Morocco continued its gradual rollout of women's rights today by appointing 50 female morchidat, or religious guides, who will be qualified to teach in mosques across the country. They won't be allowed to lead Friday prayers -- that privilege is still just for the male imams -- but still, the Associated Press reports that Moroccan officials are calling the move "a rare experiment in the Muslim world," some going so far as to call the decision unprecedented in Morocco and most Muslim countries. (Egypt and Iran are among the exceptions, and have increasing numbers of female Islamic scholars.)
Progressive steps like these have been slow in coming in Morocco; when the government attempted to pass reforms to the nation's sharia-based family law in 2000, hundreds of thousands of people protested, and the government backed off. King Mohammed VI tried again in 2003 with better results, and the country's personal-status law was amended to give women property rights within marriage, raise the minimum marriage age from 15 to 18 and give women more say in their divorces.
Changes like these don't fully enfranchise women; women remain minors in Morocco's penal system, have difficulties inheriting property or obtaining credit and, of course, still can't lead prayers. The AP notes that while both male and female Islamic scholars must have bachelor's degrees, men must memorize the Quran in order to graduate, whereas women only have to learn about half of it. And it's fair to wonder if the decision to allow a measure of female religious leadership is at least partly a P.R. maneuver; several of the graduates were quoted as saying their mission was to burnish Islam's image as a tolerant and merciful religion.
Still, emphasizing the peaceful and philosophical elements of Muslim theology isn't a bad thing; appointing female role models may be part of an effort to show a progressive face to the rest of the world, but it also marks a change within Morocco. The newly appointed morchidat may also serve as role models for Moroccan women who hope to be educated and become paid professionals (the morchidat earn a salary equivalent to about $500 a month). Islamist and women's-rights activist Nadia Yassine, who criticized Morocco's earlier reforms for being cosmetic rather than practical, has argued that increased educational and professional opportunities are the most essential factor in Moroccan women's liberation:
"Freedom costs money. You can't liberate women without giving them any means. If a woman wants to get divorced and she is illiterate and unemployed, how she can exercise this freedom?"