CASABLANCA, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)--Nadia Yassine breaks into a face-splitting grin when asked about the parliamentary elections this September in her native Morocco.
"It is a non-event," she pronounces mischievously, her kohl-rimmed eyes twinkling beneath a wispy, but tautly secured chiffon veil. "It's a grand media show which could let foreigners think we're in a democratic country."
After nearly two decades of brutal political and human rights repression, commonly referred to as "the years of lead," during the 1960s and 1970s, Morocco has seen a slow, careful democratic transition instituted by former King Hassan II at the end of his reign. Human rights in this Arab nation have been vastly improved, parliament has seen a limited increase in its powers and the former king did succeed in reaching out to political parties to bring formerly hostile organizations into government.
Today, the moderate Party of Justice and Development--so far the only Moroccan Islamist party to run in elections--is widely expected to win the largest number of votes in the polls.
"These elections are historic for Morocco--and the international community--since there's a good chance that an Islamist party will emerge as the single most important party," says Marina Ottaway, Middle East Program director at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
But that seems to matter little to Yassine, whose father is Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, the charismatic, 79-year old founder of the banned virulently anti-monarchist Justice and Spirituality Movement.
A shadowy, banned Islamist organization, the Justice and Spirituality Movement has a disciplined organizational structure and growing cadre of supporters primarily in the sprawling Moroccan city of Casablanca and other urban areas.
As Yassine talks, a clutch of women around the table--grim, veiled and disciplined--hang on to her every word. The 48-year old Moroccan grandmother may be all disarming, maternal Muslim smiles. But her unsmiling lieutenants in this cafe in the heart of an unlovely district of Casablanca leave no doubt that Yassine is deadly serious.
Voice at Crossroads
Nadia Yassine is a loud voice at a crossroads for women in what is widely seen as one of the most liberal countries for women in the Arab world.
Many devout women see her as an Islamic feminist.
The Justice and Spirituality Movement has a "women's section" that purports to "break the trilogy of ignorance, poverty and violence that prevents women from joining the process of development."
Through a network of literacy and secret solidarity meetings, Yassine says the group teaches women, "how to be actors of history and not subjects." This, she adds, is done in an Islamic framework since "Islam has never said that women should only be beautiful, pregnant and shut up."
But Yassine's track record on women's rights is bumpy and a deep distrust still separates secular Moroccan women's rights activists from their Islamic counterparts.
"Everyone says the Islamists will win," says Aicha Ech-Channa, founder of Feminine Solidarity, a Casablanca-based group that helps single mothers survive the social taboos placed upon them. "On behalf of democracy, they (the Islamists) may get power. But I'm scared they will withdraw women's rights."
Impressive Gains for Women
Over the past few years, aided by the current King Mohammed VI, who is widely seen as Morocco's biggest champion of women's rights, Moroccan women have made some impressive gains.
In 2000, the Moroccan parliament passed landmark, liberalizing reforms to Morocco's conservative Family Code that ushered in a new era for women's rights. In an astute political move, the king, as the spiritual head--or "Commander of the faithful" of the Moroccan people--proclaimed the reforms were under the rubric of "ijtihad," or an Islamic interpretation of the scriptures.
During the debates over those reforms, Yassine's movement--along with the Party of Justice and Development -- infamously took to the streets protesting the proposed reforms as a "western imposition."
Both the PJD and Yassine's Justice and Spirituality quickly endorsed the reforms following the deadly May 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, which unleashed a popular anti-Islamist wave.
Nevertheless, secular activists often describe the turnaround on the Family Code reforms as opportunistic and strategic.
"I don't believe in a moderate Islam," says Nouzha Skalli, a veteran socialist politician. "Islamist parties only use women to support their own vision. I don't believe they are preoccupied by women's freedoms. The only freedom they ask for women is the so-called 'freedom' to use the veil."
While conceding that the PJD and Justice and Spirituality "do not have much sympathy for women's rights," the Carnegie Endowment's Ottaway, like many Morocco-watchers, is intrigued about Yassine's political plans.
"The interesting thing is that Nadia Yassine is a real feminist, although in the Islamic framework," says Ottaway. "Her organization is doing an outstanding job outreaching to everyone. In that sense, Nadia really is a political animal."
Perched Between Two Worlds
Perched at the western extremity of the Arab world, with only six miles of sea separating one of its edges from an increasingly inhospitable Europe, Morocco has long been viewed as a sort of model Muslim nation in Western capitals.
Led by King Mohammed VI, the 18th sovereign of a dynasty that dates to the mid-17th century, Morocco is a staunch Arab ally in Washington's "war on terror." It enjoys the status of a non-NATO ally, has traditional trading ties with Europe and more than a million-strong expatriate population dispersed across Europe and North America.
Now, an Islamic revivalism--that runs the gamut from a nonviolent, religious identity consciousness to violent Islamic extremism--is sweeping Morocco as well as its neighboring Arab states on the northern rim of the African continent.
On April 15, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside U.S. diplomatic offices in Casablanca, just days after a police raid in a volatile shantytown led to four deaths. The attacks came barely four years after a series of suicide bombings across Casablanca killed 45 people on May 16, 2003.
Across Morocco and France, where the majority of Morocco's expatriate population live and work, there's a palpable fear of Islamic revivalism in secular Moroccan circles.
But noting the PJD's moderate, largely pragmatic political track record Aboubakr Jamai, former editor of the independent weekly, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, dismisses what he calls "post-Iraq concerns" that certain countries are not ready for democracy as "a false debate."
"To me, the cost of excluding them (the PJD) is higher," says Jamai, noting the bloody cost of suppressing mainstream Islamic voices in neighboring Algeria. "When you bring people into the debate, you strengthen the moderate voices. If you don't, you risk strengthening the most radical elements."
But Jamai is quick to offer certain rules of engagement. "When it comes to engaging with Islamic parties, it's a risk worth taking provided you take precautionary measures," he says. "To me, certain red lines – like hate incitement, racism, anti-Semitism and women's rights must be drawn."
Leela Jacinto is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. She was an international news reporter at ABCNEWS.com, New York, and has taught journalism at the Pajhwok Afghan News Service in Kabul, Afghanistan.