Morocco’s Female Imams

Earlier this year, and with great fanfare, the Moroccan government announced that it had just completed the training of the first class of ‘murchidates,’ women religious leaders, at Dar Al-Hadith Al-Hassania, a seminary normally reserved for males. The women of the class of 2006 will be assigned to mosques. Their tasks will be to answer religious questions, help with literacy programs, provide legal guidance on the recently-reformed family law, the Moudawwana, and so on. They will not, however, be able to lead prayer (this is why they are not called ‘imamat,’ but ‘murchidates’, i.e. ‘guides.’) As has been pointed out in a million and one press releases, the appearance of official, state-sanctioned murchidates is a first in the Arab world.

This is a good step forward. I support the training of these women, and hope, someday very soon, that they, too, will be allowed to lead prayers. (Let the hate mail begin.) There are, however, a number of questions that arise from this move, including: Why the government decided to do this, why do it now, how do the religious parties view this move, what the women hope to achieve, how their male classmates react, etc.

Some of these questions were addressed in a Wide Angle documentary that aired on PBS last night. The film, “Class of 2006,” was produced by Charlotte Mangin and directed by Gini Reticker, and it was shot during four brief weeks in May, in time for its July 2006 airdate. Visually, I found it slightly uninspired. For example, I didn’t recognize my hometown of Rabat, where Dar Al-Hadith is located. There were far too many shots of the stereotypical Morocco: turbaned men, crowded souks, tall minarets, old monuments, the medina, the tannery in Fez, the desert at sunset, even dromedaries (the first time I saw a dromedary was on the back of a Camel pack of cigarettes; the second was at the zoo. But somehow, every movie about Morocco features them.)

But beyond all the tourist clichés, there were some very interesting segments and some stunning contrasts between the women featured in this film. The main character was Samira Marzouk, a twenty-nine year old woman who had always been interested in religion and, when she was told by her father about the program, jumped on the opportunity to enroll. She had just gotten married the year before, and her husband looked on very proudly during the interviews and the graduation ceremony. Marzouk seemed full of energy and eager to start her tenure at the mosque she had been assigned to, but she was gently chastised by a Moroccan TV journalist for being ‘naive,’ for not understanding that the government was using her. I think, though, that Marzouk does realize the PR aspect of this, but somehow prefers to stay focused on what she can achieve through her own work of counseling at mosques.

Dr. Rajaa Naji El Mekkaoui, a tenured professor of law at Université Mohamed-V, was one of the most articulate and thoughtful of the people interviewed. Dr. El Mekkaoui is the first woman to deliver a religious lecture before the king as part of the Ramadan lecture series broadcast on TV. She is also one of the women who was brought in to train the imams and murchidates, and encountered some resistance from the male students. She had to convince them, through her own work and scholarship, that there is a basis for the training of their female classmates.

Fouzia Assouli, a feminist activist who has been involved with women’s rights for quite some time, was also a great interview subject. She currently serves as secretary general of the Ligue des Droits de la Femme, and has spearheaded literacy and legal rights training programs. Assouli has seen the work of organizations such as hers become more difficult as Wahhabi ideology gained ground in Morocco. Because she was one of the few women interviewed who had no direct connection with the program (either as a student or as a teacher), she provided a more dispassionate perspective on things. One point she made was that when she and her colleagues pushed for reforms they were often rebuffed and told they were trying to import imperialist deas.

Nadia Yassine, the spokesperson for the islamist group Justice and Charity, made precisely this point, unintentionally of course. For example, she derided the literacy programs that the government and NGOs have been conducting with older women, saying (I am paraphrasing here): “They teach them to read A, B, C. What is that? That’s just enough to know how to read ‘Coca-Cola’ and go buy it. This is an imperialist move.” She then went on to say that, in her view, women in their 40s and 50s and 60s should be sacrificed, and the focus should be on the younger generation. There can be no argument, of course, with the idea that Morocco needs a wide, grass-roots campaign for literacy. But deriding those programs that target older people was really quite troubling. I wonder if the women who are benefiting from such programs (some of whom were interviewed as well) share Yassine’s view that they should be “sacrificed.” I should also point out that one of Morocco’s greatest writers, Mohamed Choukri, was illiterate until the age of 20, and by the end of his life had written several novels and become the chair of the Arabic department at his college in Tangier. Such a man would have been “sacrificed” under Yassine’s plans.

I have more to say, but I really have to cut this short. I just wanted to give those people who had missed the documentary an idea about what it was like. I think it will be available for streaming on the program’s page very soon. You can also read an online conversation at the Washington Post with the producer and director of ‘Class of 2006’