Morocco: Unlikely Revolutionaries: Moroccan Government Empowers Women as Spiritual Guides

Publication Date: 
June 4, 2010
Photo Credit: Charlotte Mangin

The Moroccan government has unleashed its latest weapon in the crusade against extremist interpretations of Islam -- female religious leaders. The government hopes that women might spread a more balanced and tolerant version of Islam.n May of 2006, a normally all-male seminary graduated its first class of murshidats, or . The fifty newly trained women were assigned to mosques throughout the capital city of Rabat to carry out their mission: answering religious questions, improving literacy programs, and providing practical guidance on the Mudawwana, the recently-reformed family law which now grants women equal rights in marriage, divorce, and the ownership of property.

Women murshidats are empowered to do everything that the male clergy does, except lead Friday prayers, the most sacred of ceremonies. This is a primary reason they've been given title of "murshidats," or "guides" rather than "imams," or "leaders."

This new phenomenon, unprecedented in the Arab world, is part and parcel of the sweeping political and social changes that Morocco has undergone in the past decade under the leadership of King Mohammed VI, duly appointed as both the head of state and Amir al-Mu'minin or the "Commander of the Faithful" in 1999 upon the death his father, King Mohammed V.

But why has the government decided to do this, and why now?

On March 16th, 2003, extremist Islamic groups attacked Jewish and Western targets in Casablanca, rudely reminding the Moroccan people of their vulnerability to radical Islam. In response to this, the government closed thousands of mosques, previously led by self-proclaimed imams. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs decided to closely monitor religious training and the religious content of textbooks, to make sure they are consistent and conform to a more moderate form of Islam. The very presence of women in such powerful positions -- as murshidats -- is a symbol of this new approach.

Moroccan women have responded with both praise and skepticism on this new state mandated shift. One such skeptic is Nadia Yassine, a prominent leader in the Islamist movement. Discounting the female murshidats as "civil servants who serve as window dressing for the King's agenda," she rejects the autocratic rule of the Monarchy and its pro-western orientation. She has called for a switch to a non-autocratic, Islamic Republic. For Yassine, Muslim women will only be liberated through a return to the original teachings of the Prophet and not by imitating a Western model of liberation.

Muslim feminists, on the other hand, support a more moderate interpretation of the Koran. They believe an interpretation set forth by men will only keep women away from the centers of power. For them, a murshidat's role is not simply to practice religion, but to guide the way society is run. Having women run mosques is, therefore, crucial and potentially socially transformative. While female murshidats do not necessarily see themselves as political reformers, feminists point to their symbolic importance.

With women squarely in place and supported by the government as murshidats, the world now waits and watches to see whether indeed this reform will combat -- or escalate -- extremist interpretations of Islam and transform Moroccan society.

Photographs from a film that looks at the first female graduates of the imam academy in Rabat, Morocco.