Fri, 29 Sep 2023

Vienna, 6 June - "Our religion is a true, honest religion that treats women with justice and fairness," Zeinabou Maata declares, leaning forward for emphasis.

Zeinabou, a Muslim woman from Mauritania, knows of what she speaks - she graduated from the largest Islamic institution in Mauritania and studied Islamic law at the post-graduate level.

Moreover, she is one of 50 women serving on the frontlines of preventing terrorist attacks in her country.

Known as the Mourchidates, these women educate their communities on the risks of violent extremism. The network was created in 2021 with support from the Mauritanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Mauritania belongs to the Sahel region of Africa, an area which has faced "an expansion of terrorism and extremist movements," Zeinabou explains.

Starting in 2005, Islamic terrorists carried out several attacks across the country, to the dismay of devout Muslims and proud Mauritanians like Zeinabou.

"We Mauritanians are tolerant and understanding of others, and we accept and welcome people from other religions," she proudly says. "These attacks were contrary to both Mauritanian culture and Islamic sharia."

But how to fight back against rhetoric that uses and distorts the Qu'ran?

"The Qu'ran," Zeinabou says simply.

Chosen specifically for their expertise on Islam, the women focus on using Islamic arguments to counter messages of hate and violence.

"We clarify verses from the Qu'ran and explain the hadith [a collection of sayings from the Prophet Muhammad], both of which urge peace and civil and community security," Zeinabou continues. "We point out the seven concepts that are used in extremist discourse, such as jihad, and use Islamic arguments that show the correct intention of these verses - which combats extremist ideologies."

The Mourchidates women determine where and which groups are at risk of falling prey to extremist arguments. They then use their network to facilitate dialogues at prisons, mosques, schools, markets, or even homes.

"Once, we Mourchidates visited a prison - the first time something like this had been allowed in Mauritania," Zeinabou says. Inside, they discovered that one of the female prisoners had been a powerful leader within the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, a terrorist group that was a pre-cursor to the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

"We are proud that we were able to persuade her - with religious arguments - that Islam is a righteous and tolerant religion," she relates. The woman agreed to participate in a dialogue between religious scholars and former Salafis, sponsored by the Mauritanian government.

"Eventually," Zeinabou says proudly, "she announced her withdrawal from these extremist ideas and promised to get involved in activities that serve Mauritania's security and civil peace."

In 2022, Mourchidate assistance reached more than 10,000 people. In Nouakchott, the Mourchidates supported the wives, sisters, and mothers of detainees, helping them to abandon violent, extremist ideas. In Ould Yenge, near the borders with Mali and Senegal, the Mourchidates contributed to an early warning system by alerting law enforcement forces of suspicious cases. Meanwhile, in Adel Bagrou, a city on the border with Mali, the Mourchidates network provided support to young victims of terrorism who had found refuge in Mauritania, facilitating their integration into everyday life in their new country.

Since Zeinabou became a Mourchida, Mauritania has not experienced a single terrorist act, a fact that Zeinabou attributes directly to the network. 

"Women are capable of achieving anything," she says. "They have the gift of being persuasive, tipping the scales in their favour, and they should use these roles to help serve their countries."

More on the Sahel Gender Initiatives can be found here


Source: UNODC

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