PBS Wide Angle: 'Class of 2006'

Charlotte Mangin and Gini Reticker
Producer and Director
Wednesday, July 26, 2006; 11:00 AM

Producer Charlotte Mangin and director Gini Reticker were online Wednesday, July 26, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss their PBS Wide Angle film, "Class of 2006," about the first female graduates from an imam academy in Morocco. These 50 women were among the few women in the Arab world to become recognized religious leaders. Though not full imams, the graduates can do everything except leading Friday prayers. Their training takes place in a nation that is in the midst of many modern reforms, yet the presence of Islamic fundamentalism within Morocco's borders has added tension to its changing religious and political landscape.

PBS Wide Angle's "Class of 2006" aired Tuesday, July 25, at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Producer Charlotte Mangin was formerly a staff producer/associate producer for National Geographic Television & Film, where she worked on documentaries about illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border, public health issues in Nepal, Colombia's drug wars, and hurricane devastation in Florida, among others. As coordinating producer for Wide Angle she has worked on stories including the economic collapse in Zimbabwe, political turmoil in Haiti and to the collapse of a fishing community in Scotland. She is currently producing and editing her first independent film, on the lives of street children in Tangier, Morocco.

Director Gini Reticker has been producing and directing independent films for over a decade. In 2005, Reticker received an Emmy Award and a Sigma Delta Chi Award for directing Wide Angle's "Ladies First" on the role of women in rebuilding Rwanda. In 2001, Reticker produced the Academy Award-nominated short documentary "Asylum", the story of a woman who fled Ghana and became enmeshed in the US immigration system. Reticker co-directed "In the Company of Women", an IFC documentary that premiered at Sundance in January 2004, chronicling the contributions of women in independent film. Her other films include "A Decade Under the Influence" (IFC), "New School Order" (PBS), and "The Heart of the Matter", which won the 1994 Sundance Freedom of Expression Award and aired on POV.


Avondale, La.: Do you know when the show will be re-aired? Thanks.

Charlotte Mangin: "Class of 2006" will actually be available to watch online as of tomorrow. Go to Wide Angle to stream the film. Otherwise, check your PBS station web site for local listings about any re-broadcasts. Dates and times will vary depending on your location.


Hamburg, Germany: So, why can't they lead Friday prayers? Why does Islam view women as inferior?

Gini Reticker: I don't think that Islam has a monopoly on this. Having grown up Catholic, I have often asked myself the same question in regard to why women cannot be ordained as priests and say mass. It seems to me that in all religions women have had to fight for a place equal to men's. I know that it was only within the last few decades that women became Rabbis in the United States. I believe that within Protestant denominations there are very few women who have been recognized at the level of bishop or above.


Arlington, Va.: How do these women feel about their status? Are they what would be considered relative "feminists" within their families and communities?

Charlotte Mangin: The women who graduated in May from the imam training program are all from pious working-class families. For the most part their families are very supportive of them taking on an official role as religious leaders in Morocco's mosques. Most of them have been assigned to mosques in their hometowns, so this will be an opportunity for them to make a difference at the grassroots level within their own communities. They would not consider themselves "feminists" in the Western sense of the term, but they all strongly believe that Islam is a religion of equality between men and women, and that women have a critical role to play in religion when it comes to spreading a message of tolerance and moderation. They all take great pride in being Muslim women and wear their veils as a symbol of affirmation, not submission.


Sarasota, Fla.: Your film reminded me of something I had heard a Sufi Sheik saying during a spiritual lecture a few years ago, that in order for humanity to make a shift in a peaceful direction it will be necessary for women to establish roles as leaders. I was in awe of and respect this this important step that these women in your film are taking.

Charlotte Mangin: Morocco follows the Malikite Sufi doctrine of Islam, so it has always prided itself on a tolerant interpretation of the Koran. Having women play an official role inside the mosque is indeed an important step toward elevating the status of women across Moroccan society. In addition to teaching women and children a moderate interpretation of the Islamic faith, they will be counseling women about their rights under Morocco's progressive new family law which, since 2004, grants women equal rights to men when it comes to marriage, divorce, child custody, and ownership of property; they will be leading literacy classes (over 60% of women in Morocco do not know how to read or write); and generally serving as a voice of authority in the mosque, which is the main center of community life in Moroccan society. Women are the fabric of society, the mothers who raise the next generation -- so having women as leaders and role models in their mosque and their community seems to me an important way to compete with more radical Islamists who want to turn back the clock in the area of women's rights.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Considering that Islam is not a monolithic religion, what factions would not even accept the right of these women to serve even as much as they now can? In sum, where will these women find acceptance, and where will they be shunned or worse?

