Hidra works at the Aïn Chock mosque, located in a busy, working-class neighbourhood of Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city.
Her domain is the women’s section: a long rectangle of a room above the men-only main sanctuary, where plastic chairs line the edges of the worn carpets, and a wall of shuttered windows face the qibla, a compass that points in the direction of Mecca, Islam’s holiest city.
Hidra has a doctorate in Islamic studies, and though the Quran prohibits women from leading prayers, her responsibilities are otherwise similar to those of an imam: she teaches lessons, offers counsel, consoles the sick and bereaved.
As a mourchida, her job is to promote the education and protect the rights of her female congregants, primarily by teaching them what scripture does and does not say about women’s status, but also by educating them about health care and legal rights, among other subjects.
'You really live [the women's] problems,' adds 33-year-old Fatima Ait Said, who works at the Makka mosque in Rabat. 'It’s not a simple job that you do just to earn money. It has to be a vocation.'
Then in 2005, the first training program for mourchidat (for women) and mourchidin (for men) launched in the cosmopolitan capital, Rabat. The 50 women and 100 men admitted were scrupulously selected—requirements included a bachelor’s degree and memorisation of half (for women) or all (for men) of the Quran, Islam’s central religious text.
Once enrolled, they studied theology and law, but also philosophy, history, comparative religions and psychology. The government guaranteed that all graduates would be placed in jobs at mosques around the country.
Since its launch, the number of women admitted annually to the program has doubled, and the school has been so successful that it moved from headquarters in a medieval madrassa on the edge of Rabat’s old city to a gleaming new campus by the university. The program, which now draws students from across Africa and parts of Europe, has proven wildly popular; nearly 2000 people — half of them women — applied this year for the 250 slots.
'Every year, two or three men drop out,' says Abdelsalam Lazar, the director of the Mohammed VI Institute for the Training of Imams and Preachers. 'But never any women. They’re more serious.'