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In the Newsroom

September 11, 2009
At home in Morocco with an Islamist…and a feminist

Madame Nadia Yassine is the public face of a Moroccan Islamist association. She describes the social and political goals of her organization and the situation of women in Morocco.

Producer Rebecca Haggerty describes her experience interviewing Yassine for the Worldfocus signature story “Moroccan single moms cope with hostility, shame.”

Madame Nadia Yassine is not what I expect. We’ve arranged an interview with her in her role as the public face of a Moroccan social movement called Al-Adl wal Ihsane, translated variously as Justice and Spirituality and widely described as Islamist.

By the time we arrive at her home, we’re two hours behind schedule and it’s nearly 8:00 p.m. Yassine has two other visitors patiently waiting — a young British convert to Islam researching her doctoral thesis at Oxford, and a French photographer. This, I learn, is typical. As the charismatic female leader of a conservative Islamic group, Yassine frequently plays hosts to curious journalists and academics from the West. She chats with us in her salon, a traditional Moroccan receiving room furnished with long sofas and her original artwork. Her daughter, Amina Shabani, a graduate student and a fluent English speaker, translates from her mother’s assured French.

We’ve come to see Yassine in part because of her role as a leader of the protests against the reforms of Morocco’s family laws. Yesterday, we spent the day with Madame Aisha ech Channa, a passionate supporter of women’s rights — and the reforms — who has dedicated her life to supporting women shunned by their families after getting pregnant outside of marriage. I assumed that Yassine would oppose the work that Madame ech Channa does. But the reality, like so much in Morocco, is more complicated than it first appears.

“We are for abstinence, “ she affirms, dismissing Western sexual mores as irrelevant to Moroccan women. “But to be a Muslim is also to be a realist. I am against punishing single mothers, because these people are the victims.”

According to Yassine, 30 percent of her movement’s followers are women. Founded by her father, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, the group claims to be flourishing despite –- or perhaps because of — its opposition to the ruling elite. Four years ago, Madame Yassine faced criminal charges after publicly criticizing Morocco’s system of monarchy in a newspaper interview. Insulting the king remains a crime in Morocco, one that the government takes seriously. Last month, officials seized copies of a newsweekly that reported a public opinion poll on the King.

Ironically, King Mohammed VI holds a reputation as a moderate and a reformer, particularly when it comes to women. His sweeping reform of Moroccan family law in 2004 granted women greater rights than in many countries throughout the Arab world. But Yassine dismisses these and other reform efforts by the King as window dressing in a poor, closed society. Nearly 50 percent of Moroccan women can’t read – and the percentages climb even higher in rural regions . The concerns of most women, Yassine argues, remain largely economic and spiritual.

To her many critics among Morocco’s secular intellectuals, Yassine offers a disturbingly palatable version of fundamentalism that — if given a chance — would turn Morocco into a theocracy. Yassine counters by taking pains to avow her group’s commitment to non-violence. She also claims a “true” reading of Islam – including sharia, or Islamic religious law — in fact offers significant protection for women.

Yassine touches on a tricky area between secular feminists and Islam. According to a 2006 Gallup poll of women in the Muslim world, most Moroccan women believe sharia should be a source –- if not the only source –- of law in society. And the survey also reveals that while women throughout the Arab world admire many things about the West, including gender equity, they also disapprove of some aspects of women’s status here –- primarily the overtly sexualized images of movies, television and magazines. Freedom of expression may be laudable, but the West, after all, also provided the world with endless reruns of Baywatch.

This summer, Moroccan courts once again postponed Nadia Yassine’s trial. Presumably, the case will eventually settle. But the debate over women’s roles in Morocco seems likely to continue.

– Rebecca Haggerty

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