What was the motive behind the Morchidat scheme?
There was a desire to bring the traditional Moroccan Maliki doctrine—far more open than the extreme doctrines, like Wahabbism, that are filtering in from Saudi Arabia—more to the forefront in order to counteract the more extreme preaching on much satellite TV (and in some mosques). The idea was to have a centralised training school for both men and women which combined traditional Islamic teachings with ‘modern’ subjects such as psychology, international affairs, sociology, communication – to train a new generation of religious leaders who were modern and open in their approach. 200 trainees are accepted every year (150 men, 50 women). To apply to be a Morchidat, you need a university degree (any subject), to know half the Koran by heart, and to pass an interview. It’s pretty competitive! Then there’s an intensive year’s training after which you are sent somewhere in the country and attached to a mosque. As well as this, they work in various public institutions—schools, hospitals, orphanages, prisons etc.
What is their role within society?
The primary function of the Morchidat is to act as a spiritual guide - teaching and advising people about their religion but also about issues in their own lives. They have also accompanied Moroccan pilgrims on the annual Haj, helped set up sexual health and blood clinics for women and many other community activities.
What first gave you the idea for the film?
It was in 2006, a year after the London bombings, and there was much anti-Muslim sentiment in the press. My own knowledge of Islam came through my Muslim friends, who spoke of it as a religion of tolerance and of peace, and one that gave women lots of rights. I was really interested in this huge contrast. The story of the Morchidats and what they were setting out to do seemed to challenge all kinds of preconceptions and so I was instantly drawn to that.
What were the challenges you faced realising it?
Making Casablanca Calling was probably the most challenging experience of my filmmaking career. Although we were working in collaboration with a Moroccan producer there was a lot of distrust about how Islam would be depicted in Western media. Added to this were the practical difficulties. Every single place we filmed in needed a new set of permissions each time we filmed. All from different government departments. It was like navigating a Kafka-esque nightmare. As well as the difficulties with bureaucracy, filming with women in Morocco wasn’t easy—although many women initially wanted to be filmed, things could turn round very quickly as somebody in their family told them it was a bad idea or prevented them from coming back to continue filming. We’d initially hoped to do all the filming within a 6-9 month period. It ended up being spread over more than two years - with much more waiting than filming!
I loved the soundtrack to the film, and the dominant presence of music in the lives of women in more rural areas—how, if at all, does music and singing contribute to the development of a female identity in Islamic culture, and rural Moroccan areas?
I loved the music too! We found music everywhere we went, which is why it is so dominant in the film. The religious songs are universal and definitely a hugely important part of a shared identity. But as women and men are often separate I think it would be fair to say that music and singing play a huge part in women’s lives – in their relationships with each other and when they come together in groups. It’s a shared activity that’s also incredibly joyful and affirming.
I’m really interested in the state authorized nature of the Morchidat. How do you view the relationship between “authority” and “feminism”? Do you find it problematic that such figures are the product of a patriarchal system?
I think there are pros and cons about the fact that the Morchidat are part of the state system, not just because it is patriarchal. The pros are that it gives them an authority that they may not otherwise have. People listen to them, they speak publicly, they have access to places that would otherwise be difficult. However, the cons are that as government employees they are limited in how publicly they can criticise the system. But for me, the important thing is what happens on the ground. Although the Morchidat are part of a system that has problems, they are making a huge difference to women’s lives on the ground. Girls and women who didn’t have role models, who were locked into their own lives, who had nobody to ask for advice, are now able to talk to the Morchidat and empower themselves through how they understand and think about themselves, their relationships, their ambitions. It’s radical in a small and personal way rather than a “grand revolution.” Realistically, pretty much everywhere in the world is still running under patriarchy, and women need to take up those public places where possible and try and shift the perspective from inside as well as out.
Wendy M K Shaw talks about the film changing the voice and not the image of feminism, refusing to see extant Islamic culture and feminism as polar opposites. How do you figure the film within feminist discourse?
If when we talk about feminism we mean the particular movement of feminism that developed in the West, it doesn’t really encompass the full breadth of what feminism is/can be. The Morchidat in the film talk at length about the [high] status Islam originally gave to women. At the time of the prophet in the Bedouin communities where Islam grew, women had hardly any rights: female infanticide was commonplace and there were a whole host of other problems women faced. The Morchidat argue that Islam tried to change these things, by recognising women’s talents, brains and abilities, and that in the early days of Islam there were many women scholars, warriors, business women etc. And that over time this has been lost – so what they are trying to do is reinstate the rights that Islam originally gave women. And to get women and men to come together to recognise these and respect them.
What are the problems you identify with a predominantly white, Westernised feminist outlook?
Mainly that the majority of women in the world are not white and Western. I come from a Western feminist background so there were times during filming when I could feel myself wanting the Morchidat to take a more radical stance; to intervene in a more confrontational way; to assert a worldview that fitted more directly with my own. Learning to value the approach that they took was a huge learning curve. Fundamentally we are all the same, with similar hopes and dreams, but to be blind to cultural differences and sensitivities is shortsighted and doomed to fail. Better to recognise these and maybe even learn from them—culture is an ever-shifting set of ideas and norms so nothing is fixed.
What is feminism for you?
For me, feminism is about recognising women’s strengths, talents, abilities and ideas and giving these an equal footing with those of men. It’s about girls going to school and being able to pursue their dreams. It’s about recognising and naming the endemic gender violence worldwide and tackling the conditions that allow it to continue. It’s about women being respected for who they are not for what they look like or for the sexuality they represent. In Western capitalist society (now worldwide) we are bombarded daily with images of women in advertising, film etc., which makes me realise just what a long way we have to go. It’s easy to assume that because of the feminist movement—and changes in attitudes towards marriage and child rearing—that we, in the West, lead the way in terms of women’s rights. But it’s not that simple. Lots of things have got better, but parliamentary representation and a host of other concerns are actually much better in many non-Western countries. It’s complicated, but the common goals are simple, and recognising the many different ways to try and move towards them is really important.
Words Madeleine Dunnigan and images Courtesy of Rosa Rogers