Morocco moves to drop headscarf
By Richard Hamilton
BBC News, Rabat
Morocco is making major changes to religious education, in particular regarding whether young girls should wear headscarves.
A picture of a mother and her daughter wearing headscarves is being removed from the latest editions of a text book.
A verse from the Koran that says girls should don veils has already been taken out of the books. Other Arab countries have made similar changes, worrying that the veil could be used as a symbol of extremism.
Trust There are few things that have become such obvious and controversial symbols of Islamic identity as the headscarf. But until now it has not been a controversial issue in Morocco.
On Avenue Mohammed V, the main avenue in central Rabat, older women in particular can be seen wearing traditional long robes with full headscarves. But younger women wear everything from that to more modern clothes such as trainers, jeans and T-shirts, with nothing on their heads - except perhaps some expensive designer sunglasses.
The variety of clothes and head dresses seems to reflect the fact that Morocco is seen as a liberal country with some pro-western leanings. But for some more conservative people this latest move is an underhand way of undermining Morocco's Islamic roots.
Abdelkarim El Houichre from the Association of Teachers of Islamic Education does not trust the government's motives: "I think there is pressure coming from the United States, which believes that teaching about traditional Islam and teaching girls to wear headscarves will somehow encourage extremism and terrorism," he says. "But I think Islamic education has to be kept within mainstream teaching in our schools because that way we can control it.
If we deny it to them in school then they will only go and find out more outside of school and they are more likely to fall into the wrong hands." Dilemma In the current climate, the Moroccan government is worried about anything that might fan the flames of Islamic fundamentalism and says it does not want the headscarf to become a rallying cry for extreme organisations.
Education ministry official Aboulkacem Samir says the headscarf has political overtones: "This issue isn't really about religion, its about politics," he says. "The headscarf for women is a political symbol, in the same way as the beard is for men. But we in the ministry must be very careful that the books are fair to all Moroccans and do not represent just one political faction."
Across the Arab world the headscarf issue seems to be gathering momentum. In Tunisia for example, young women who wear veils say they have been harassed by the authorities who are forcing the girls to remove their veils at schools and universities.
The veil is perhaps a microcosm of a much broader dilemma - should Arab countries in north Africa turn towards secular democracies or to more traditional Islamist countries for their guidance and inspiration? Morocco is treading a fine line between these competing influences and the headscarf might just be something that trips it up.