Sadiqi: ‘The work I do is very much linked with who I am’

On Thursday, November 8, Fatima Sadiqi will speak on the UW–Madison campus about North African Women’s Rights in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring as this fall’s J. Jobe Soffa and Marguerite Jacqmin Soffa Distinguished International Visitor. Her talk, which is free and open to the public, will be held at Union South, at 4 p.m. She recently talked about her life and work in an interview:

Fatima Sadiqi learned at a young age that the Berber language did not command the same respect as Arabic, French or English in her native Morocco. That became particularly apparent after her father, while serving in the military, moved the family from their Berber village into the city.

“I went to school and then saw … nothing about Berbers, nothing about my language, that it was taboo even to speak Berber,” says Sadiqi. “I used to feel very embarrassed when my father would speak the language in front of my peer-group.”

Alongside this linguistic inequity, she also witnessed gender inequalities. In Morocco, the two are often connected; most Berber-only speakers are women, who seldom have opportunities to attend school.

Fatima Sadiqi
Fatima Sadiqi

“Female leadership in whatever field –academia is one of them—is still not culturally accepted,” says Sadiqi, a pioneering professor of linguistics and gender studies at the University of Fes.

She tells of one student who was interested in working on his Ph.D. with her, until he learned her gender.

Through her academic pursuits and activism, Sadiqi has worked to legitimize both the Berber language and advance women’s rights. She founded the Moroccan Centre for Studies and Research on Women in 1998, the first graduate program on gender studies in 2000 at the University of Fes, and the Isis Center for Women and Development, an NGO focused on family law reforms and women’s rights in Morocco, in 2006.

Currently on a writing residency at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, Sadiqi is working on a book about women’s cultural rights, titled A feminism of one’s own: Berber women’s agency and the feminist discourse in Morocco. Each chapter will begin with personal stories.

“I started to be interested in women’s issues, and the link between language and patriarchy and power—all that is very much linked to my own life,” she says. “The work I do is very much linked with who I am.”

About 40 percent of Morocco’s population speaks Berber, a language with a rich history tied to Islam and the development of North Africa, she explains. But, she says the language has been marginalized, because it’s indigenous. Unlike Arabic, Berber is not a part of Islamic practice.

Sadiqi began seeking the legitimization of Berber through her thesis work on Berber grammar. She says that skeptics cautioned against her project, claiming that Berber was not even a real language because it lacked a formal grammar and dictionary.
Using her linguistic training and Noam Chomsky’s theory about internalized grammar, she drafted a grammar system for Berber.

With her husband, Moha Ennaji, she wrote the first Berber textbook for children. Under scrutiny, they held weekly discussions on Berber with a small group of language teachers. “We were very much watched, but we did it,” she says.

Sadiqi’s efforts contributed to the designation of Berber as an official language in Morocco’s new constitution, written in 2011, after the start of the Arab Spring uprising.

“Little victories like this [help] me reconcile with my own background,” says Sadiqi. “I’m very happy now that the language is official.”

In recent years, Sadiqi also has pushed for policy changes to advance the rights of women. She circulated and signed a petition for reform – a million-signature campaign that eventually led to revisions in Morocco’s Family Code, a set of laws governing marriage, custody, and divorce. Among the changes, the minimum legal age for marriage has been increased from 15 to 18.

“The family law is like the backbone of women’s rights in Morocco,” says Sadiqi.

She also has been leading efforts to eradicate child marriages in the region around Fez and northern Morocco, by raising awareness and empowering girls and their parents.

Nearly two years after the start of the Arab Spring, Sadiqi is examining what has changed in regard to women’s rights across the region.

She notes that the revolutions have led to political reform, as well as an increased Islamisation of the region, which does not necessarily conflict with women’s rights.

“I think it’s a good experience after all, because now it seems there is this thirst for more democracy,” says Sadiqi. “I think we are on a good track; well, I hope so.”

— by Nora G. Hertel

Other links: