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  • Islamist Feminism in Morocco(Re)defining the Political Sphere
  • Meriem El Haitami (bio)


Religious trends in Moroccan feminism emerged as a result of the changing sociopolitical scene marked by the rise of political Islam in post-independence Morocco. Islamist movements began to play a significant role in attracting a broad following and absorbing women’s growing demands to be more engaged in political life. They advocate women’s rights while being inspired by religious principles; this, according to Fatima Sadiqi, is a “feminist act” as it allows women’s entry into the historically male-dominated structures.1 Sadiqi further argues that the fact that religious feminism in Morocco was not conceived as a reaction to liberal feminism makes rapprochement possible and constructs polyvocal expressions of political activism.2

In 2011 female Islamist activists gained particularly legitimacy in the context of the Arab Spring, which brought the conservative Party of Justice and Development (pjd) into power. The latter has contributed to a shift from the elite liberal state feminism to a more legitimate religious activism, and has introduced new spaces for contention, such as the emerging nuanced female political and civic expression(s) as well as the prospects for Islamist and secular women’s movements to cooperate and negotiate in order to ensure a democratic approach to gender issues. Therefore this article explores how Islamist women are positioning themselves vis-à-vis universal debates of democratization and women’s rights, especially when a number of academic studies suggest that Islamist or more accurately “post-Islamist” movements are not necessarily anti-democratic.3 Rather, such movements may figure as important forces toward a more democratic transition.

Beginning with an overview of Islamist women’s participation as party members and political actors, this article addresses opportunities and impediments to Islamist women’s political integration in Morocco’s official political [End Page 74] sphere in the context of the Arab Spring. I argue that despite Islamist women’s increased insertion into the political sphere, they must yet negotiate two primary political fronts. Islamist women are underrepresented in government due to the resistance of male Islamist political leaders, and this limits the women activists’ influence over governance and policy making and perpetuates the long-standing institutionalized gender-based inequalities. Additionally, Islamist women activists who hope to shape new roles for women in Morocco must also contend with the hegemonic discourses of liberal political groups.

The present study draws on ethnographic fieldwork I conducted over the course of two years as part of my doctoral research on women’s religious authority and activism in contemporary Morocco, in which I explore the interplay between religion and politics and how that impacts gender discourses and reconceptualizes debates on Islamic feminism and the modalities of Moroccan Islam. Fieldwork methodologies have entailed interviews with female religious and political actors in a variety of settings as well as observing their different dynamics in different religious and social structures. This essay lays particular emphasis on women’s role within Islamist movements based on the review of various media articles found through the internet and scholarship on the interplay between Islamism and women’s political participation. I limit my analysis to two major groups: the Party of Justice and Development and the Justice and Charity movement (al-Adl wal-Ihsan, also called Justice and Spirituality, js). Though these two groups share a similar vision of Islamizing Moroccan society, they have divergent political stances. I maintain that both groups reconceptualize public religion and promote women’s participation in politics; however, post–Arab Spring changes were not necessarily directed toward the long sought gender equality. Therefore, despite the Arab Spring having brought to the fore Islamist women’s expressions of activism, they are still not achieving equal gains in more formal processes of political action, and their voices have been sidelined under hegemonic state structures.

the party of justice and development: islamist feminism redefined

The Party of Justice and Development (pjd) was officially formed in 1998, out of the Unity and Reform movement, and became a political force when it won 42 out of 295 seats in the 2002 national legislative elections.4 The pjd accepts the monarchy’s legitimacy and acts within the state...


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pp. 74-91
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