- Embedded CounterpublicsWomen and Islamic Revival in Morocco
In 2002 the Moroccan Parliament experienced an unprecedented event. Women won thirty-five seats, representing 10 percent of the total seats. Six of those seats occupied by women were representing the Party of Justice and Development (al-Adala w-al-Tanmia), the newly authorized Islamist party. In the public mind the presence of veiled women in the Parliament carried significant weight, as the press then began to grapple with the importance of gender. On the one hand, this had bearing on “state liberalization.”1 On the other was the fight against “terror.”2 But even prior to the 2002 elections, women were already active participants in the Islamic revival movement—seeking a more important role for the Sharia in everyday life—and were already at the center of political debates about the state’s reform of the religious field, to which several ministerial decisions bear witness.
For instance, in the year 2000 the Ministry of Endowment and Islamic Affairs endorsed women’s demands to be awarded space and time for their lectures in mosques. According to Fatema Najjar, a high school teacher and a renowned wa’ida (preacher), one hundred women were officially appointed to mosques in the city of Casablanca alone. This regulation of women’s informal gatherings in mosques continued with the opening of state schools in 2005, for training women as morshidates (religious guides), and with the appointment in 2004 of 104 women to serve on various religious councils.3 Among the thirty-six women appointed to the ‘ulama’s (theologians’) regional councils, several did not have a degree in Islamic theology and jurisprudence, necessary for the title ‘alim (theologian). These appointments preceded the much acclaimed reform of family law of October 2004, which was the culmination of two decades of feminist mobilization to institute gender equality in marriage, divorce, and child custody. Liberal feminist demands for gender equality put the Islamic Sharia in conversation with the international conventions on women’s rights, enabling a major reform of Moroccan women’s status in [End Page 47] the new Family Code of 2004. Issues of gender in Islam have also been discussed from the perspective of building Islamic alternatives in private spaces opened by women in their homes and the schooling system, since early 1980s. Rather than focusing on the public debate about family law, which was the focus of several studies, in this article I investigate the spaces opened by a young generation of high school students residing in urban areas during the early 1980s and coming into contact with a widespread literature produced in the emerging Islamist circles in Morocco and in the broader context of the Middle East.4 Some of these young students joined proper Islamist movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s to form the current women’s leadership of the two main Islamist movements in Morocco: al-Adl wal-Ihsan, or Justice and Spirituality (js); and al-Tawhid wal-Islah, or Unification and Reform (ur).
As research on Morocco has shown, these two movements are inspired by the teaching of the Muslim Brotherhood but are divided on the importance of the Sufi tradition, notably the allegiance to a spiritual guide, which is prominent in the js.5 They also differ in their relationship with the palace; the king’s legitimacy is recognized by the ur and rejected by the js, at the cost of being excluded from formal political institutions. The two movements are similar in that they have developed formal women’s organizations and a large base that remains active to this day in the arenas of literacy, philanthropy, legal counseling, health care, union organizing, and self-help groups. In the case of the ur, the women’s leadership entered the Parliament for the first time in 2002, with six members.
I consider the appointment of some of these women to the ‘ulama’s councils as the state recognition of the importance of women’s voices in the religious field. These appointments, which occurred a few months after the Casablanca bombing attacks by a radicalized Islamist group on May 16, 2003, also indicated the contingencies of the global “war...