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WIDE ANGLE: Class of 2006

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In May 2006, history was made in the Arab world and WIDE ANGLE cameras were there. At a graduation ceremony at an imam academy in Rabat, Morocco, 50 women pioneers stood with the male graduates — among the few contemporary women in the Arab world to be officially trained as religious leaders. Empowered to do everything that male imams do, except lead Friday prayer in a mosque, the women would soon disperse throughout Morocco to work as spiritual guides in mosques, schools, hospitals and prisons, and even appear on television and radio talk shows. Class of 2006 tells of this remarkable event.

In recent years, Morocco's government, led by the young Western-educated King Mohammed VI, has unleashed what some regard as the most sweeping peaceful political and social reforms of this decade in the Arab world. Moroccan women, in particular, have achieved some important victories, playing an increasingly active role in politics and successfully lobbying for a new family law that now grants them equal rights in marriage, divorce and the ownership of property. But Morocco, like many Muslim nations, is hovering in a delicate balance between a reformist spirit and a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.

For decades, Morocco has taken pride in its relatively moderate brand of Islam. But underlying extremist tendencies, which had been simmering in recent decades, surfaced in 2003. A series of five suicide attacks that killed 45 people in Casablanca that May awakened the country to growing dissatisfaction and fanaticism within its borders. A year later, the Madrid bombings shook the world, perpetrated in large part by Moroccan-born men. Using his constitutional authority as “Commander of the Faithful,” the king moved to enforce his control over religion in Morocco, closely monitoring mosques, the training of imams and the religious content of textbooks. His government then took the bold step of encouraging women to take official leadership roles in Islam. Whether this will be enough to counter the rise of Moroccan fundamentalism — declared by Spain’s leading counter-terrorism judge, Baltasar Garzón, as “the gravest problem Europe faces today” — is a concern in which the entire world has a stake.

Against this volatile backdrop of political, social and religious tensions, Class of 2006 illuminates the complex forces at play in Morocco as the first women graduate from the imam academy and fan out through the country to tackle their new assignments.

As the documentary unfolds, it becomes clear that the country's women are divided. Democratic League for the Rights of Women Fouzia Assouli welcomes this advance in women’s emancipation. Nadia Yassine, a proponent of sharia law and the spokeswoman for an outlawed Islamist opposition movement named Justice and Charity, dismisses the initiative as indoctrination on the part of the monarchy she would like to see replaced with a caliph.

In the wake of unprecedented changes in Moroccan society, Class of 2006 explores the central role that women are playing in the heated debate raging throughout the Muslim world between reformists and fundamentalists. Capturing the graduates of the class of 2006 as they are thrust into the middle of this debate, this WIDE ANGLE film reveals the frictions that arise where modernity and Islam meet.

Watch the full program online.

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