It didn't happen easily. They confiscated the UN manuals for establishing Human Rights organizations at the airport. We couldn't get the computers out of customs. The Algerian women only received visas to come two days before the conference. But th e difficulties overcome, we made history on the 14th floor of a Moroccan office building those four days, December 14-17, 1995 at the Conference on "Pouvoir Est Communication" (Power is Communication), funded by the UN Fund for Population of Morocco and t he National Endowment for Democracy. Over 30 women and a handful of men-heads of social service agencies and other nonprofits-accepted refurbished 386's donated by the East/West Foundation and French copies of Lotus SmartSuite, got training and learned to use them, and began to mobilize their already powerful but underfunded agencies to work together to improve the lives of women throughout the Maghreb, or North Africa (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania).
The conference was led by the internationally acclaimed Moroccan writer, Fatima Mernissi, a professor at the university in Rabat, who has written numerous books on the role of women in the Muslim world. Most of the heads of the participating Non-Gover nmental Organizations (NGOs) are volunteers and work full-time in addition. The Algerian women risk their lives at all times by simply working, by choosing not to wear the traditional head scarf, by the nature of the risk of living in country besieged by terrorists. Many write their stories under assumed names. Most implored members of the group to not publish any photos taken at the conference. They work at a poignant edge. "We're trying to render women visible in the Muslim world, while needing to remain invisible ourselves."
The call to prayer evoked an ironic background to the conversations at the conference. Behind the voices of women wearing mostly Western dress and makeup and reinforcing the women's movement of Northern Africa, there is the strong and abiding culture of Islam. It is an integral part of each woman here-many who are practicing Muslims-as well as the banner held up by the fundamentalist forces they battle daily. The Algerian women go to work each day at their peril. They live in a country beset by ter rorists intent on returning a modern nation to the 14th century by forcing women back into the roles and silence they were relegated to hundreds of years ago. They walk on streets where women have been killed for not wearing the traditional scarf or for going to school. They have fought their own fathers for the right to an education. They have been imprisoned for beliefs we take for granted: the right to an education, to a job, to determine the course of their own lives.
Yet in spite of this environment, indeed, because of it, they continue to fight for women's rights in the courts, the family, schools, the workplace. They have formed agencies, programs and coalitions to support this fight, and among these are several computer projects. While the countries of Morocco and Algeria are renowned for their exotic cultures, and well-visited for their ancient markets, snake charmers and spices, both have a foot firmly planted in modernity. Algeria has been a democracy for years. Several conference participants come to this fight to maintain what ground has been won for women, having fought the French during the war for the liberation of Algeria. Morocco's Casablanca is the largest and most modern city of the North African Atlantic coast. Neither is a stranger to computers. And both Moroccan and Algerian women are beginning to form exactly the same kinds of community computer centers as are burgeoning in the United States.
For one Algerian the motive is partly political, an ironic twist on our own American concerns for our youth: "Our children have no movie theaters, no libraries. Where do they go? The mosque. That's how they [the fundamentalists] get ahold of them." F or others the needs are practical. "Young girls come out of school with absolutely no useful skills. I want them to learn word processing so they can get good jobs." This from a teacher and leader of a program to support women entrepreneurs in Fez. In Tangier, a bustling city of the mixed cultures of Spain and Morocco, the young people need a place to hang out. And handicapped youth-many victims of automobile and motor scooter accidents-need to learn skills to help them earn a living.
The women responsible for creating an association of nonprofits that drew up a code for women's rights are also creating a place for children to come use computers. A group working to defend women's rights within the legal system has begun a day care program for the children of the local area. "We have to support women's ability as well as their right to work by giving them somewhere to put their children." A woman once imprisoned five years for her political views has started an afterschool program for teens which includes computer training for handicapped youth.
Funding is where the practical efforts of many of these fledgling organizations stumble, not unlike many this side of the Atlantic, though their resources are even more meager. A study of 300 families on the status of women has been completed. In ano ther effort, hundreds of children were interviewed about the effects of terrorism on their lives. Neither study can be published, since the organizations that produced them don't have computers. The foundation structure so well known to us in the US is virtually unknown in and totally inaccessible to North Africa. Large organizations such as the United Nations, UNESCO, and the European Economic Community fund large collaborations, not local grassroots efforts. In addition, publicity is difficult in co untries where the press is not free, where relevant information is hard to find. A conference like this is the first of many steps toward self-sufficiency and self-reliance, a reach outward for support internally. No question, there is much to be done. But as conference director Fatima Mernissi exclaimed over and over, "It is the social capital we must capitalize on here. It is the friendships and bonds created at meetings like this which allow us to do so much more than if we are working alone."
In her capacity as a vibrant, dynamic, energizing leader, Fatima was able to channel the bounty of energy at the conference on an agenda to publish a work telling stories of women of the Maghreb and to plan for a reunion within a year with a larger gro up of international funders to establish a computer training center to facilitate the production of newsletters and other publicity materials for their fledgling nonprofits.
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