Islamic Feminism

Sunday 26 October 2008, by Emmanuel Martinez

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

One of the most influential power brokers in Morocco is a woman- and an Islamist woman at that. Her name is Nadia Yassine, she is the founder and leader of the feminine branch of Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane (Justice and Charity), the most powerful social movement in the country. Founded by her father, it advocates non-violence, Sharia law, and Ijtihad, that is, an interpretive rather than literal approach to the Coran. Although Al Adl Wa Al Ihssane is not a political party, its following in the kingdom is unrivaled.

Nadia Yassine, 50, is currently embroiled in a legal row with the Moroccan state for having recommended, in 2005, the replacement of the monarchy with a republic. Alternatives’ own Emmanuel Martinez recently interviewed the outspoken activitist.

Your trial was pushed back yet again. Do you think it will be postponed indefinitely?

Yes. The Moroccan state is very embarrassed by my case, which has to do with freedom of speech. On the international stage, Morocco is trying very hard to appear as if it is moving toward democracy so I embarrass them a lot.

And that is your goal?

Absolutely. We are accused of Islamic extremism, but I don’t think most people know what cause we are actually fighting for. It is true that Islam is our point of reference, and that is perfectly normal in the Muslim world, but we’re fighting for more liberty. The only weapons we have, given that we advocate non-violence, are discussion and symbolic gestures.

In stating my preference for an Islamic republic I want to lift two taboos. The first is passivity in the face of power. We have been taught for centuries that good Muslim subjects must shut-up and obey their prince. And I say no. I want to liberate consciences. I want to teach Muslims that Islam is not a blind submission to autocrats. Secondly, there is the taboo of the marginalization of women in Islamic lands. My message is that women have the right to speak and participate in politics at the highest level.

Moreover, you speak of Islamic feminism…

If it is to defend the cause of women, I consider myself a feminist. But I’m prudent when it comes to etiquette. I don’t champion Simone de Beauvoir-style Western feminism.

The Western world has ridden itself of the idea of God, at least in the public arena. Their struggle is materialist. They exclude, therefore, spirituality or a return of God. For me, my struggle is essentially spiritual; it isn’t a struggle between men and women, or for material rights. I maintain that God gave me rights and that Muslim history has confiscated those rights. Besides, even if women have been the greater of the two scapegoats, our rulers have oppressed the rights of men as well. Our society, though, will never be able to transform without the active- and meaningful- participation of women.

Your movement is prohibited but tolerated. Would you join the electoral fold if given the chance?

It always makes me smile when I’m told that we are tolerated. It’s as if they say the sun is tolerated in Morocco! They can try to conceal the sunlight, but we’re there and we intend on staying. Our numbers are anything but negligible. The Moroccan authorities have known about us for 30 years and they know very well that we are everywhere. Our strength, however, stems from our decision to stay outside of the system. Entering into the political fold, which is a real circus, would be political suicide. Our movement is enticing because we state that real opposition is to stay outside of a system that, anyhow, is broken. The Constitution provides no hope for democracy.

Is it necessary to abolish the monarchy in order to fix the system?

Our school of thought is a Sufism that advocates a return to spirituality as an engine for change. We believe that autocracy is never Islam’s political manifestation. We want to legitimize the demands of Muslims for a system other than autocracy.

But given that we are a non-violent movement and that we are realists, we have never officially called for the abolishment of the monarchy. We do, however, call for the education of consciences. But to succeed we must overcome an enormous obstacle: the Constitution. It checks our rights to freedom of speech and conscience. Our goal is not to put an end to the monarchy but, rather, to the Constitution. What we are proposing is a massive political revolution within the Muslim world that will end our history of subjugation to fossilized autocratic minds that are manipulated by secular powers. For 14 centuries, the idea reinforced in peoples’ minds is that Islam equals autocracy, repression and dictatorship. What we are saying is that our sacred texts contain the seeds of a veritable democratic experience.

Are you worried about the rise of Islamic Fundamentalism in the Maghreb?

Unfortunately, I’m not just worried about itI’m living it. Given the social and political situation in Morocco, that kind of archaic and violent thinking risks rising further.

This is a fertile field for Manichean discourse, completely binary, dividing the world into good and evil, believers and atheists, etc. This basic framework works for four reasons. Firstly, here- like in many places- there is a search for identity. And for us, this identity is based on Islam. Secondly, there is a lack of education. The level of literacy is shocking and the quality of the teaching is low. There is no intellectual antidote. There is nothing in our heads. Moroccans have been told three things, “God, State, Law”, and that is all they know. I’m not saying this to insult Moroccans, but mine is a very, very bitter indictment. Moroccans have been voluntarily ‘illiteratised’ by the state. Thirdly, there is extreme poverty. Finally, there is frustration because we live in a world that is, in other ways, open. What does this openness create? Our window to the world is Moroccan public television, which broadcasts shows filled with dream houses, dream women, etc. That breeds frustration.

The Moroccan leadership sees us as a safety valve. They know very well that we attract a certain type of youth that would otherwise be driven toward a more extreme- and more dangerous- movement. That is why we are tolerated. The Moroccan leadership prefers a known and non-violent adversary to a bunch of angry youths who could be seduced by some of the nihilistic tendencies that exist in the Muslim world.

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