by Yossef Ben-Meir and Fatima Zahra Laaribi
In Morocco, the mourchidat program that trains women in Islamic theology to equip them to deliver the religious-based human service functions as done by imams, other than leading prayers, is an example of having placed women’s advancement within an Islamic framework. The approach, which has gained appeal in some sub-Saharan countries as well as in France, espouses everyone’s right or obligation to pursue knowledge, work and speak openly, elevate through piety, mentally clear negative emotions, and recognize the statutes of Morocco’s family code, including the right to divorce. However, observers question the initiative’s intention to achieve gender equality, and they criticize its acquiescence to patriarchal conditions.
This criticism may describe not only the mourchidat program but also participatory development itself. This is because without preceding local community meetings for project identification with self-empowerment sessions to address internalized social controls, self-doubts, fears, and inhibitions, then marginalized groups, including women, may endorse positions that are contrary to their interests, needs, and preferences.
For this reason, the High Atlas Foundation (HAF)—a US-Moroccan non-profit organization that has been applying the Moroccan development model for twenty years—facilitates the rights-based “Imagine” self-discovery workshops for women prior to their participation in collective development planning. While traditionally conducted with women, these workshops have also been adapted for men. Men are inextricably linked to the gender equality effort, particularly in the Moroccan context where traditional attitudes about masculinity can be a significant hindrance to women’s empowerment.
Initiated by the Empowerment Institute in New York and adapted to countries in Africa and the Middle East, the Imagine methodology focuses on overcoming limiting beliefs related to seven core areas of life: emotions, relationships, work, money, body, sexuality, and spirituality. Asserting affirmations on self-defined visions for the future the seek enables the subsequent activities of community design of development to then be pursued with a clearer sense of purpose and confidence and result in measures aimed at gender parity, independence, and more freedom. Thus, concerns regarding the impacts of the Moroccan government’s mourchidat may actually be more of a reflection of the same shortcoming of the participatory approach: that without an empowerment training process from the very outset, the full potential of the participatory approach cannot be achieved due to the fact that vulnerable groups in particular face social constraints, even in settings that could have otherwise accommodated much greater possibilities.
Women’s advocacy in Morocco is in dire need of a new angle for which to approach Moroccan society. The women’s advocacy arena in Moroccan society is thirsty for the contribution of young and open-minded women’s empowerment leaders and female preachers (Mourchidat).
And the contribution of young, spiritually-grounded women might just be the answer.
HAF was inspired by the Empowerment Institute and has pioneered a 32-hour transformative experience called IMAGINE, an intimate, female-led, women’s empowerment workshop adapted to the particular concerns and contexts present in Moroccan society. Based on self-discovery, this multi-day experience has transformed the lives of nearly 1,032 women to date in 45 empowerment workshops conducted by HAF since 2016.
HAF has trained seven internal, skilled facilitators that travel countrywide, guiding groups of 25 Moroccan women (from all corners of life). The workshop entails seven core areas, rooted in the context of each individual’s day-to-day life: Emotions, Relationships, Work, Body, Money Sexuality, and Spirituality.
The IMAGINE workshop’s unique methodology places heavy emphasis and consideration on the mind, body, and soul. Within this framework, considering local Moroccan contexts, spirituality is of utmost importance. There is a lack in Morocco of female spiritual leaders – better known as Mourchidat. And this approach provides women with a solid foundation on which to base this unique, transformative curriculum. The tools provided and learned within the workshop distinctly empower women in religious and other roles.
It is important to note that HAF facilitates the IMAGINE Workshop across all corners of the Moroccan country, rural and urban. However, one commonality amongst these communities is their devout practice of Islam.
The HAF IMAGINE workshops give women a chance to educate themselves about their religion via familiar worship methods. HAF has fine-tuned a unique methodology to approach female empowerment both effectively and ethically. This is done by embodying timeless Islamic concepts for local Moroccan contexts. This lens also sheds light for women to understand legal protections and rights, empowering them to pursue justice.
HAF roots this legal approach in the country’s governing family code, called Moudawana. This code governs familial topics of family law, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody, all very relevant topics for women in Morocco.
The trained women facilitators play an important role as they can facilitate groups for both women and men.
Using the legal family code, the Moudawana, HAF addresses issues related to the Moroccan Muslim family, including the regulation of marriage, polygamy, divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Female facilitators are able to conduct workshops for both men and women whereas male facilitators can only conduct workshops for men. Here we can give the example of Aisha, may God bless her, the wife of the Holy Prophet, who learned a lot from the Messenger of God, and may God bless him and grant him peace. It was narrated from some of the Companions, who said: “The companions of Muhammad, May God bless him and grant him peace, never confused a hadith upon us, so we asked Aisha, but we found with her knowledge of it.” This means that she was preaching and guiding both men and women who were confused about a topic or opinion regarding Sharia and religious rulings. The wives of the Prophet were also guides and preachers who conveyed the message of Islam and participated in educating Muslims with the knowledge.
Given that women were present in the fields of advocacy and religious preaching during golden periods of Islamic history, starting with the wives of the Prophet (PBUH), they were guides to the believers in matters of their religion and their lives.
Based on our field work with women, we notice that there was a clear shortage of conversations on the issues of raising children and learning matters of religion due to the absence of women in the role of preaching and religious guidance, so the spaces of virtue and Islamic awareness have been reduced. This has led to disastrous consequences for Muslim families; therefore, the role of women as leaders is to help them to overcome this.
Furthermore, the women’s empowerment facilitators and female preachers play a great part in addressing issues related to sexuality (specifically, sex and pregnancy), which are very sensitive issues that embarrass women to speak about with male scholars and preachers. HAF has adapted this segment of the training so that women feel comfortable to speak freely by relating difficult topics to their religion.
HAF’s approach also uses meditation practices, which are an integral part of Islam, believed to open the door of revelation and to be an essential aspect of spiritual development. In fact, it is the tool of guided visualization that is truly remarkable for the women that HAF serves. Because this tool relies on the ability to imagine or visualize, the women in the Empowerment Workshop realize that their imagination is just as important as knowledge. Many of the women HAF serves have little formal education, which they associate with knowledge. Nevertheless, they learn how their imagination is unlimited and can deepen and grow their faith
The workshop tries to apply the empowerment methodology to the Muslim faith. The women are asked what their fondest dreams or higher purposes are for their faith and what they need to do to fulfill those dreams and goals by posing four questions: Where am I now? Where do I want to go? What do I need to change to get there? What is my next growth step?