Moroccan Female Religious Leaders Featured on PBS’ Wide Angle

By Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute,

Last week’s episode of PBS’ “Wide Angle” chronicled the newest program in Morocco’s path towards reform. “Class of 2006” told the story of Morocco’s first official female religious leaders, or murchidates. Fifty women graduated along side their male counterparts from the year of intensive religious studies. The film follows a couple of women through the final stages of the process and into their new posts where they will serve as teachers and counselors in local mosques.

As someone who lived and studied in Morocco, I was not surprised by the story of these women. I have seen the strength, courage, and conviction of ordinary Moroccan women; so unlike what is usually portrayed in the West.. The changes occurring in Morocco would not be possible without these women. However, the initiative must be placed in context before predicting its success.

As the film showed, much of the motive behind the King’s initiative was political. Seeking to secure his own power, he has used the issue of female empowerment to rally support. However, I believe this is a sign of the female empowerment that had already been born in Morocco. Only in showing their strength did the King realize the potential influence women could have in Moroccan politics and society. Therefore, I think to portray these women as pawns in the King’s political game is to drastically underestimate the power of persuasion women already have in Morocco. In addition, as one can see in the film, the murchidates, themselves, refuse to bow to the political motives of the initiative; instead they courageously seek to serve their fellow Muslims and God.

Another motive for the initiative that the film highlighted was the hope that having females serving in mosques would curb extremism. I’m not sure that it will succeed at this, as extremism is rarely spread in the mosques in Morocco. In fact, from my experience, Moroccan society inherently shuns extremists. Where I lived in Fez, there was one building that housed “Saudis” (which I took to mean Saudi-influenced Moroccans). I recognized them because them because the men wore Saudi white robes and the women wore black head to toe. Many times, I was warned not to go near them, and I soon realized that Moroccans, in general, avoided and shunned them. Therefore, I’m not sure if women working in mosques curb extremism.

However, as the film showed, one area where the murchidates will play a vital role is educating women about the new family code reforms. The reforms to the Moudawana, or Family Code, were the result of a long struggle of women’s groups to update the law to reflect Morocco’s modern and Islamic identity. The new code as compared to the former code provides women the rights guaranteed to them by Islam but which were taken away by traditional practices. The murchidates will help women understand these rights and ensure that women are protected as Islam has envisioned.

Two issues that the film did not adequately address were Moroccan men’s general opinion of the women and how their male classmates viewed and treated them. In my research about female members of Parliament, I was encouraged by the many men who had a positive opinion about females serving in Parliament, and I can only hope that they have the same opinion when it comes to women serving in mosques.

I encourage readers to check out the Wide Angle website for clips and more information about the initiative. Also, check out the Washington Post’s online discussion with the director and producer of the film.

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