Girls are “like a timebomb ready to explode and ruin the family’s reputation,” a Moroccan jewelry trader tells a customer as she admires a display of necklaces.
The solution is to “get rid of this bomb” by marrying your daughters off as soon as you can, he says.
His customer, Hannane, replies firmly that Islam does not advocate child marriage and that women can also play an important role outside the home.
Hannane is one of a new generation of female religious leaders, known as morchidat — part of a quiet social revolution in the North African country.
Their groundbreaking work is the subject of a British film Casablanca Calling, which was to be showcased yesterday at an international conference on child marriage in Morocco’s famous port city.
The morchidat were introduced in 2006, partly in an attempt to counter Muslim radicalism following suicide bombings that rocked Casablanca in 2003.
The hope is that female spiritual leaders can both encourage a more tolerant Islam and improve the position of girls and women in Moroccan society.
“The morchidat are a rare experiment in the Muslim world,” the film’s Moroccan associate producer Merieme Addou said. “It’s the first time in a Muslim country that a religious role has been given to a woman.”
The morchidat give guidance to women and young people in mosques, schools, orphanages, hospitals, prisons and rural villages.
However, Addou says they have their work cut out as they try to overcome the many problems facing Moroccan society.
“So many cultural traditions — from early marriage to women’s education — have become confused with religious teaching and it is [a] challenge to separate them in people’s minds,” she said.
The scene in the jewelry shop reflects some of the views the morchidat are trying to tackle.
“Morocco and other Muslim countries have been living in a long period of ignorance and stagnation,” Hannane said. “Many people knowingly or unknowingly have blocked the most basic rights Islam gives women.”
At a mosque, Hannane listens to a woman talk about her granddaughter’s problems finding a husband. Her granddaughter is 14.
Although Morocco has outlawed marriage for people under 18 years old, early marriage is a common problem encountered by the morchidat.
In a classroom, a teenager tells Hannane she has been promised to a boy since she was four years old and that it is becoming difficult to continue at school.
“My family say now I’m getting married, I shouldn’t leave the house,” the girl said.
The morchidat tells her that when it comes to marriage, “Allah has given a woman the right to choose for herself” and that the girl should stand up to her father using Shariah law to support her rights.
There are more than 400 morchidat working across Morocco.
Addou said it is the first time that women have had someone to talk to about spiritual, moral, social and personal issues.
Although the morchidat are outspoken on women’s rights, she said they are not seen as a threat because what they say is rooted in religion, which gives their message legitimacy.
In the rural northern area of Larache, Bouchra, a morchidat is championing girl’s education.
Women toiling in the fields describe lives of servitude in a region where few girls go to school, illiteracy rates are sky high, misogyny is entrenched and domestic abuse is not uncommon.
“Women are doomed and then they die,” one fieldworker said.
In the evenings, Bouchra mentors girls at rural boarding schools for poor people. One evening she is called to a dormitory after a student commits suicide. She is told that the girl’s father had seen her with a boy and beaten her in front of her friends.
The morchidat initiative is part of wider reforms in Morocco aimed at giving women more rights.
Addou said that other Muslim countries are taking an interest in the work of Morocco’s female religious leaders, some of whom have been invited to speak abroad.
One of these is a bright, cheerful woman called Karima, who works in Rabat where she is concerned about the numbers of young people wanting to migrate to the West.
She said that until young Moroccans feel proud of their Muslim identity and culture, mass emigration and violent extremism will continue.
Addou said Casablanca Calling, which is set to air on al-Jazeera this year, provides a glimpse of a world rarely seen in the West.
“My vision of Islam is very different from what many people in the West think,” Addou said. “Many think Islam oppresses woman and restricts their freedoms, but this is because of traditions that have nothing to do with Islam.”
“Men and women are equal in our religion,” she said. “There is no difference.”
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