Not long ago, a woman confided a terrible secret to Zineb Hidra. Her husband, she whispered, was an alcoholic. He spent the young family’s money on liquor, and beat her when he was drunk. One day he would hurt their children, she feared, or worse.
Hidra listened calmly, but when she answered, her voice burned with conviction.
‘I told her that she must try to get him help,’ Hidra says. ‘And then I insisted that if he didn’t change, she must divorce him.’
Those might not sound like radical words, but in some parts of the world, this advice is nothing short of revolutionary.
As a mourchida, she is one of the now hundreds of women that the Moroccan government has trained and employed as female clerics. They are experts in Islamic law and tradition, who are equipped with the power — and a deep knowledge of the Quran — that allows them to promote and defend women’s rights.
Hidra works at the Aïn Chock mosque, located in a busy, working-class neighbourhood of Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city.
Her domain is the women’s section: a long rectangle of a room above the men-only main sanctuary, where plastic chairs line the edges of the worn carpets, and a wall of shuttered windows face the qibla, a compass that points in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
Hidra has a doctorate in Islamic studies, and though the Quran prohibits women from leading prayers, her responsibilities are otherwise similar to those of an imam: she teaches lessons, offers counsel, consoles the sick and bereaved.
As a mourchida, her job is to promote the education and protect the rights of her female congregants, primarily by teaching them what scripture does and does not say about women’s status, but also by educating them about health care and legal rights, among other subjects.
‘You really live [the women’s] problems,’ adds 33-year-old Fatima Ait Said, who works at the Makka mosque in Rabat. ‘It’s not a simple job that you do just to earn money. It has to be a vocation.’
I insisted that if he didn’t change, she must divorce him.
The mourchidat program was born as a response to extremism.
In 2003, fourteen suicide bombers —most of them between 20 and 23 years old —from Sidi Moumen, a shanty town on the northwest edge of Casablanca, blew themselves up at several sites, including a Spanish restaurant and a Jewish cemetery — in an attack aimed at Jews and foreigners that ended up killing 33 civilians.
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.
They would learn how to identify and help correct religious beliefs that clashed with Morocco’s official version of Islam, both at home and abroad. The program would serve as a sort of inoculation, it was thought, against radicalisation.
It also dovetailed nicely with the wave of reforms designed to improve the status of Moroccan women Mohammed VI has initiated. The same year as the Casablanca attacks, the king invited a female scholar to deliver a palace lecture during Ramadan — the first time a woman had even been permitted in the room, let alone as a speaker.
In 2004, the government revised the family code, setting the minimum age for marriage at 18 years old, giving women the right to divorce, and the legal authority to sign their own marriage contracts, rather than requiring a male guardian to do so. Mohammed VI admitted a woman to the ulema, the nation’s supreme religious authority.
Then in 2005, the first training program for mourchidat (for women) and mourchidin (for men) launched in the cosmopolitan capital, Rabat. The 50 women and 100 men admitted were scrupulously selected—requirements included a bachelor’s degree and memorisation of half (for women) or all (for men) of the Quran, Islam’s central religious text.
Once enrolled, they studied theology and law, but also philosophy, history, comparative religions and psychology. The government guaranteed that all graduates would be placed in jobs at mosques around the country.
Since its launch, the number of women admitted annually to the program has doubled, and the school has been so successful that it moved from headquarters in a medieval madrassa on the edge of Rabat’s old city to a gleaming new campus by the university. The program, which now draws students from across Africa and parts of Europe, has proven wildly popular; nearly 2000 people — half of them women — applied this year for the 250 slots.
‘Every year, two or three men drop out,’ says Abdelsalam Lazar, the director of the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams and Preachers. ‘But never any women. They’re more serious.’
That seriousness is on display in the afternoon sessions held for foreign students — mostly from Africa, but also from France and other countries with sizeable Muslim populations — who may still be struggling to learn Arabic or memorise the Quran.
Siham Boutaibi, a student who was born in Lille, France to parents who had emigrated from Morocco, focuses intently on the reading, but smiles with the wattage of someone who clearly loves what she’s doing.
