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Fatima Sadiqi, an author, linguist and Harvard Fellow from Morocco, is a keynote speaker at the 14th annual Central and Southwest Asia Conference at the University of Montana this week. Sadiqi said women in North Africa and the Middle East are not passive and submissive as often portrayed, and often are agents of change.

It is possible to reconcile the value of tolerance with the problem of gender inequality in Islam, according to author, linguist and Harvard fellow Fatima Sadiqi.

One does so by looking at the issue from within, not from without, Sadiqi said. Once outsiders look closely, they will see that women in North Africa and the Middle East have long struggled against patriarchy – in the family, the state and the social structure.

They will see people who have never been passive and are not the "submissive creatures" they often are portrayed as.

"We are not what you think, but we want to have a say in religion," Sadiqi said.

This week, the fellow on language, religion and gender based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., is in Missoula as a keynote speaker at the 14th annual Central and Southwest Asia Conference at the University of Montana.

The presentations are hosted by the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center at UM and organized with the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center and the Montana World Affairs Council.

This year, one theme of the conference is women as change agents in the Middle East and North Africa. On Thursday, Sadiqi talked about how she became the first woman linguist in the Arab world, and about how women are pushing against patriarchy.

"There is a theory that says feminism is born and reborn in motion. When there is a revolution, feminism is born and reborn," Sadiqi said.


Sadiqi is the eldest of nine siblings, and the first girl in the family to go to school because her father believed in education.

Her father was illiterate, but he cherished education, she said.

"He would say, 'If I only swept the floor of a school,' " Sadiqi said.

Like other fathers of the same generation, he also believed educated children would be equipped to help their parents financially later in life. So he moved his family from the village to the city.

"I didn't understand the logic at that time," she said. "Here we are, from the rural area, in the middle of all these urban people."

The only way to adapt was to go to school and learn to outsmart them, she said.

After she graduated from the University of Morocco, she had the option of spending a year in England. She told her father, who recommended she marry someone and go.

At the University of Essex, Sadiqi, a Muslim woman, met an adviser who would open her mind. At first, though, she didn't trust him.

David Kilby was Jewish, and Sadiqi was convinced he planned to fail her.

"I really panicked. But the man, he was really somebody," she said.


Sadiqi believes Kilby understood she felt torn. He was hospitable to her, his family welcomed her into their home, and he quizzed her on the reason she wanted to focus her studies on Berber.

In response, she told him about an argument she had overheard about Berber before she left Morocco. A couple of students were quarreling over whether Berber was a language, and one said it couldn't be a language because it wasn't written and had no grammar.

Her adviser loved the observation she'd shared, and he told her he could help her analyze the language. Noam Chomsky's theory is that the grammar of a native language is in people's minds, and "linguists need to hook it out," Sadiqi said.

So she spent four years with her husband in England hooking out the verbs and sentences of Berber with help from Kilby. He was ill and emotional at her Ph.D. defense, and he died soon after.

Through their relationship, though, Sadiqi came to see him as a "second angel" after her father, even though she is a Muslim and Kilby was Jewish. 

"It was really something very big in my life, this inter-religious understanding," she said.

As a girl, Sadiqi sensed discrimination against the "backward" language she spoke, and also because she is female. She grew sensitive to both types of discrimination, and in 2003, she published a book called "Women, Language and Gender."

"I'm very happy to say that I'm the first woman linguist in the Arab world," said Sadiqi, who speaks five languages.


After she completed school in England, Sadiqi returned to Morocco. In her home country, women led the reforms and created movements that have had ripples around the world, she said.

Some of the changes seem small, but they're significant and symbolic, like this law for men: "Before you marry the second wife, you'd better tell the first one."

In the deadly terrorist attacks of 2003 in Casablanca, the first people protesting in the streets were women, she said.

"Women's issues became national issues for the first time in history," Sadiqi said.

She's a senior professor of linguistics and gender at the Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University in Fez, Morocco, where she and her husband live.

Sadiqi came to Montana because Rep. Andrea Olsen, D-Missoula, had gone to a conference in Washington, D.C., and heard the scholar speak. Olsen has attended most of the Southwest Asia conferences in past years, and had been to Jordan as a foreign exchange student.

Olsen encouraged people to attend and said she hopes the conference can expand in the future.

"We recognize how complicated, how interesting, and really challenging our understanding of a situation is, let alone the solutions to something we consider a problem," Olsen said. "We tend to put everything in its most simplest terms, which not only precludes deep, true understanding, but really precludes workable solutions."

The conference continues through Friday (see box).

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University of Montana, higher education