Interview with Moroccan Islamist Nadia Yassine 'Our Religion Is Friendly to Women'

She is one of Morocco's most famous opposition figures, she's stood in the dock several times for her criticism of the royal family and she's a self-avowed feminist. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, Islamist Nadia Yassine discusses her opposition to Morocco's monarchy and the situation for women.

SPIEGEL: Ms. Yassine, how can one be an Islamist and a feminist at the same time?

Yassine: Those are just labels. Simplifying things stems from the logic of the media. But seriously: The history of the women's movement in the West has unfolded completely differently from here. It is based on other traditions and pursues different goals. Seen superficially -- if all that matters are the rights of women -- you can call me a feminist if you like. But I speak for a different culture, the Islamic one. Our religion is very much friendly to women. In theory, in our sacred texts, we have many rights. But the men, these little machos, have robbed us of that. It's their fault that the whole world believes the opposite.

SPIEGEL: The secular women's movement in Morocco takes a completely different view: It believes certain Muslim traditions are to blame for the oppression of women.

Yassine: The secular feminists are only part of a small elite. They live in an intellectual bubble. They imitate the West. They have removed themselves from Islamic culture. They are followers of small political parties that are dependent on the king. That is why, more than anything else, they want to defend their privileges. The Islamists, on the other hand, are popular. They represent the people. Because the fact is that we are living in a Muslim society here. So I ask you: How else should the women's movement work than on the basis of Islamic values? Our religion is much more capable of solving social problems than Western models that only benefit the elite. If you solve the social problems, you also help women. Women have no problem with Islam. They have a problem with power.

SPIEGEL: And yet Morocco's king has done a great deal for women. In 2004, he reformed the country's archaic family law, so that polygamy is now only possible with limitations, and forced marriage was banned, just like domestic violence. Yet you still rejected these reforms. Why?

Yassine: I was not opposed for religious, but rather for political reasons. I too wanted the situation of women to improve. Of course it's right for women to have more liberties. But what does that look like in practice? How can a woman make use of her right to divorce, for example, if she has no job after her divorce and ends up on the street? In rural areas, there are now far more illegal marriages. There, women have a choice: Either they prostitute themselves, or they marry or they migrate to the large cities. The king has passed a law for women who go to high school, but not for average people in the countryside.

SPIEGEL: But aren't things moving in a good direction in Morocco? Compared to other Arab states, there is at least a certain sense of stability.

Yassine: There is stability, but it won't last long. The foreigners who visit us and see the clean neighborhoods of Rabat and Casablanca get a completely false first impression. There is great desperation behind the scenes. The government may have improved the legal situation for women, but there are still hardly any jobs for the country's youth. The slums are growing and there is no functioning health system. I wouldn't even dare to set foot in some neighborhoods. The aggression there is tremendous.

SPIEGEL: So what would you do differently? What would a Muslim state based on your ideas look like?

Yassine: The Islam we want to revive is an Islam of dialogue. We are a political and social organization, but we are also a non-violent, spiritual movement. We believe the Koran conveys a universal message. We criticize the fact that Morocco is an authoritarian hereditary monarchy. Many in the West believe Arab societies must automatically be despotic, but that is not true. A Muslim model of government in accordance with our ideas is very much an example of grassroots democracy, if you like.

SPIEGEL: Do you want to abolish the secular state?

Yassine: To me, secularism is a myth. After all, the king only allows for a limited separation of powers. What we want is true democracy and transparency. We demand a Muslim pact that includes all social groups -- one that functions according to the lowest common denominator in this country: Islam. This alliance should develop a new constitution, which no longer serves the autocracy.

SPIEGEL: A constitution on the basis of Islamic law, the sharia?

Yassine: If that is the democratic will of the people, then yes.

SPIEGEL: In May 2003, more than 40 people died in Islamist fundamentalist suicide attacks in Casablanca. This year, there were further terrorist attacks. How do you succeed in distancing yourself from violent criminals within the Islamist camp?

Yassine: Unfortunately I have to tell you that new attacks are just as possible as the danger of a coup d'etat. The economic context has not changed, after all. While you in the West have had a functioning civil society, trade unions and a middle class for decades, we mainly have an upper class that enriches itself unfettered. We have nothing to do with the violent fundamentalist Islamist cells, but we understand their motivations. That is also why I am considered dangerous. I am an important opponent of the king.

SPIEGEL: What would you do if the king asked you to cooperate with him?

Yassine: Attempts are constantly made to integrate me into the system. Sometimes I am intimidated and sometimes lured. But as long as there are no overarching changes in this country, I cannot be a part of the political game.

SPIEGEL: And you have no problem with the fact that your movement is also dominated by men?

Yassine: That's normal. It's almost a law of nature. Men always lead large organizations. But there are many women at the base. We don't even need a quota. That's another area where we don't need to imitate the West.

Interview conducted by Daniel Steinvorth.

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