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Religion and development

Imams and women’s rights campaigners

by Charlotte Schmitz

The culture of the Maghreb is defined by Islam. It is German development policy to seek dialogue with religious leaders to create a joint platform for progress.

Malika Benradi, professor of law at Rabat University, is accustomed to controversy. She is a passionate campaigner of women being integrated in the world of employment, which she sees as the key to gender equality.

Her views meet with fierce opposition in North Africa. Sheikh Mohammed Ould Zeine, the director of the Nouakchott “Centre for Islamic Thought and Cultural Dialogue” in Mauretania, for example, explicitly doubts that women are suitable for military service. However, he also speaks in favour of promoting women. Along with the abolition of slavery, he says, doing so is a major challenge the Muslim community should rise to.

The professor and the sheikh were both participants in a two-day conference staged in early April at Morocco’s elite Al Akhawayn University. The invitations issued by German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the government agency, went out to religious dignitaries, representatives of non-governmental organisations, academics and entrepreneurs in the Maghreb countries. The only Maghreb state not represented at the “Round Table” was Tunisia.

Despite many differences, there was consensus that it makes sense to re-interpret religious scriptures in view of the contemporary world. This approach is known as “ijtihad” in Islamic theology, and it does not go without saying. Many Muslims believe the Qur’an should be interpreted literally. Across the region, however, religion is commonly accepted as the proper frame of reference discussing secular issues. Theo­logians are not the only ones who substantiate by quoting the Qur’an.

Lalla Aicha Ouedraogo, a GTZ staff member in Mauretania, however, warns against making instrumental use of the faith for secular purposes, and many Moroccan women’s rights campaigners agree. They see strengthening Muslim doctrine as “playing with fire”.

From a developmental viewpoint, contact with religious dignitaries is imperative. They are important multipliers. The Algerian Imam Lakikza Abedlatif, for example, is cooperating with GTZ on environmental issues. Back home in the Mediterranean port of Annaba, he laces sermons with calls for Muslims to dispose of waste properly. Garbage is a major problem in the city.

On other matters, however, the imam is not so receptive to Western models. Referring to the Qur’an, he insists that Muslim women should keep their hair covered in public. North African women’s rights compaigners disagree, saying that is not a contemporary interpretation of the scriptures.

It has become increasingly clear in recent years that if development agencies wish to achieve anything, they need to take cultural sensitivities in target countries seriously. GTZ thus plans to stage a similar Round Table in Algeria in October followed by a “Tunisian Round Table” in Germany or Spain in early 2009. In Tunesia itself, an open exchange of views is impossible because of the political situation.

Charlotte Schmitz