Iqra! Women’s Literacy in The Mosques of Morocco

A few folks have asked me about the murchidates program (women religious leaders) here in Morocco, so for SISTERS Magazine’s June issue I spoke to a student (grandmother of seven, masha Allah!) of the program. By the time she told me that she “would be nothing”  if she hadn’t learnt to read through the program, R’kia and her interpreting son were both crying. I, of course, remained stoically professional. Below is the full article from SISTERS and you can also read about the production of and watch the documentary, “Class of 2006,” about the murchidates program online at the PBS site.

I was recently able to visit the Sunna Mosque in Rabat and saw a couple of dozen women studying as a class, in small groups and individually in the vast women's areas off this courtyard.

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Grandmother of seven, R’kia Irda, grew up in a rural valley of the
Atlas Mountains and never attended the mosque as child. Her
mother died when she was very young, and left her with no one
available to take her to the mosque or to school. She had never
learnt to read and only memorised a few of the shortest surahs to
recite in her prayers.
As a young teenaged mother, R’kia moved to a rapidly developing
neighbourhood in Casablanca. Like many young women emigrating
from the countryside, she seldom left her home – and never without
her husband – and she kept the tradition of staying away from the
mosque.
R’kia was in her forties when her oldest teenage daughter began
her journey to the deen by attending the Friday prayer and a host
of lectures at the mosque. R’kia began to join her; first for the Friday
prayers and later attending the women’s classes by herself. Every
Friday for over a decade, R’kia has regularly gone to the mosque for
her classes.
In 2007, Morocco commenced the free nationwide Mourchidate
programme to educate women; it included lessons on Islam as well
as a literacy campaign. R’kia heard about this programme at Jumu’ah
and was excited about the opportunity to learn to read.
When the programme was first announced the excitement
surrounding it was tinged with controversy. There was unease about
women teaching religion, about exactly what would be taught and

even disagreement about who should benefit from the programme.

With Morocco’s illiteracy rates amongst women being about 60%
in 2007, some people who supported the program felt that “old
women should be sacrificed” and that the resources would be better
used directed at younger women and children.
R’kia heard about this problem – that some people wanted the old
women to be excluded – but she says that many women had long
been campaigning for a literacy program and by the time it was
formally announced at her masjid, they were assured that the classes
were going to include grown women.
Looking back, she says she “would be nothing” if she hadn’t learnt
how to read. Through the Mourchidate classes she can now read in
Arabic, she has better learnt the surahs she previously only heard
and she is also learning many longer surahs. She has learnt the duas
for the different positions of prayer and she can now understand the
lectures she attends.
Recently the literacy program began testing its pupils to determine
the success of the program and its participants. Last week Grandma
R’kia anxiously prepared for her first exam ever. As of today she hasn’t
received her results yet, but for her they are superfluous. For the
literacy programme at the mosque has enabled her to learn to read
and she can now continue to learn her religion and better herself.

Work at Home Muslimah: The Great WAHM Myths, Realities and Possibilities

If the Ideal Muslimah is content to manage her affairs within her home, than one who can earn a wage whilst doing so is a phenomenal treasure indeed. You probably know several such sisters and even more who have attempted or are striving to be successful work-at-home-Muslimahs (WAHM) in all of the meanings of “success.” For her book Beyond the Kitchen: Muslim Women on Balancing  Life, Family and Work Huda Khattab interviewed nearly four dozen working Muslimahs and found that about half of them worked directly from their homes or were self-employed in some other capacity. That’s considerably higher percentages than Western countries  report on self-employment, but maybe not too surprising for the Muslims who not only put a high emphasis on the role of the mother, but also find self-employment to mean less compromising of their beliefs.

The Professional WAHM

The US Department of Labor estimates that half of all work-at-home peoples have college degrees and work in professional fields, and just as in the external workforce, professional WAHMs generally have the highest dollar earnings. Khattab found that like their non-Muslim counterparts professional working Muslimahs came into their successes at different ages and stages. Some started their careers before their families and then found ways to parlay their experience into self-employment after they married and/or had kids. Others put family first and later embarked on the path to self-employment.

I have known professional therapist, accountant, and paralegal WAHMs who received their training by varied routes and wound up with home offices. The would-be paralegal worked part-time jobs while her daughters were young. By the time the girls were tweens, she was burnt out on having to accommodate her employers. She began taking classes at a “pecking pace” but soon enough became a certified paralegal. Nowadays you can earn a paralegal certification entirely through online schools.

The Telecommuting WAHM

Telecommuting is a popular fantasy, but often a dream deferred for would-be-WAHMs. Nearly always, telecommuting evolves from an onsite position that the employer willing allows the employee to continue at home. There are a few training programs, such as medical transcription certification, which people are very commonly led to believe will lead to work-at-home telecommuting-like jobs. I have known three Muslimahs who paid (or went into debt) for training, but have yet to be employed as medical transcribers at home or elsewhere. Be wary of all work-from-home offers—even certified training.

