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Contentions

Hope and Change in a Muslim Country

One of the many unfortunate aspects of the Obama administration’s “Muslim outreach” policy is that too little attention is paid to success stories in the Middle East – regimes and activists who are modernizing, democratizing, and advancing the cause of women’s rights.

There is no better example than Aicha Ech Channa, an activist from Morocco who has survived multiple fatwas from religious extremists and gained support from a reformist monarch and international recognition for her extraordinary work on behalf of unwed mothers and children in Morocco. She is visiting the U.S. with Moroccan officials.

Aicha’s appearance is deceptive. She looks like a sweet grandmother, speaks fluent French, and has a sly sense of humor. You would never guess that for 40 years, she has been battling Islamists and quietly revolutionizing the lives of women in Morocco. When she began her work, unwed mothers were considered prostitutes, even if the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest. Under the threat of imprisonment and social ostracism, many abandoned their children, leaving them, Aicha explains, in the streets, in mosques, or even in the woods. She explains, “They just didn’t talk about it.”

This was the impetus, she explains, to create her own organization to assist unwed mothers, provide training and education, reconcile family members, and provide a legal mechanism for identifying the father and, if there is sufficient evidence, obtaining DNA testing to establish paternity. At the cost of $400 per month per person, she puts the women through job-training and literacy programs and provides psychological counseling, social services, and mediation with the father of the child. She operates restaurants and a catering service to employ unwed mothers who would otherwise be jobless. The goal is to have economically independent women and to insure that the country does not have a generation of cast-off children “who will be bitter toward their country.”

I ask if there is legal recourse for women in situations of rape and incest in Morocco. She answers: “Yes, in principle, but first you have to have the courage to go to the judge. So a lot of associations are there to go with women to the judge.” But this is not sufficient, she says. Her goal is much bigger. She contends that only through social and economic development can women and the country as a whole progress. She explains: “Everything is important. You have to develop a training system [for women]. Get involved in politics. Educate men.” She is candid that child labor remains a problem: “Little girls are working because the family is poor. Economic development is needed.”

If all this sounds as if it would be threatening to Islamic radicals, it was.  In 2000, a fatwa was issued. She explains that on June 6, 2000: “I dared to be interviewed on Al Jazeera for 45 minutes. I talked about rape, pedophilia, child workers, unwed mothers. … I was breaking taboos.” When she heard about the threat to have her punished, she recalls: “I wanted to throw in the towel. [But] there was a moment of solidarity.” From the media, private associations, and foreign embassies, she received calls of support. Then King Mohammed VI’s advisers contacted her and told her to stick with her work. To send the message to Islamist radicals, the reformist monarch invited her to the palace and gave her the Mohammed V Foundation’s Medal of Honor. She recalls the king’s comments: “I know you. I know what you do. I know what you write. I know what they write about you. Continue to do your work.” Also, in 2000, when she attended a ceremony honoring over 40 women’s organizations in Morocco, the king told the activists: “Alone I can’t change things. Together, hand in hand we can change things.”

Another fatwa followed, but so did international awards including the $1 million Opus Prize. She praises the change in the Family Code that the king championed but says changes to the law are needed. Unwed women still must go to court to register their children. She stresses that there needs to be “time to change.” Taking a water bottle from my side, she picks it up and pretends to pour it on the table. She analogizes society to dry land. “You have to pour water slowly or it floods.”

For Morocco, a moderate Muslim state in a region painted with a broad brush (by U.S. President, no less, who insists it is all the “Muslim World”), Aicha’s story is evidence that the country is modernizing. Ayache Khellaf, a senior expert on economic planning on the High Commission for Planning, an independent advisory organization in Morocco, explains: “The society is changing. The civil society is playing an important role. …  At one time people wanted to execute her. Now they are coming to hear her talk.” As one Morocco observer put it, “If she were doing this in Iran or Saudi or just about any other Muslim country, she would be dead by now, not getting medals of honor from the king.”

So if Muslim outreach is our goal, and cultivation of truly moderate, reformist Muslims is in our national-security interest, we would do well to stop showering attention on the despots of the region and pay more heed to those regimes and individuals who are actually offering, to borrow a phrase, hope and change.