Gini Reticker: In Morocco, the King is trying to re-assert his authority over the religion, essentially saying that there are no other factions that are truly Moroccan. This program is very much a part of that endeavor. The Sunni/Shiite split that exists in other areas does not exist in Morocco. All are Sunni.

People there, like Dr. Rajaa Naji El Mekkauoui, say that there is a difference between custom and religion. They attribute much of the oppression of women to customs that grew up rather than to Islam. It is through this lens that the family law was reformed, giving women equal status.

I think that the women will find the most problems as people come to the mosques with conflicts. I imagine that they will have to fight to have their authority recognized as women have in the United States over the years.

That said, the conflicts in the region between moderate forces and jihadists threaten Morocco also. It is an Arab country that is very much an ally of the U.S. It is a very tricky place to be.


Hyattsville, Md.: Four questions for you: How long did it take for you guys to document this film? What prompted you to produce this film? Why did you produce it?

For the women religious leaders, are they only going to counsel women only or both women and men?


Charlotte Mangin: Our film crew was in Morocco for 4 weeks in May to shoot the story, and then spent 6 weeks in the edit room putting it together in time for last nights broadcast. If you want to learn more about the behind-the-scenes of our shoot, you can read our "Filmmaker Notes" on our web site at: Class of 2006

Wide Angle took on this project because it was a unique opportunity to tell a positive story about Islam today and challenge some of the stereotypes that assume that Muslim women are always oppressed, second class members of society. As the thriving women's movement in Morocco and this historic step of women becoming official Islamic leaders demonstrate, Islam and women's rights are not necessarily incompatible. The women will only be counseling and teaching women and children, but they will be working very closely with the male imams in their mosques and with men in the larger community.


Lisbon, Portugal: Is circumcision of 10 year old girls still a common practice among Muslims in Morocco?

Gini Reticker: I don't think that female genital mutilation, or circumcision, is practiced in Morocco. I confirmed this by checking out Amnesty International's web site on the prevalence of this practice.

In fact, during one of our interviews Samira Marzouk told us that the Koran says that married women have the explicit right to sexual pleasure within marriage.


Bethesda, Md.: So what exactly will they be doing in their hometown mosques? What is their role and responsibilities?

Gini Reticker: The women will be involved with programs at the mosque that teach literacy, teach the Koran, counsel people in regards to family matters (i.e., marriage, divorce, property rights) and also help resolve disputes in the community. In addition, they are also to be assigned to work in prisons. There will be a TV program established where people can call in with questions.


Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Fascinating story - I lived in Rabat for 2 years when I worked at the U.S. Embassy. morocco already had a pseudo-feminist or Quasi Feminist tradition - writers such as Fatima Mernissi and others who in the secular area were making the first steps. Glad to hear that this has branched directly over into the religious area. Theologically, Moroccan Islam is actually quite conservative, which leads me to my question: how are the men reacting? and, more precisely are there any distinctions WITHIN the religious hierarchy AND between the religious and lay men? Finally, the King is Amir al Moumine, or Commander of the Faithful (Morocco is still an absolute, divine-right monarchy!) and has great religious authority. Did he order this to be done? Was there opposition?