During the overly-enthusiastic dotcom inception, it was wrongfully assumed that telecommuting was going to flourish. Although studies have proven that telecommuters are more efficient employees (telecommuters overcompensate because they guiltily believe they just can’t be working hard enough in their PJs!) the majority of employers are distrustful, preferring to keep a watchful eye on their staff onsite.

I know two hard-working former telecommuting WAHMs. Both were ideal, super-productive, well-trained and hard-to-replace employees. Upon switching to telecommuting, they became merely contracted employees (losing benefits) and were ultimately replaced by in-person workers when their contracts expired. One has rejoined the outside workforce since her family could not live on her husband’s income. The other is still searching for a WAHM gig that will suit her family. She has become a very frugal SAHM and wants to pursue freelance work, but has found that first her skills need improving. Let this be a warning to those would-be telecommuters who want to stay home—you have to moonlight at diversifying your abilities, most likely the job will come to an end and you’ll be glad if you can transition yourself to something else—like freelancing.

Freelance WAHMing

People don’t generally go to school with the dream “to be a freelancer!” Like the professionals, freelance WAHMs either had experience-based skills before they started WAHMing or developed some in order to manage their skills into a business. One of the most commonly known fields for freelancing is creating media content. Most of this work is based or for online, such as graphic and website design where there truly is an immeasurable market, but also immeasurable competition. Building up a freelancer’s portfolio often means interning or “volunteering” to prove one’s worth before you can actually be paid for your work. Sounds a lot like school work, right? Freelancers must please their customers to be able to earn frequent return business and good recommendations to new customers; otherwise they will always be on the look-out for new clients. A freelancer cannot “fake it ‘til you make it;” think of training and certification as investing in your business and therefor your family. Freelancing will likely involve investing in some kind of equipment, such as software which can run quite pricey. If you have never considered freelancing, but it sounds appealing, visit sites such as ifreelance.com or wahm.com and see what sort of skills potential clients need and if you can attain them.

The Artisan WAHM

Because I am an artist, the majority of WAHMs I know are artisan WAHMs, self-described along the lines of “artist with kids” or “crafty mama.” The first group trained or studied in some capacity to be artists WAHMs and found a way to do it at home, the “crafty” WAHMs are usually creative, as in “industrious,” women who were not trained in the arts but found a crafty way to earn some income.

My glass bead-making friend worked in several mediums with varying degrees of success before finding her passion in glassmaking. She calls her success bead-making business a fluke, but friends and family know she worked very hard to build her business. She does loads of marketing and networking, and sells at craft fairs, bead stores, online and several bead conventions. She tried making jewelry with her own beads, but found that too time consuming and not nearly as profitable. A little bit of research could have informed her that making jewelry with her beads would actually decrease her income. Remember, remember, remember-haste really does makes waste. Always do a little more leg work than you want to, it can save you and your family undue hardship.

Although the mere mention of “work-at-home-mom” triggers images of a mom wielding a hot glue gun, artisan WAHMing is not easy or quick to find a successful niche in, partially because of the illusion of success created by hobbyists. The IRS classifies a hobbyist as someone who makes less than $400 annually. As opposed to a bonafide entrepreneur, a hobbyist is someone who does not actually earn an income from their work. Craft fairs, online markets and similar venues are over-saturated with hobbyists, which drives down selling prices for bonafide entrepreneurs, and also may lead wanna-be-WAHMs to believe that there is a lot of demand and need for more supply. Not so! Many of those bath-bomb and candle makers really are just having a good time.

A failed business attempt can be especially difficult for a WAHM’s family to bounce back from if they were anticipating the added income. Do not buy 50 kilos of beeswax based on what you think you could sell at a local fair. Do your research. I have been fortunate enough to learn from the mistakes of several would-be-WAHMs’ failures.

Direct Sales WAHMing

Likely the most dangerous of all WAHM endeavors is direct sales, which is selling someone else’s products directly to customers who you seek out. Tupperware, Pampered Chef, AVON, and Amway are direct sales products you are probably familiar with. There is an abundance of WAHM look-a-likes in direct sales, but just like those craft hobbyists, direct sales is full of busy women not actually earning incomes. A gourmet aficionado friend who sells high-end kitchen wares readily admits that she does it for the discount–not the income. Her mother sells Tupperware for the same reason. I have witnessed many friends trying and failing at direct selling things such as specialty toys, jewelry, candles and tea. All fell into the common trap of direct sales deaths–leaning on their social circles for a market base. This is a horrible lesson learned for families who have invested in direct sell stuff. Dead-end start-up costs, be they from training, supplies or inventory, are hazardous to the would-be home business. Do extensive research before you buy into anything.

Going back to school or seeking out any other training may sound daunting if you already have kids, and especially when feeling desperate to start something up, but it can’t be emphasized enough how finding a good match for you and your family will take some time and investment to do. Be realistic and find some encouragement in knowing that about 70% of home-based businesses succeed in their first three years, as opposed to 29% of non-home-based businesses. The important thing to always keep in mind is that everything you have—your children, your wealth, your talent and your health—are on loan from Allah. Do not be hasty and wasteful with His resources.

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This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue of SISTERS Magazine.

Hijrah Diaries Seven: J-O-B

Word cloud with the word "Solace" central forming a coffee/tea cup with steam rising out. "Finding Solace" appears below.

