Meriem El Haitami. Frontiers. Volume 37, Issue 3. 2016.
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. 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.
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. 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 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. The PJD accepts the monarchy’s legitimacy and acts within the state’s political fabric. It steers clear of any criticism of the wider political system and focuses on social issues such as corruption, education, and the place of women within society, as stressed by Abdelilah Benkirane, the present secretary-general of the PJD and prime minister: “We are a political party which inscribes itself in the framework of the Moroccan state and its constitution. We are not a revolutionary movement.”
On March 12, 2000, the PJD rallied against the proposed family law on religious grounds. Although the PJD’s anti-reform demonstration may seem to pit Islamist activism and women’s rights in strong opposition, the public and engaged presence of Islamist women has contributed to constructing a more complex feminist expression. Therefore voices that are perceived as diverging began to exhibit fluid political subjectivities. According to Zakia Salime, women have occupied a central position in the Islamist countermobilisation. She describes the 2000 march as “a movement moment that enables us to explore the contradictions and tensions but also the intersections among the feminist and the Islamist women’s movements” She thus complicates the Islamist-feminist binary by underscoring the interconnections between these movements and the ways they have shaped each other’s discourses.
Constructing a more formal presence within the political public sphere has increased the party’s popularity, which had a positive effect on the following elections in 2002. In the following year of 2003, the bombings of Casablanca took place. The bombings were used by the leftist parties to discredit the PJD and accuse it of having a hand in terrorism, as stated in a report titled Political Islam and the Moroccan Arab Spring. According to the same report, Saaddine El Othmani (a PJD member and the former minister of foreign affairs) responded:
We know this accusation arose because the Party is a new political actor that quickly became one of the five largest parties in Moroccan politics. … We tried not to respond in turn, choosing instead to wait until the difficult time passed, for the benefit of the Moroccan people. We engaged other actors in internal talks and it soon became clear to the government that the PJD could play an important role in marginalising extremism in Moroccan society.
Khalid Bekkaoui and Ricardo Laremont similarly note that “the state held the PJD as ‘morally responsible’ for the bombing and sought to undermine the party by preventing it from fielding candidates at more than 18 percent of the 1,544 municipalities in elections held during October 2003.”
But soon afterward, the PJD came to be tolerated more. Despite its Islamist leanings, the authors explain, the PJD grew to be seen as an important element in maintaining religious and political diversity in the country; “its existence was therefore considered necessary, especially because of the traditional political parties’ failure in attracting youth to their ranks. Tolerating the PJD was seen as a strategy to undercut the influence of and attraction to radical Islam and globalized fundamentalist ideologies”
The PJD promotes women’s participation as significant political actors; this has involved the creation of women’s networks that are engaged in activism to promote women’s roles within an Islamic paradigm, while being open to global discourses on women’s rights. The women’s networks have engaged in different activities, which include providing structured instruction in religion as well as literacy classes. They also promote women’s social and economic independence and empowerment and engage in national and international debates on women’s rights and the role of the Moroccan Family Code (the mudawwana) in this respect. Women participate in the political process not only as voters and party members but also as elected and appointed representatives. While progress has been made to increase their political representation, there is still a disproportionate absence of women from the political process, which means that women’s participation has not necessarily translated into equality.
Having contested elections since 1997, when it won only eight seats, the PJD has gradually gained popular support throughout Morocco and has grown to become firmly established. The party enjoys support from urban Moroccan university students and middle-class intellectuals and mandates that 15 percent of its internal seats be held by women. In the elections of 2002 and 2007 the PJD had the largest female representation among the candidates for Parliament. In 2002, 36 women figured on the local party list of 224 and 30 on the national list (illustrating the quota system). Six women PJD candidates won parliamentary seats, which was the largest parliamentary representation. In the 2007 elections PJD women parliamentarians succeeded in maintaining their six seats, on par with the Socialist Union of People’s Forces (USFP), which has a similar large female representation in Parliament.