Charlotte Mangin: Morocco does indeed have a very active women's movement which for decades has been fighting to elevate the status of Moroccan women, in particular the reform of the Moudawana, or family law. Despite serious opposition from more conservative Islamists, the new king, Mohammed VI, finally pushed the reform through in early 2004. In our film, we recount this history, featuring in particular a feminist named Fouzia Assouli. She is the president of the Democratic League for Women's Rights, an organization that is based in Casablanca and runs community centers in 17 regions of Morocco providing such services as shelters for battered women, literacy programs for women, and legal assistance for women seeking a divorce. As for your question about Morocco's religious structure, the king is indeed both head of state and head of religious affairs in his capacity as "Commander of the Faithful". He was the one to launch this program to train women as religious leaders, as part of a larger initiative to combat the rise of extremism or Islamic fundamentalism in Morocco in the aftermath of terrorist bombings that occurred in Casablanca in May 2003. The most vocal opposition to the program has been from Justice and Charity, the country's largest opposition movement, which opposes the king's reform agenda for being too Western-minded. Justice and Charity's spokeswoman, Nadia Yassine, who also appears in our film, believes the women will not have a revolutionary role because they will be working as civil servants for the Ministry of Islamic Affairs spreading the king's official version of Islam. While traveling in Morocco for the shoot, we also hear that people who follow more rigid doctrines of Islam, such as the Wahhabis, would likely oppose the very idea of women playing a leadership role in the mosque, but we were unfortunately unable to interview such a person.


Arlington, Va.: What an amazing story. Do you worry about the women's safety? It seems that they're risking their safety by putting themselves out there like that.

Gini Reticker: I do think that the women are in a risky position, but I also think that there is great opportunity in their new roles. The King is definitely using women as agents of change and those in the vanguard of change always face conflict.


How to help?: How can Westerners help support progressive and moderate factions of Islam? I'd really like to contribute to the amazing reforms in Morocco and other places as well as bolster "the silent majority" - the many Muslims who are horrified by terrorists and repression, but don't get the attention (or money) that the extremists do. Can we donate to provide scholarships for women's religious training? Is there a way to research Islamic political/social organizations so we can support those who are peaceful and humanitarian?

Gini Reticker: There are resources on our web site: Class of 2006

There are also women in the U.S. who are very active in promoting women in Islam. Amina Waddud has just published a book called "Inside the Gender Jihad" and Saleemah Abdul-Ghafur has published a great collection of essays written by American Muslim women called "Living Islam Out Loud". You may be interested in those writings.


Portland, Maine: Can you describe the types of classes the women took during their studies (e.g., fiqh, tafsir, tajwid, etc.)?

Charlotte Mangin: The women studied alongside men at the Religious Scholars Council in Rabat, the capital of Morocco for a year of intensive training. They took classes ranging from the fiqh and other in-depth koranic studies that you mention to the history of Islam, Morocco's new family law, international affairs, and communications and PR classes to train them to interact in a compassionate and effective way with mosque-goers. They even took a sex ed class, to be able to inform people about personal hygiene, sexuality, and contraception. The women had the exact same curriculum as the men with one exception: women leading prayer remains a big taboo in Islam, so only the male students at the imam school were taught to lead prayer. That is why the women are not considered full-fledged "imams" or prayer leaders, but rather "morshidat" or religious guides.


Washington, D.C.: I find it kind of ironic that spokesperson (or at least she seemed like it) for the conservative movement is a woman. I had a very difficult time watching her insult these women who worked so hard and truly believed in what they were doing. Is the divide between insurmountable?

Gini Reticker: I believe that Nadia Yassine is opposed to the literacy campaigns that are not part of her organization. She is very much a politician. To her credit, however, I think that her point was also that the country needs a solid public education system, not literacy campaigns.


Quebec, Canada: Does this school teach hatred of Israel?

Gini Reticker: No.


Munich, Germany: I've read recently that women's groups in Saudi Arabia are reaching back to the times of the Prophet in order to obtain more rights in Saudi society.

Were there anything like female Imams during the times of Prophet Muhammad?

Charlotte Mangin: There is indeed a growing trend around the world, not only in Saudi Arabia, to return to the roots of Islam and re-interpret the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed in a more modern way. These women's groups make a clear distinction between the religion itself and the customs or social norms that over the centuries have tended to oppress Muslim women. While there is no evidence of women leading prayer as "imams" to a mixed congregation during the time of the Prophet, there are some passages about women leading other women in prayer. In addition, Mohammed's third wife, Aisha, became very revered as one of four people to transmit the "hadiths," or the words and deeds of the Prophet. On our web site, we include a timeline of prominent Muslim women, including some from the time of the Prophet. Check it out at: Class of 2006


Charlotte Mangin: I'm afraid time is up. Thank you all very much for your questions. It was a pleasure chatting with you. We appreciate your interest and hope you enjoy the film. If you didn't get a chance to catch it on PBS last night, it will be streaming on our web site to watch online as of tomorrow at: Wide Angle


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