‘I always wanted to be a teacher, but in France you’re discriminated against if you wear the hijab,’ she says, pointing to her own rust-coloured veil. ‘There’s a demand that you have to change yourself in order to study. Here, I didn’t have to make that choice. And it’s exciting, because women will train the next generation.’
As ambassadors-in-training for moderate Islam, Soutaibi and her classmates learn that Islam embraces peaceful coexistence among faiths, rather than dominance over so-called infidels, and sees jihad as more of an internal spiritual struggle than war against non-believers.
They also learn that the faith itself does not discriminate against women — that any differences stem from the social roles assigned by tradition.
‘We are all the same in Islam,’ Boutaibi says, as her recitation class ends, and she gathers her books to run off to the campus gym — women can use it for only an hour, starting at 4:30pm.
As the limited workout slots suggests, the Institute itself is not perfectly egalitarian. In addition to fewer hours access to the gym, the women keep to the back rows of the lecture halls. And once they have graduated, none of them can become imams. Some critics, like the prominent feminist Islamic scholar and physician Asma Lamrabat have contended that the program still reproduces a ‘patriarchal message.’
Yet as Dr. Ann Marie Wainscott, political scientist at Miami University, points out equality is not really the point of the program.
‘The training the mourchidat receive is quite good, and like all state employment, the jobs they get afterward are stable and well-paid,’ she explains. ‘So in that sense, it increases their status. 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.’
Back at the Makka mosque, 33-year-old mourchida Ait Said deflects a question about whether she would become an imam if she could.
‘There is no example of women imams in the Quran,’ she says. ‘Please, it’s like asking me if I want to go to Mars.’
Still, the fact that the programme is not designed to make a decisive case for absolute equality, does not mean that the change in women’s roles and rights isn’t still hugely impressive.
Ait Said, for example, has organised women’s health clinics at the mosque for women who might not otherwise get medical checkups, and brought in experts to talk about women’s role in society. For the women in her mosque, she serves as both counsellor and advocate — an important role in a country where few social services exist for women struggling with domestic abuse, depression, or sheer exhaustion from child rearing.
One day in early May, Ait Said asked for some feeback on what her congregation felt that they had gained from her as a mourchida.
One middle-aged woman said that Ait Said has taught her to read the Quran; another interjected to say she had learned to pray.
‘Fatima taught me how to use a phone!’ chimed in an elderly woman in a pink head scarf, provoking laughter from the other women.
But it is Zorah, a young mother, whose response received the most approving nods. ‘She has taught me how to solve conflict,’ she said quietly.
Ait Said recognises that men in her culture exercise greater authority — just as she recognises that it is men who are more likely to act violently or embrace extremist ideas. But she sees her work among women as a kind of soft power.
‘Women are the heart of the family, it is they who shape behaviour,’ she says, ‘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.’
The program has also given Ait Said greater confidence in herself. A former student of economics, she gave the profession up because her family didn’t think it was suitable work for a woman. Now, however, married to a supportive husband, with two children of her own and years of experience as a teacher and leader under her belt, she’s thinking of returning to her economic studies.
‘Why not?’ she says. ‘It’s my dream.’
The mourchidat know that their job doesn’t just involve raising the status of women. Extremism continues to fester in the country, with roughly 1600 Moroccans believed to have travelled to the Islamic State’s “caliphate” at the height of the group’s reign. In one of the Casablanca schools where she teaches, Hidra has had success persuading boys who appeared to be radicalising to reject more extreme beliefs.
And at her mosque, she is constantly on the lookout for extremist texts that women may have brought back from pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia.
In this respect, she (and the other female clerics) is also the first line of defence against extremism.
Hidra hopes that other countries will adopt the mourchidat program (Turkey already has launched a similar initiative). And she has personal ambitions as well; she’s editing her thesis for publication, and recently began studying psychology in the hopes of becoming a psychologist.
Asked if she considers herself a feminist, she hesitates. ‘Feminists care about the rights of women,’ she smiles. ‘And we also care about the rights of women. Just from a different point of view, an Islamic point of view.’
She pauses to embrace a congregant, then turns back with a modest smile. ‘What I like is to help women to be free.’