Laurel Rapp notes that election results have been highly positive for female PJD candidates. Yet these female PJD candidates face many electoral challenges that men and non-Islamist female candidates do not face. One of Rapp’s respondents, Fatema Belhassen, a PJD candidate who ran in Tangiers in 2007 and won, explains, “With me, [voters] were experimenting with two things: electing a woman and an Islamist party.” Female PJD candidates also face the challenge of subverting existing socially constructed stereotypes, Rapp says, quoting Bassima Hakkaoui, PJD member and current minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development: “Our activists are pretty representative of Moroccan society… Some among them don’t yet accept that women should hold positions of responsibility”
Although women are incorporated within the party’s structures, Rapp argues that the creation of separate women’s sections serves to marginalize women and reduce “women’s issues” to concerns only women should address. In addition to being vital recruitment organisms, the women’s sections focus their attention on gender-related demands, when discussions of women’s access to positions of decisionmaking remain marginal. Janine Clark and Jillian Schwedler argue that “the introduction of separate, ‘parallel’ women’s sectors reflects the efforts of party leaders to ghettoize women’s activities rather than envision meaningful gender equality within the party.” Undoubtedly women’s sections place women’s issues at the forefront of political debate, which helps advance women’s participation in mainstream political discourse. Yet often these sections define female political action within the context of civic engagement and grassroots mobilization rather than policy making. The latter suggests that nonformal engagement is more accessible to women than institutional decisionmaking positions and thus constructs gendered avenues for political participation and (re)produces gender-based disparities.
Another challenge facing the PJD is their articulation of Islamist ideals that are believed to contravene gender progress and fail to subvert inequalities in the public sphere. Therefore promoting women’s participation is viewed as a way to show commitment to modern and moderate policies, while trying to win more popularity and increase membership. However, since 2003, under the pressure of the state, the party has been redefining its endorsement of Islamist ideals and has adjusted its political stances by adopting a more moderate rhetoric to conform to the official political discourse.
The uprisings that Morocco experienced in 2011 reshuffled political dynamics and generated further fear that once in power, the PJD will reexcavate its Islamist agenda and impede the democratization process; however, neither the PJD nor any other opposition force is able to subvert the established power structures and make significant change as long as ultimate authority remains in the hands of the monarch.
Morocco has been hailed nationally and internationally for its political reform and its commitment to a democratic transition in post-Arab Spring era. This presents the country as a model of incremental democratization and progressive political liberalization, but much of this remains superficial, especially in that the makhzen has ceded none of its powers and the authority of the monarch has remained untouched. Therefore an Islamist government’s influence on political decisionmaking remains highly questionable, especially in that the state-controlled political reform serves only to reinforce the monarchy’s hegemony rather than establishing democracy.
Political Islam and the Moroccan Spring: Reshuffling Dynamics
The Arab uprisings have led to dramatic changes due to people’s great discontent with their authoritarian regimes. In the Middle East and North Africa massive populations have chosen Islamic parties as a substitute for the old corrupt systems. Although Morocco managed to survive the Arab Spring, it could not entirely avoid the turmoil. A number of angry protests took place in major cities and were led by the February 20 Movement, which demanded the right to social equality and democracy and showed discontent with prevailing corruption. King Mohammed VI swiftly responded by drafting a modified constitution, which garnered popular support. The new constitution promised more democracy and protection of human rights. As a consequence, the moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development accomplished victory in the November 2011 parliamentary elections. In an interview with the Jakarta Post, Moroccan ambassador to Indonesia Mohamed Majdi said, “The new constitution enshrines the democratic values of the separation of powers, independent judiciary, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and respect for minorities” He also added, “The new constitution also allows for greater political representation of women, enhanced good governance, accountability, respect for human rights and morality in public life.”
The Arab Spring has contributed to the construction of a “culture of protest” in Moroccan streets, heavily mobilized through social media to subvert authoritarian political structures as well as official discourses on political participation; this has led to the construction of new political subjectivities and political action. Formal political structures have been especially unrepresentative of women’s causes; therefore the streets have emerged as an alternative platform for more popular action. Like their male counterparts, women were involved in marches, rallies, public meetings, and demonstrations with the purpose of advancing not only women’s rights but the rights of all Moroccans. They were also at the forefront of the February 20 Movement; they chanted political slogans, led demonstrations, and spoke in interviews. Beyond this, women’s use of social media in the context of the Arab Spring articulates women’s causes in Morocco, subverts social and gender divisions, and creates new space for civic engagement and political participation.
Female Islamist participation in the Moroccan Spring has also been inspired by the expansion of an Islamist-based model of female activism, which raises questions about the possibility of reconciling Islam with democracy through the political dominance of Islamist parties in the post-Arab Spring era. These new political changes have become threatening to liberal movements, especially in that the emerging female Islamist voices have reshuffled the dynamics of state elite feminism; for the first time in Morocco the veil has made public appearance within the government. This has introduced new spaces for contention, such as the emerging nuanced female political and civic expression(s), as well as prospects for Islamist and liberal women’s movements to negotiate and strategize, in order to ensure a democratic approach to gender issues.