Day 112: Ok. I know that happens. I know some brothers have multiple wives on multiple continents. I know some of those wives by name. But – as if I don’t have enough on my plate right now – I really don’t need women projecting their fears onto my life. I know that! I know brothers do that and I know it is their right and I know my rights too, thank you very much. Allahualim, what is to be will be. I just don’t need to be wasting any of my energy worrying about that or about much of anything. I am struggling to be in the moment while simultaneously planning for the future, appreciating that Allah is the best of planners and being patient. This is a really tall order for me. So just shut up already. I’m going back into my cave now.

Day 120: I haven’t been going out much at all, and “out for her needs” means “exercise and fresh air” for me. Those are my needs. I need them! But I feel guilty about dumping all my kids on my m-i-l or s-i-l for babysitting and it isn’t easy to drag five little kids around on foot in Casa, actually I have yet to see anyone else doing it! So, I take them out in pairs, but then this doesn’t really give me a break does it, so I just don’t go out much. This is temporary, I tell myself. This is temporary. And Allah knows best. Oh yeah, socialization is a pretty big need too, but since I have no friends, in the physical immediate, guess that is a moot point. At least the kids have each other. And cabin fever. Gah.

Day 125: Not digging this separation thing with me being alone here in the Hub’s backhomelandia and him being alone (well, with the son) in my backhomelandia. I am stuck in a  cycle of resentment  for feeling that I am carrying too much of our load and I’m angry at myself for being unappreciative. Resentment, anger, resentment. I also have small doses of fear thrown into the mix for variety. I do fear that we will have to do this again next year and maybe every year for the rest of my life, as so, so very many people do. Oh yes, and there is also me recognizing, not really dealing with, just recognizing my feelings of entitlement. While confronted with how so many people live and accept their lives, I am impatient at how we are living ours and I am questioning – very loosely, as I just don’t presently have the concentration for too much deep thought – what kind of life I have been conditioned to believe and believed to think that I am entitled to have versus what my reality is. I feel entitled to something other than what I currently have, and that is a very ugly thing to feel. Still, not keeping my nose out of the resentment, unappreciative, fear cycle long enough to confront this entitlement business. I’m just mad. All.the.time. And like a good ummi, I’m trying to hide it – all of it. Amazingly, the kids seem far more patient with the adjustments, but I do think they have not gotten past the newness of it all, yet.

Day 133: Thinking about getting a job. I see the absurdity as I type this sentence. As if I’m not frustrated enough! Would a job magically cure my ills? It most likely would add more stress to my load, so I keep trying to suck on that unsavory word – sabr – but I know I could buy some tastier whatnots with the few bucks a job would provide. I could even take coffee breaks all by myself!

When we were negotiating our marriage I told the would-be-hub that I wouldn’t work after we had kids. We now have five kids and I have only very briefly held myself to that promise. When we had our first a year after our nikah, I felt a little guilty about handing him the full load so soon, so I kept working – for two more kids! Then I started working from home, as if the lack of drive time makes it any less work. And then when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came up while I was pregnant with our fourth, I briefly went back to work, or rather out to work – remember I never actually stopped working except that other year that we were here in Morocco.  Of course, I was homeschooling that year and all subsequent years. “Teacher” is what I believe the paid position is called. And then I went back out to work again when I was pregnant with the fifth. See, so, I don’t know why I keep thinking this should be such a cut and dry, yes or no decision to make about getting a job – here, there or anywhere – when obviously it is very very very complicated.

The husband has asked me to be patient, ride out this rough patch, but of course if I can find something to do from home as I previously have… Grrr. The major problem with working from home is that the spousal unit has always struggled with recognizing my need for allocated, separated, recognized Work Time in order to be able to effectively work at home. He will recognize this need only when I am stressed out, when things are running smoothly, it’s as if he thinks I have mastered the work stuffs and can add the childcare to my work duties. Then I get stressed out again.  I suspect that the in-laws are really going to struggle with the work-at-home ummi dynamics – on top of their current struggles with the homeschooling thing and not only the kids always being home, but also having such different rules than what Moroccans are typically used to for their kids. Pshaw, even Americans don’t understand why I let the kids play with a water table and sand box in the house! Anyway. Do I continue to let the almighty dollar command my lifestyle? It does anyway doesn’t it? Where is my mountaintop and my goat!? How much do goats cost here?

Day 135: Oh. So I just revisited some websites about the stages of expat culture shock and apparently I am exactly where I am supposed to be. The stage has even been coined “The Irritation and Anger Stage.” Excellent. I am clinically where I am supposed to be and I haven’t even been doing it right. These expatry expertys recommend A LOT less dependency than I have been partaking in. They suggest taking the bus! My God, no one in this family does that. I mean I tried to figure out the bus routes and was guffawed and discouraged by the other adults in the family. Again, too much dependency. Maybe instead of a goat and a mountain, I should figure out how to get a donkey and a wagon.

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This article originly appeared in the May issue of SISTERS Magazine. Other entries can be found around my blog here (will organize them soon, insha Allah) and a few HERE on the SISTERS site.