In recent years, Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey have trained and appointed a new group to the ranks of religious guides: women. Women religious guides, referred to as murshidat in Arabic, reach a demographic that might otherwise not be available–or receptive – to male imams, such as women and children, particularly those in poorer neighbourhoods. The efforts are an attempt by these countries' governments to democratise and to curb extremism by reaching out to women, who can be a moderating voice in their families, and to youth, who are introduced to a tolerant and mainstream version of Islam at a young age.
The idea of the murshidat in Morocco took off after the terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003, which claimed 45 lives and left dozens wounded. The government subsequently decided to reform religious affairs and the leadership structure of the country's mosques.
In each of these countries, mosque leadership is controlled by a government ministry or a directorate of religious affairs, who also appoint these female guides. These women are all university graduates who have mastered classical Arabic and have a deep knowledge of the Qur’an, hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and Islamic law.
The move to incorporate women into religious affairs reveals a significant change in policy and a trend toward the liberalisation and modernisation of the religious order, as well as the modernisation and democratisation of these countries on a wider scale. The governments are convinced that the murshidat can contribute to the enhancement of women’s legal and civic rights and to their active participation in public life.
The training of female guides—who also teach lessons on Islam, lead prayer ceremonies and carry out the role of imam in the women’s sections of mosques—is an extraordinary move for these countries and an important model for other countries in the region.
The women in need of counsel are oftentimes mothers with questions about communicating with their children, or wives wanting to know how to be part of a couple without contravening the precepts of the Qur’an. There are also young women who seek the counsel of the murshidat because they are unsure about whether to wear the hijab, or headscarf, or want to know how to perform ablutions properly.
But the murshidat primarily work with women and children in poor neighbourhoods, which many see as a fertile ground for extremist recruiters. They are both religious and social advisors, and they believe a healthy society starts first and foremost in the home, which in turn reinforces community cohesion, and helps to curb extremism.
The murshidat provide moral support and advise women and teachers on how to prevent youth from being drawn to extremism by openly discussing these matters and by also encouraging youth to challenge extremist ideas and take full responsibility for their actions. They urge schools to help students become critical recipients of media messages and to prevent them from accessing illegal or inappropriate material.
Much of Morocco's civil society supports this initiative, which is seen as a significant move towards building tolerance and promoting equality between the genders.
In Egypt the decision by the Religious Affairs Ministry to train women as religious guides through a four-year course at Al-Azhar, the country's top Islamic university, has been welcomed by men and women alike. For the first time in the country's history, various governorates have named women as guides. Fifty female spiritual guides have recently been assigned to 90 mosques in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria, primarily in these cities' poorer neighbourhoods.
Turkey has also challenged traditional Islamic gender roles with the appointment of hundreds of women as religious guides, which is a considerable step towards social change.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, there hasn't been much objection to involving women in mosques' religious affairs. In fact, Islamic political groups approve of these women's newfound religious roles as a positive development because Egypt and Morocco have historically always had eminent women scholars of Islam. In Turkey, these female religious guides are respected and their work considered crucial for social development.
Through continued endeavours and successes, the murshidat can equally contribute to the promotion of women’s rights, a healthy tolerant society and to a democratic future.
* Moha Ennaji is an author, international consultant, Professor of Cultural and Gender Studies at Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University and President of the South North Centre for Intercultural Dialogue in Fez, Morocco. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).