However, although the modified Moroccan constitution recognizes gender equality and equal political representation for women, Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane’s ministerial cabinet included only one female minister. This caused unease among secular-l iberal activists, who viewed it as a decline in women’s rights. Bassima Hakkaoui, the minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development, has expressed her discomfort at being the only woman in the new government, saying she was “annoyed at the decreasing number of women in the Cabinet and wishes it were more,” adding that “political parties did not expend much effort to introduce new female faces who could take responsibility inside the new government” She thus articulates that the parties participating in the government coalition should have nominated more women to serve as ministers and decisionmakers: “If these parties over the past years worked to train their members-men and women-to assume responsibility but now complain that they are unable to put forward women candidates as ministers, they should review their approach to be able to gain from their exerted efforts in this regard” According to Hakkaoui, the under-representation of women in the new government is evidence that the marginalization and exclusion of women still persist, despite the fact that the new constitution promises broader space for a more democratic action:
The constitution acts as a framework so that we do not err democratically in the selection of the ministers. Therefore, we should present Morocco’s glowing face by putting forward highly qualified women that exist in all the Moroccan parties. This government could have made a balance by having women ministers in its formation.
Yet she maintains that her party followed a democratic approach in selecting its ministers and gave a result that no one contested. Likewise, in an interview with PJD member Iman El-Yaacoubi, she said that the party “democratically elects its ministers” and that “the women of the party participate in these procedures and the appointment of one female minister from our ranks was a democratic choice made by all the members of the party, regardless of gender” She added that “for years our party has had the most female representation in parliament which shows the explicit trust the party has in women, but choosing the ministers has to take into account the ministries the party won and not their gender.”
In a different interview Hakkaoui stated that women are still viewed as unwelcome intruders: “Within the parties themselves it’s mostly about power. And of course, men defend their constituencies against all competition at any price. Women are simply viewed as ‘intruders.’ In this respect I don’t see any connection between politics and society, on the contrary: Society is demanding greater rights for women, while there are some men in positions of power who have a problem sharing this political power with women.”
Based on these stances, Nadia Guessous argues in her article “Having a Conversation on Other Terms: Gender and the Politics of Representation in the New Moroccan Government” that Hakkaoui is both confirming and problematizing the secular-l iberal fear that an Islamist-l ed government will result in a decline in women’s rights:
The drop in women’s representation could indeed be interpreted as proof that Islamists want to confine women to their homes and keep them out of politics. However, the fact that none of the PJD’s coalition partners including the nationalist Istiqlal party and the socialist pps (Party of Progress and Socialism) fought hard enough for their women candidates challenges this claim. After all, only the PJD appointed a woman minister.
Guessous suggests that the responsibility for women’s underrepresentation in the new government lies with all parties who need to reconsider their gender politics rather than conceal their own sexism and instead advance accusatory statements against Islamists:
The male leadership of leftist and progressive parties, in particular, has relied for too long on a contrast effect with Islamists and conservatives to hide its own sexism. Leftist feminists should treat this transitional moment as an opportunity for an internal critique rather than for the perpetuation of the myth that progressive and leftist men have better gender politics than their Islamist or conservative counterparts.
While the underrepresentation of women in the new government could be interpreted as a blunt exclusion of women from the political sphere, the visibility of an Islamist female voice in the secular political sphere indicates a shift whereby the hegemony of secular-liberal discourses becomes contested. The new “official” Islamist voice is thus constructing what Lila Abu-Lughod referred to as “an alternative modernity.” The visibility of an Islamist female voice also creates a platform to advocate for better rights for women and subvert the gender discriminatory status quo within the political structure. But because she is an Islamist, Hakkaoui will be accused of purveying a double discourse and of appropriating a tolerant rhetoric when addressing her liberal opponents, while having a hidden agenda of undermining the gains that women have fought for over the past decades, including the family code, Nadia Guessous notes.
The salience of an Islamist presence can also help explore the ways women express political agency and the role of this in complicating and expanding debates about gender beyond international treaties and conventions:
While many leftist and secular feminists have been calling for the privileging of international treaties and principles in matters of women’s rights, el-Hakkawi and other members of the PJD have been calling for privileging religious principles. This however does not necessarily mean that el-Hakkawi or the PJD are against women’s rights but simply that they would like to shift the terms of the conversation away from international conventions like cedaw.
