Fatima Sadiqi overcame the prejudice of her mostly male peers to become one of Morocco's leading academic linguists. As well as languages, she has written extensively on gender and Islam, and in 1998 founded Morocco's pioneering postgraduate unit of gender studies, based at the University of Fez
Nominated by the UN secretary general as one of eight female members of the Committee for Development Policy and appointed by King Mohamed VI to the board of the Royal Institute for Berber Culture, Sadiqi's motto is: 'Think globally and act locally'. Fatima Sadiqi was talking to Saundra Satterlee from The Guardian
Climbing the academic ladder in a male-dominated Islamic country has had its challenges. Although I am now accepted, nothing was given to me or could be taken for granted. Patriarchy and glass ceilings come to mind. I started at the lower end of the social scale, and from there I learned to navigate the whole spectrum – possibly better than someone born to a more privileged position who might see only her environment. I consider it empowering that I started at almost zero.
Originating from a rural Berber village in the region of Azilal, Morocco, I became multi-lingual (Moroccan Arabic, written Arabic, French, English and some Spanish) through hard study and also moving to the city. My mother is illiterate. She was 14 when she married, and as I'm the eldest of her nine children she is more of a sister to me.
The big figure in my life was my father. He was a military officer who, prior to marriage, was based in France and Germany. My mother never travelled abroad – except once to Mecca. My open-minded father wanted me to have an education and would tell me time and again: "I know that you are smarter than your brother, but we will pretend that he is smarter." I took the point and followed his advice.
Following undergraduate studies at the university in Rabat, I went to England for my PhD. The experience had a profound impact on my life. There were very few Muslims at Essex University at the time and when I discovered that my supervisor – a world-renowned professor of linguistics – was Jewish I almost fainted. We were supposed to be "enemies" and I thought he would fail me.
My initial and misplaced reaction to having a Jewish supervisor had nothing to do with Moroccan culture. In the Berber village where I come from we had many Berber Jews with whom we interacted in our daily lives. The 1967 Middle East Arab-Israeli crises had had an enormous impact on me as a young student, and I thought at the time that I needed to be Arabic.
It was during my first year at university that I started to change deep down. For me, it was the beginning of something new, something that later allowed me to work hard to bridge understanding between different cultures.
My Jewish supervisor, David Kilby, died of leukaemia shortly after I finished my PhD. I keep in touch with his family and still visit his grave to pray and read the Qur'an. He taught me to cross a religious border that hitherto I had not thought possible and transformed my thinking. I dedicated some of my earlier works to his memory.
By the age of 28 I was back in Morocco teaching postgraduate students who were often my age or older. In that period I remember someone who came from another city looking for Dr Sadiqi. It never occurred to him that I was a woman. When he opened my office door and saw me, he apologised and left. It took some time for male doctoral students to accept me as a supervisor. Now they have, but at the beginning I had this problem that I couldn't understand. My husband used to say: "You work harder than me", but early on students would prefer to be taught by him, even though we had the same academic trajectory. It took me almost six years to be accepted as a fully-fledged academic.
I encountered another glass ceiling in the 1990s when I first broached the subject of establishing Morocco's first ever centre for studies and research on women. Although I was a well-established professor, those inclined towards patriarchy opposed the idea – at least initially. I submitted my application in 1993 and was only accredited in 1998. Older male teachers in the Arabic department saw women and gender studies as an unnecessary import from the west.
I had to think of things like democratising higher education in Morocco to include women from the Islamic world. It helped that I described my gender study courses as rooted in Muslim and Arabic scholarship, and not feminist theory.
I introduced the grammarian Ibn Al-Anbari, for example, whose 13th-century writings made non-typical references to women. He also wrote a book called The Masculine and the Feminine, which was something special at the time: his pioneering views gave voice to the feminine. That's how I started building up the centre, greatly helped by the students themselves wanting to know more about western feminist theories.
|Sadiqi's latest publication|
With all modesty (empowered by English, French and standard Arabic), I consider myself the first female linguist in the Arab world and the first to tackle the issue of women from a gender and language perspective in Morocco. Linguistic "space" has been of particular significance for me as a rebellion against patriarchy. The moment you gain languages you also gain access to the language of the media, the government, the mosque – and you start speaking the language of authority.
I am not saying that Moroccan women don't have power. They have great power. What they don't have is authority, which is power sanctioned by society. But they have great power inside the home, inside their private space – who marries whom, for example, or who divorces whom. But to date you have to be a man to be vocal in the public sphere.
Finally, I do not wear the veil, although I have no problem with the younger generation doing so. We think the same thing. For men it means obedience, but for women you can be a feminist and veiled at the same time. My veiled students adore education and worship knowledge – and many are much more vocal that I ever was.
Palgrave Macmillan has just published “Women’s Movements in Post-“Arab Spring” North Africa”, edited by Fatima Sadiqi