Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, professor emerita of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies who taught for 24 years at The University of Texas at Austin, died Dec. 2 at the age of 81.
Known as “B.J.” to her friends and family, Fernea was a noted writer, filmmaker and scholar of women’s issues in the Middle East. Her bestselling memoir “Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village” (1965), details her cultural immersion into the lives of the women of Al-Nahra when she accompanied her husband Robert there for his doctoral field study.
The couple also lived in Egypt and Morocco and Fernea wrote two other autobiographical books about her experiences, including “A View of the Nile” and “A Street in Marrakech.”
Fernea joined the university as a senior lecturer in 1975 shortly after Robert became director of the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. She was chairwoman of the university’s Women’s Studies Program from 1980 to 1983 before retiring in 1999.
Her scholarly books include “Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak,” “Women and Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change,” “In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman’s Global Journey” and “Remembering Childhood in the Middle East.” She co-authored “The Arab World: Personal Encounters” (reissued as “The Arab World: Forty Years of Change”) and “Nubian Ethnographies” with her husband.
In addition to her prolific career as a writer, Fernea also was an avid film producer, earning two National Endowment for the Humanities grants for her work. Her films include “Saints and Spirits,” “Reformers and Revolutionaries: Middle Eastern Women,” “The Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians,” “The Road to Peace: Israelis and Palestinians” and “Living with the Past.”
“B.J. helped forge an international reputation for the university’s Middle Eastern studies program,” Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, said. “Her passion for women’s issues in the Middle East was inspiring to all who knew her, and she will be fondly remembered as a friend and colleague.”
Fernea earned a bachelor’s degree from Reed College in Portland. The State University of New York at Plattsburg awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1994.
She is survived by her husband Robert, daughters Laura Ann and Laila, son David and several grandchildren. A memorial service will be held early next week at St. Austin’s Catholic Church.
For more information, contact the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at 512-471-3881.
Share your memories of Professor Fernea at ShelfLife@Texas.