Guessous further articulates that Hakkaoui’s public criticism of the political parties’ gender politics is an invitation for collaboration and action. “It is a mistake to assume that anyone who is critical of the language of universal human rights is necessarily opposed to the rights of women. There are multiple traditions of women’s activism and of feminist politics and multiple conceptions of justice and of equality in Morocco. CEDAW and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not the only means of advocating for greater justice and equality for Moroccan women.
Hakkaoui’s opposition to the National Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development (NPA) is also invoked as evidence for her antifeminist credentials and expands the rift between liberal and religiously oriented discourses. The constructed binary between the secular and the religious overlooks the fact that many religious movements are modern and contain heterogeneous expressions of activism. It also fails to acknowledge that women Islamists claim an interpretive role within their structures by promoting the practice of ijtihad (discussed later) instead of privileging international treaties and conventions.
Furthermore, the unease with an Islamist-led government overlooks diversity within the Islamic/ist movement and the ways religious actors engage democratic action: “there is an unfortunate tendency to lump together quite different kinds of religiously inspired trends as ‘Islamist’ while avoiding articulating any definition of the term.” The current political scene has allowed these new political actors to (re)negotiate sociopolitical structures and embrace a more democratic polity. This refutes the view that Islamist movements are anti-democratic. Rather, they may figure as significant actors contributing to ensuring a more democratic transition, a shift identified as “post-Islamist.”
Post-Islamism was initially coined by Asef Bayat in reference to the social and political trends in post-Khomeini Iran. The term was then used to refer to political trends that have resulted from the failed Islamist experimentations of the 1980s and 1990s. This pertains to how Islamist movements have been adapting and integrating themselves in modern political processes. Bayat defines post-Islamism as “an endeavor to fuse religiosity and rights, faith and freedom, Islam and liberty… Post Islamism is expressed in acknowledging secular exigencies, in freedom from rigidity, in breaking down the monopoly of religious truth.”
Post-Islamism suggests a discursive shift, from an ideological trend that is marked by monopoly of religious truth, exclusivism, and emphasis on obligations toward acknowledging multiplicity, inclusion, and flexibility in principles and practice. This, according to Bayat, does not suggest a process of secularization; rather it is a complex process of bypassing an Islamist ideological tendency by shifting to a different, more inclusive kind of religious project in which Islam nevertheless continues to remain important both as faith and as a player in the public sphere. Thus, post-Islamism may be equated with “liberal Islam” or “Islamic liberalism,” and “if ‘liberal Islam’ means an interpretation of Islam that accommodates modern democracy, a civil nonreligious state, freedom of thought, and human progress, then certainly this shares considerably with post-Islamist thought.”
Undoubtedly Morocco has its own distinctive experience with Islamism; Islamists had to adjust their religiously inspired political project to conform to the constraints of state opposition and the hegemonic political authority of the regime. The PJD has thus undertaken a post-Islamist shift mainly characterized by forgoing its “Islamic state” project and instead focusing on social and economic reform. In this respect Mohamed Daadaoui notes that the Islamist movement in Morocco has gradually adopted a post-Islamist posture. He argues that post-Islamism is the failure of Islamism to challenge the state: “In Morocco, this failure has led to the adoption of alternative strategies for dissent … post-Islamists have tempered their rhetoric toward the state and feature less radical goals than their Islamist predecessors.” He further argues that the PJD’s cooptation in the government is due to their inability to challenge the regime’s religious authority and societal belief in its rituals of power, relegating the group to adopting what Daadaoui refers to as a Gramscian “passive revolution”: “This grand shift of strategy to more socio-intuitional contestation is largely due to the Islamists’ failure to contest the regime’s religious and traditional authority, which has been reinvigorated by the state’s rituals of power.”
The Justice and Charity Islamist Movement (Al-Adl Wal-Ihsan): A Contested Future
The Justice and Charity movement (al-Adl wal-Ihsan) is an officially banned but tolerated Islamist group. It advocates the Islamization of society and the political system and challenges the monarchy’s legitimacy. It was established in 1987 by Abdessalam Yassine, who had been an active member of the Boutchichi Sufi order, which he left in the early 1970s. The movement occupies a significant space in Morocco’s political landscape. Its role is not limited to providing religious edification; it is also a political force that serves as the main opposition movement. This is salient seeing that formal politics in Morocco is dominated by the makhzen, monarchical power. The movement operates within a religious paradigm, yet it does not adhere to the state’s official school of thought (the Maliki madhhab); rather it prioritizes adherence to the fundamentals of the Qur’an. The Justice and Charity movement could then be seen “as falling to the ‘left’ … given that it openly opposes literal, fundamentalist interpretations of the Qur’an,” and according to the movement, “the Moroccan state madhab, or school, of Maliki Islam is itself a conservative interpretation of the Qur’an.”
