptian city of Asyut as an example, we have to admit that it is a modern town with a totally new cultural feature that Muslim society never knew before: mass access to knowledge. In our history, universities and knowledge were privileges of the elite. The man of knowledge enjoyed a high respect precisely because he was a repository of highly valued and aristocratically gained information. Acquisition of knowledge took years, and often included a period of initiation that compelled the student to roam through Muslim capitals from Asia to Spain for decades. Mass access to universities, therefore, constitutes a total shift in the accumulation, distribution, management and utilization of knowledge and information. And we know that knowledge is power. One of the reasons the fundamentalist will be preoccupied by women is that state universities are not open just for traditionally marginalized and deprived male rural migrants, but for women as well.

Persons under 15 years of age constitute 39 percent of Egypt’s and 45 percent of Iran’s total population. [1] The natural annual population increase in Egypt and Iran is 3.1 percent. [2] The time span for doubling the population is 22 years for Egypt and 23 for Iran. Secondary school enrollment in Iran is 35 percent for women and 54 percent for men. In Egypt 39 percent of women of secondary school age are in fact there, as compared to 64 percent of men. [3] The same trend is to be found in other Muslim societies.

Centuries of women’s exclusion from knowledge have resulted in femininity being confused with illiteracy until a few decades ago. But things have progressed so rapidly in our Muslim countries that we women today take literacy and access to schools and universities for granted. Illiteracy was such a certain fate for women that my grandmother would not believe that women’s education was a serious state undertaking. For years she kept waking my sister and me at dawn to get us ready for school. We would explain that school started exactly three hours after her first dawn prayer, and that we needed only five minutes to get there. But she would mumble, while handing us our morning tea: “You better get yourself there and stare at the wonderful gate of that school for hours. Only God knows how long it is going to last.” She had an obsessive dream: to see us read the Quran and master mathematics. “I want you to read every word of that Quran and I want you to answer my questions when I demand an explanation of a verse. That is how the qadis [Muslim judges] get all their power. But knowing the Quran is not enough to make a woman happy. She has to learn how to do sums. The winners are the ones who master mathematics.” The political dimension of education was evident to our grandmother’s generation.

While a few decades ago the majority of women married before the age of 20, today only 22 percent of that age group in Egypt and 38.4 percent in Iran are married. [4] To get an idea of how perturbing it is for Iranian society to deal with an army of unmarried adolescents one has only to remember that the legal age for marriage for females in Iran is 13 and for males 15. [5] The idea of an adolescent unmarried woman is a completely new idea in the Muslim world, where previously you had only a female child and a menstruating woman who had to be married off immediately so as to prevent dishonorable engagement in premarital sex. The whole concept of patriarchal honor was build around the idea of virginity, which reduced a woman’s role to its sexual dimension: to reproduction within early marriage. The concept of an adolescent woman, menstruating and unmarried, is so alien to the entire Muslim family system that it is either unimaginable or necessarily linked with fitna (social disorder). The Arab countries are a good example of this demographic revolution in sex roles.

Space and Sex Roles

Young men, faced with job insecurity or failure of the diploma to guarantee access to the desired job, postpone marriage. Women, faced with the pragmatic necessity to count on themselves instead of relying on the dream of a rich husband, see themselves forced to concentrate on getting an education. The average age at marriage for women and men in most Arab countries has registered a spectacular increase. In Egypt and Tunisia the average age at marriage for women is 22 and for men 27. In Algeria the average age at marriage is 18 for women and 24 for men. In Morocco, Libya, and Sudan women marry at around 19 and men at around 25. The oil countries, known for their conservatism, have witnessed an incredible increase of unmarried youth: age at marriage for women is 20 and for men is 27. And of course nuptiality patterns are influenced by urbanization. The more urbanized youth marry later. In 1980, in metropolitan areas of Egypt the mean age at marriage was 29.7 for males and 23.6 for females. In the urban areas of Upper Egypt, where the fundamentalist movement is strong, the mean age at marriage was 28.3 for men and 22.8 for women. [6]

The conservative wave against women in the Muslim world, far from being a regressive trend, is on the contrary a defense mechanism against profound changes in both sex roles and the touchy subject of sexual identity. The most accurate interpretation of this relapse into “archaic behaviors,” such as conservatism on the part of men and resort to magic and superstitious rituals on the part of women, is as anxiety-reducing mechanisms in a world of shifting, volatile sexual identity.

Fundamentalists are right in saying that education for women has destroyed the traditional boundaries and definitions of space and sex roles. Schooling has dissolved traditional arrangements of space segregation, even in oil-rich countries where education is segregated by sex: simply to go to school women have to cross the street! Streets are spaces of sin and temptation, because they are both public and sex-mixed. And that is the definition of fitna: disorder!

Fundamentalists are right when they talk about the dissolution of women’s traditional function as defined by family ethics; postponed age of marriage forces women to turn pragmatically toward education as a means for self-enhancement. If one looks at some of the education statistics, one understands why newly urbanized and educated rural youth single out university women as enemies of Islam, with its tradition of women’s exclusion from knowledge and decision making. The percentage of women teaching in Egyptian universities was 25 percent in 1981. To get an idea of how fast change is occurring there, one only has to remember that in 1980 the percentage of women teaching in American universities was 24 percent and it was 25 percent in the Democratic Republic of Germany. [7] Even in conservative Saudi Arabia, women have invaded sexually segregated academic space: they are 22 percent of the university faculty there. Women are 18 percent of the university faculty in Morocco, 16 percent in Iraq, and 12 percent in Qatar. [8]

What dismays the fundamentalists is that the era of independence did not create an all-male new class. Women are taking part in the public feast. And that is a definite revolution in the Islamic concept of both the state’s relation to women and women’s relation to the institutionalized distribution of knowledge.



[1] 1983 World Population Data Sheet (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau).
[2] Ibid.
[3] “People’s Wallchart,” People’s Magazine, vol. 12 (1985).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] World Fertility Survey, No. 42, “The Egyptian Survey,” November 1983.
[7] Annuaire Statistique (Paris: UNESCO, 1980).
[8] Ibid.

How to cite this article:

Fatima Mernissi "Muslim Women and Fundamentalism," Middle East Report 153 (July/August 1988).

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