In Algeria, women 'imams' battle Islamist radicalisation

Algiers, Feb 28: Hundreds of female religious guides have been at the forefront of Algeria's battle against Islamic radicalisation since the civil war that devastated the North African country in the 1990s.

Their aim is to steer women away from false preachers promoting radical forms of Islam.


The surge of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq, and even in Libya next door, as well as the growing influence of Al-Qaeda-linked militants and Salafists, has them working around the clock.

Known as "mourshidates," their goal is to spread the good word of Islam and a message of tolerance, helping those who have strayed from it.

"Killing is a capital sin, so how is it that people can kill innocent ones in the name of Islam," asks Fatma Zohra, who is in her mid-40s, her hair and neck concealed under a matching purple veil and a hijab.

Like the other 300 mourshidates appointed by the religious affairs ministry, Zohra holds a degree in Islam and has learned the Koran by heart.

She said she was "motivated to know Islam better in order to teach the religion" following the traditionally moderate Muslim country's civil war in the 1990s, which killed at least 200,000 people.

The war erupted after authorities cancelled the 1991 elections, Algeria's first democratic vote, which the Islamic Action Front was poised to win.

Zohra, who was a student at the time, recalled bitterly as she met a group of women in a mosque, that "Algerians killed Algerians in the name of Islam.

" For the past 17 years she has been "listening to women, advising them and referring them to specialists" when their problems are not directly linked to religion.

The mourshidates use skills borrowed from psychology and sociology, working in mosques, prisons, youth centres, hospitals and schools. Unlike imams, who are men, they are not allowed to lead prayers.

When the first mourshida was licensed in 1993 to teach and guide women, only housewives showed up, but the audience has grown over the years to include university students and professionals.

"Imams are good but it is much better to confide in a woman," says Aisha, in her 60s.

Meriem, a high school mathematics teacher, said the rise of "fake prophets," who seek to indoctrinate young people, persuaded her to attend meetings with the likes of Zohra only a few months ago.

"I wanted to learn the true Islam," she said.


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