Unlike the women’s networks of the PJD, the Justice and Charity movement has laid focus on theorizing the question of women’s rights from a perspective of rereading religious texts. Abdessalam Yassine is viewed by his students as a pioneering Islamist figure in addressing the question of the emancipation of women within the ideals of Islamic law as well as the role of women as active agents in the process of reengaging the text. Yassine says in his book Tanweer al-Muminat (Enlightening the women of faith), “We are in historical trouble; the Muslim community has never faced similar challenges. If we do not return to the scripture and the relevant jurisprudence with an appropriate rereading, we will be held back by interpretations that do not consider the wellbeing of the Muslim community (ummah) as a whole.”
His discourse on women’s rights is very empowering to women within his movement and inspired the establishment of the women’s section, which came to constitute a leading force. The women’s section was headed by Nadia Yassine, daughter of Abdessalam Yassine. Nadia Yassine emerged as the movement’s main figure and an outspoken critic of the Moroccan monarchy. She not only became the spokesperson of the group before Western media but also made groundbreaking contributions to restoring women’s role in the production of Islamic knowledge and suggesting rereadings of Islamic texts outside the mainstream Maliki madhhab, which she considers as a masculine law: “The rights that Islam gave to women are trampled due to the patriarchal interpretation of the foundational texts of Islam. Early marriage, which Maliki fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) advocated, is a clear example of such a violation of Islamic and human rights.” Therefore female activists within the Justice and Charity movement consider the Maliki madhhab to be a major hindrance to women’s emancipation.
Jeffry Halverson and Amy Way note that Nadia Yassine’s charismatic leadership has generated a new pattern in Moroccan feminist consciousness and conceptualized revolutionary discourse on the role of women within religion and public life. According to Yassine, Islam grants women “the right to speak and participate in politics at the highest levels” and she emphasizes, “It’s not only a right, but a duty” She also contends that “the real participation of women [in the Arab world] exists only inside Islamic movements” She argues that “there is a real dynamic inside Islamic movements that so-called progressive and liberal movements lack considerably.” Such statements, according to these authors, have earned Yassine the label of “feminist” although she opposes the label. Nadia Yassine alternatively advocates an Islamic feminism that “recovers women’s rights from the current Moroccan system, which she describes as “chauvinistic,” “autocratic,” and “traditional.” She thus conceptualizes Islamic feminism as “the attempt to recover inalienable rights that the Muslim societies have underhandedly and systematically confiscated from women.”
Thus, according to Jeffrey Halverson and Amy Way, Nadia Yassine represents a liminal identity that blurs the binary between illiberal Islamist discourse and secular discourses: “She occupies a precarious position where she constantly represents and redefines what it means to be a woman and a Muslim” She thus complicates normative debates on gender and forges a “third column” apart from the “broader cultural and ideological discourses in which they seek to participate.”
Nadia Yassine had marched to reform the mudawwana (family code) in the early 1990s when she founded the women’s section of Justice and Charity. Yet when King Mohammed VI initiated reforms of the mudawwana in 2000, Nadia Yassine marched against the changes with other Moroccan Islamist groups including the PJD, claiming that the reforms were inspired by Western ideals. Yassine, however, argued that unlike the PJD, her movement’s claims had no religious grounding; rather it was political. The reforms of the mudawwana, according to Yassine, were part of “The National Plan for Integrating Women in Development” which comes within the framework of a desire by the North to dominate the South through setting up a standard model for the world in order to facilitate “better cultural domination of nations.”
Yassine claims to have fully supported the reforms of the mudawwana by being the first female voice to break the taboo and make a public statement in the 1990s about the mudawwana not being a sacred text: “Even the feminist activists of the Left did not dare to say so because this very mudawwana is organically linked to the nature of the regime that is autocratic and therefore patriarchal. Calling into question the mudawwana meant calling into question the sacred nature of a political system that establishes its legitimacy on a particular reading of Islam” Yassine considers the mudawwana to be a product of a despotic political trend that promotes the interests of a privileged few; “the series of mudawwanas represent for us the image of the ruling autocracy.”
