By Tamba François Koundouno
Jan 31, 2019
Rabat – “Not long ago, a woman confided a terrible secret to Zineb Hidra,” starts an Elle article on the new wave of female Moroccan Islamic clerics impacting the lives of women.
“Hidra,” the article continued, “listened calmly, but when she answered, her voice burned with conviction.”
As one of the mourchida, the beneficiaries of a recent program launched under the auspices of King Mohammed VI to train women in Islamic law and tradition, Hidra’s tasks at the Ain Chock mosque in Casablanca include teaching lessons, offering counsel, and consoling the sick and bereaved.
Trained in theology, history, philosophy, psychology, and Islamic law at the Mohammed VI Institute in Rabat, the mourchida are given license to deliver on religious matters, especially topics pertaining to the status of women in the Islamic tradition.
Although prohibited from leading prayers, the responsibilities of a mourchida are “otherwise similar to those of an imam,” the article noted.
Investing In Tolerant Islam
A response to the proliferation of extremism post-2001, the mourchida initiative is part of broader reforms launched by King Mohammed VI to safeguard Morocco’s tradition of open and tolerant Islam.
The need to arm the country’s clerics with solid theological foundations became more pressing after a terrorist attack in Casablanca in 2003.
“In a country that had long prided itself on its tolerant interpretation of Islam, the devastating attack convinced Morocco’s head of government, King Mohammed VI, to create a program to train spiritual guides,” Elle elaborated.
But the need for spiritual guides also “dovetailed” with an even more pressing need to revise women’s status in society. A year after the Casablanca terrorist strike, the country revised its Family Code, raising the minimum female marriage age to 18 and granting women the right to divorce.
“I told her that she must try to get him help. And then I insisted that if he didn’t change, she must divorce him,” Hidra said of the woman who confided the “terrible secret” about an abusive and alcoholic husband.
But female spiritual guides do not only work on education and awareness-raising about women’s status. Well versed in Islamic texts and armed with robust training in subjects like philosophy and psychology, they are constantly on the lookout to detect and curb extremism. With its emphasis on Islam as a tolerant religion and jihad as an internal struggle, the Mohammed VI Institute is “a sort of inoculation against radicalization,” according to Elle.
The success of Morocco’s initiative has resonated with many countries. France and a sizable number of sub-Saharan countries are sending their next generation of imams to be trained at the Rabat institute.
Like Nigeria and Mali, the other countries well-represented in the institute’s student body, France seeks to import Morocco’s successful model of a diversity-friendly and anti-radicalization state-sponsored Islam.
Despite the success of the program in revising a number of traditional social codes on women’s rights, it is hard to categorize the program’s working philosophy as feminist.
While from the inside graduates and trainees show reluctance to be labelled feminists, outside critics, without writing off the program’s relative success in advancing women’s status, doubt its commitments to radically transforming the lot of Moroccan women.
Asma Lamrabat, a renowned Moroccan female cleric who recently resigned from the Muhammadia League of Scholars or the Ulema, Morocco’s highest ranking religious body, said that the program still has a patriarchal undercurrent.
Ann Marie Wainscott, a Miami University political scientist, agreed with Lamrabat. She told Elle that it is doubtful whether gender equality is the program’s real agenda.
”The training the Mourchidat receive is quite good, and like all state employment, the jobs they get afterward are stable and well-paid. So in that sense, it increases their status,” Wainscott said. She elaborated, “But the creation of the Mourchidat was first and foremost a strategic move on the part of the Moroccan government to extend the reach of the religious bureaucracy. It’s not really about empowering women.”
Asked whether she would become an imam if granted the permission, Mourchidat Fatima Ait Said, from the Makka Mosque in Rabat, shrugged off the question. “There is no example of women imams in the Quran.”
But that the Mourchidat program is not strictly egalitarian is no reason to whitewash the “hugely impressive” and “revolutionary” changes it has made in the lives of many women, the article remarked.
By instilling confidence in female clerics to take on some of the burning issues of Moroccan society by providing much-needed social, psychological, and religious support to women in need, the program has paid dividends in the lives of many, Ait Sad explained.
She said, “Women are the heart of the family, it is they who shape behaviour. The most important thing we do as Mourchidat is transmit ideas to them, so that women can become the solution to problems. The men will follow.”
Labels should not be the point, Hidra said, explaining that categories like “feminist” often fail to capture the impact of the work Mourchidat are doing. What should matter, Hidra contends, is the actual struggle for the rights of women, especially those in need of support.
“Feminists care about the rights of women…. And we also care about the rights of women. Just from a different point of view, an Islamic point of view,” she said.