|Biographical detail : ||Dr Fatima Meer's death brings to a close a remarkable life: a courageous, selfless, independent-minded scholar-activist, never afraid to speak out and always ready to act on her words.
In the 1950s, still at a young age, she became an executive member of the Natal Indian Congress, and would share political platforms with such renowned figures as Yusuf Dadoo. She founded, early in that decade, the Durban and District Women’s League in an effort to restore relations between Indians and Africans – relations which had broken down during the Cato Manor violence of 1949.
In 1954 she was one of the first South Africans, and the first woman, to be placed under a banning order – a two- year banning which confined her to Durban and prevented her from attending gatherings. She would spend 12 years of her life under such orders, being banned again from 1976 to 1985.
She was a founder member of the Federation of South African Women, which in 1956, soon after its establishment, organised the famous women’s march to Pretoria in protest against the imposition of pass laws on women. She campaigned in the 1950s and 1960s against group areas removals, and against detention without trial.
In 1976 she was detained without trial for six months after trying to organise a rally with Steve Biko. Soon after her release from prison she survived an assassination attempt. There would also be two arson attacks on her Durban home.
A South African of international renown she was accorded due recognition around the world: a 1990 award from the American Muslim Council for her struggle against oppression and racial discrimination; awards in India in 1994 and 2003 – one for her contribution to human rights, another for promoting the prestige of India and for fostering the interests of Indians overseas. At the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004 she served as one of six distinguished international jurors for the World Court of Women on US War Crimes.
Fatima Meer's reflections on her status as a professional woman in the Islamic community:
"The liberating dimensions of the Qur'an are often suppressed by patriarchal control in Islam."
Indian and Muslim
Fatima Meer espoused many of the values and religious practices evident in the home of her childhood. Born into an 'extended' family in Durban, she was the daughter of Moosa Ismail Meer and his second wife, Rachel Farrell.
"My biological mother was white, being of Jewish and Portuguese descent. After her marriage to my father, it was as though her ancestral roots never existed. She was given the Muslim name of Amina. Although baptised a Christian, she became a dedicated Muslim, spoke fluent Gujarati and affirmed the Indian customs of our home."
Meer spoke of the early religious influences on her life:
"From an early age I was exposed to both ritual and rationalist Islam. Women are not required to attend the mosque, being expected to practise their rituals privately. My two mothers saw to it that I did just that. They made me read the Qur'an, say my prayers and attend Madressa."
Her father had a far more rationalist approach to religion and she eventually adopted his outlook on things.
"He created a milieu within which it became natural for me to question, on the basis of scholarly work and a careful reading of the Qur'an, many of the imposed practices of Islam. I soon came to believe that there is no contradiction between rational truth and Qur'anic truth. The one must find the other. Neither do I see an essential contradiction between being a modern woman and a Muslim."
Clearly influenced by her father, she insisted that the 'two Islams' of her childhood, never created a serious tension in her life. A critical reading of the Muslim tradition was, however, sufficient to enable her to rise above the patriarchal influences of the Mosque.
"To the extent that Islam is an empowering faith that enables me to realise my talents and resources, I can do no other than challenge structures which restrain and oppress women wherever I encounter them."
Her concern was to keep a balance between spirituality and rational thought.
"We cannot reduce the mysteries of life to our rational understanding of things. But neither can we live meaningfully without a thoughtful appropriation of, and response to, religious belief."
"Politics has been part of my life since I was maybe five or six years old. In a strange way it was intertwined with the religiosity of my mothers. As a child I used to ask why I could not sit on certain benches or play on swings reserved for whites. They would reply: 'Don't worry. You will enjoy these things in heaven one day.' That answer did not satisfy me for too long. I wanted the necessities and the good things of life in the here and now."
Her first political speech was delivered while still at high school in 1946, and she was served with her first banning order in 1951. She would eventually suffer a total of twelve years as a banned person. Her passport was withdrawn, she was detained without trial for five months in 1976, her home was fire bombed on two occasions and she survived an assassination attempt. Meer's husband Ismail, who had himself been banned on several occasions, was arrested and charged with treason in 1956.
"I am convinced that we need to rediscover the spiritual centre of our lives. I am a Muslim and find no need to look any further for spiritual resources. Others stand in different traditions and need to utilise their religious resources to develop their own human potential. This is where Mosque, Church, Temple and other religious institutions are so important. They can help people to become complete human beings, to rise above their prejudices and to be themselves. . . Religion is really about people. It is about the process whereby people become fully human, which involves discovering the spiritual essence of our being. For theists this is the Spirit of God."
The Iranian Revolution
In an outspoken manner Meer supported the Iranian revolution. Her book entitled, "Towards Understanding Iran Today", provided a useful summary of her argument.
"There are many things I can criticise in the Iranian revolution and in post-revolutionary Iranian society. What annoys me, however, is the concerted ideological attack on what is conveniently labelled 'Muslim fundamentalism'. So successful was the propaganda campaign against the revolution that the atrocities of the Shah and the exploitation of the poor of Iran by Western business interests were virtually ignored. The Ayatollah and Muslim extremists were blamed for everything. Of course they are not angels. Their rebellion against the existing order in Iran was to my mind, however, not only inevitable, but justified. My concern is to present the other side of the story—the side the West ignores."
Meer argued that the Islamic faith itself was demonised in the process of condemning the excesses of the revolution. This she argued was precisely the kind of ideological intolerance that was destroying the world:
"For me fundamentalism means going back to the basics of something, getting back to the essentials of religion. To ascribe all that has gone wrong in Iran and elsewhere to Islamic fundamentalism is to suggest that at heart Islam is a fanatical, disruptive religion. By implication it means that the West is only prepared to accept a form of Islam which adapts to its demands and standards.
"This is imperialist jingoism. It smacks of talk of colonialism being for the good of the natives! It must be condemned in the strongest possible terms, because it creates a moral milieu within which it becomes acceptable to do almost anything to crush the demon. The dispossession of the Palestinian people, the founding of the exclusivistic Zionist State of Israel and the expectation that Palestinians should accept their violation is a case in point. The average person in the West hears of conflict in Palestine and assumes that the Palestinians are to blame.
"The history of colonialism and religious proselytism has turned people of different cultures, religions and races into enemies. The anti-Islamic hysteria concerning Muslim fundamentalism tells us that the ravages of colonial conquest are not yet over."
The Salman Rushdie Affair
"I accepted an invitation to be part of a Weekly Mail Book Fair in Cape Town, to share in a discussion panel on the Rushdie affair. The anger of the rank and file Muslims in the Cape concerning Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses was, however, such that the Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) called for a boycott of the Book Week. I realised that their passion was charged with faith and that it was a passion that they shared with the vast body of Muslims throughout the world —people who are largely impoverished and oppressed. Such people live and survive by their faith and I felt that I could not isolate myself from them through ivory tower intellectualism. Deliberately to undermine faith goes contrary to my moral intellectual standards. I have always claimed my identity among the oppressed and that is where I again chose to locate myself."
Some have suggested that Meer has become more supportive of Islam and more tolerant of the ulama than she was in the past.
"I don't think this is the case," she insists.
"I am the Muslim I have always been. I am ready to be critical of my religion where and when this is necessary. There are, however, developments in the West which ideologically link capitalism with Christianity.
"These developments have replaced a capitalist fear of communism with a rejection of Islam. The result is a commitment to destroy Islam, particularly when it challenges the West's access to oil. To remain silent in this situation or to allow myself to be used by others to fuel this crusade would go against all that I believe."