Yassine further highlights that her movement bases its activity on a constant practice of ijtihad, which she defines as the intellectual effort of adapting the sacred texts to the ever-changing context. This articulates the importance of promoting and developing the status of women:
This only reflects a real determination to change a society that is patriarchal, autocratic, and male chauvinist into a society of justice and spirituality where women may find not only a place, but a prime place so that our societies may progress. It is very important to note that in our movement, we have 30% of women in all the national institutions even though we carefully avoid [imposing] a system of quotas.
However, Abdessalam Yassine’s death has brought the movement to a crossroads and raises further questions about women’s potential to advance action and mobilization within the movement, especially now that Nadia Yassine has stepped down from directing the women’s section because of what are believed to be internal divisions. She has also made no public appearance after her father’s death, which raises questions about structural disagreements. Further, given her popular appeal and charisma, it could have been assumed that she would become a successor to her father, but this of course was unlikely to happen-taking a position of leadership within such a movement remains rather contentious, as she has noted in public statements; “despite having founded an active women’s branch within the organization, Nadia has hinted of being hampered by [al-Adl wal-Ihsan]’s patriarchy and plays no current role.” Leading an Islamist movement would have been revolutionary and highly subversive, but since she is thedaughter of the movement’s leader, her leadership would also be viewed as hereditary, a tendency the movement strictly resists.
The Arab Spring has provided space for previously marginalized groups to participate in democratic institutions and processes. Female Islamists particularly have gained legitimate ground within the official political discourse, and subverted the dynamics of official feminism, and contributed to establishing a diversity in women’s definitions of empowerment, yet their influence remains rather questionable. The future of the Justice and Charity movement is uncertain after the death of its charismatic leader. The movement joined the secularly led Arab Spring demonstrations, but it withdrew shortly afterward. With the victory of the PJD in the November elections, the group took a much lower profile. Shortly after the PJD’s rise to power, its popularity too has begun to dwindle, as it is viewed as having failed to fulfill much of people’s demands and live up to its promise of combating corruption. The Islamist party thus remains a weak actor on the Moroccan political landscape.
Furthermore, the religious reform in which Morocco has engaged since 2004 has served as a powerful means to legitimize the religious status of the king by spreading the state-approved version of Islam among Moroccans and as a consequence to restrict the sociopolitical impact of Islamist groups. This is marked by the extensive recruitment of female preachers (murshidat) and male imams who are gaining wider popularity and extending their work beyond the mosque structure. The role of the murshidat is to preserve Morocco’s religious identity by honoring the king as the commander of the faithful and adhering to the Maliki school of thought and the Ashaari creed as well as the Sufi dimension of Moroccan Islam. The murshidat thus serve the major purpose of preserving Morocco’s “spiritual security” and thus curbing extremist tendencies and non-approved religious expression. Minister of Islamic Affairs Ahmed Taoufiq explained that like their male counterparts, the murshidat bear the responsibility of protecting Morocco’s religious identity through committing to the state’s policy in this respect.
The training of murshidat is also meant to promote women’s rights. It redefines parameters of religious authority and shifts from predominantly private forms of religiosity to a legitimated public expression. In present-day Morocco, the mosque is no longer merely space for reproducing male religious authority; rather, it is increasingly becoming a forum for activities led by women themselves, and women are constructing new forms of sociability and new ways of expressing women’s interests within official structures. This reshuffling of sacred and social spaces and the reshuffling of women’s roles has offered a platform for people of different social and age categories to engage religion in new ways, which articulates the murshidat’s active role within their communities. Their involvement with different communities in both urban and rural settings is a way for them to engage in a comprehensive reformist project. Therefore they have become active competitors to Islamists over the legitimacy of religiously inspired social reform and activism, which can construct significant restrictions to the activity of female Islamists. Between the effort to counter male hegemony within their own movements and the effort to be accepted in the mainstream political discourse, female Islamists seem to be undergoing a double marginalization. The politics of inclusion and exclusion hinders constructive collaboration to generate grassroots feminist consciousness beyond the secular-liberal vs. Islamist divide. The women’s political presence in the PJD is prominently visible. The party has one of the highest percentages of female presence in the Parliament, yet this does not translate into visible action in which they can represent an important complement to the efforts of both liberal women’s organizations and state-sponsored women’s religious programs to advance women’s causes.