1. Introduction

According to socio-anthropological criteria of norm/margin and inclusion/exclusion (Balandier 1986, 1988; Bourdieu 1991), an analysis of the condition of women in Morocco until very recent times discloses the centralilty of their position in the family, in contrast to their marginal position in society. Indeed, even at a quick glance, the public space appears to be influenced by male predominance, as traditional norms assign women to a condition of semi-reclusion (1). This form of repression relies on the scripturalist application of the Qu'ranic law (which in the 7th century improved the condition of women by acknowledging their legal rights and yet kept them subordinate to men) and seems today as a fundamentally a-historic dogma.

For instance, an observation of the position of women in the public practices of religious life reveals that it is profoundly marked by this form of marginalization (see Langlois 1999, and Seroussi 1998 with reference to the parallel situation of women in the Jewish world). Susan Schaefer-Davis (1983) aptly notices that collective participation in religion as a social practice tends to be characterized by gender, with the dominance of men and the exclusion of women. Consequently, women's religious life is based on lived and personal experience rather than on attending places of worship; it is also founded on emphasized sensitivity and emotiveness - the central elements in the practice of tasawwuf (Sufism) - rather than on the knowledge, interpretation and application of the chari`a (Islamic law), which is the exclusive prerogative of the oulèma (doctors of the law).

For these reasons Moroccan women are more involved in heterodox forms of religious life. Their contribution to the life of the popular tasawwuf  brotherhoods is fundamental, and female presence prevails largely on male presence particularly in gatherings devoted to the hadra. This is a ritual in which music and dance are aimed to the attainment of extasy. It is considered a form of supererogatory cult  as well as a type of individual and collective cathartic-therapeutic practice.

Except for the religious context, the celebration of henna parties constitutes a rare occasion on which women are allowed to share in collective experiences. These feasts take place on the eve of a wedding, and are celebrated by the bride, the women in her family and her friends through their presence in the public space of the hammam, the characteristic steam bath. The event represents the community's re-discovery of the body, and strengthens the feeling of solidarity among women of diff erent age groups and, to a minor extent, social stance.

The process of modernization (asra) connected to the specific geo-political position of contemporary Morocco is in contrast to the traditional life style tied to habits  (thorat), which is solidly rooted in the country's social textu re. This  antinomy is effectively represented by the urban landscape (Cattedra 1996), punctuated by minarets and satellite dishes, the emblems of the opposing forces in the dynamic equilibrium which enables the development of the country. In contemporary Morocco - which looks toward the opposite banks of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic with an eye to tradition and the other to the future - young women, who constitute the majority of the population, are increasingly less covered when they go out of their houses. Girls in jeans and miniskirts move along the boulevards of big cities and small tourist centers, while women in cars or on mopeds, with or without the hijab (Islamic veil), accompany their sons to school. They are by no mea ns censured by the religious authorities, as in the case of other Middle Eastern contexts, nor the target of (male) religious fundamentalists, as in other countries in North Africa.

The specific type of feminism which is evident in contemporary Maghreb is aimed to increase the presence of women in the spaces of social life, and to emphasize the role of women as educators by proposing more open and tolerant pedagogic models based on dialogue and not on repression. Moreover, it intends to promote the establishment of a new society in which the sons - once adults - of Moroccan women can live with their sisters, wives and daughters, and understand their specific characteristics and needs as human beings (Daoud 1994, El Khayat 1993, Mernissi 1987).

In such a climate in which women are recognizing their position as social actors and their progressive claim to the public space, my experience with the B'net Houariyat documents an emblematic case of rapid and drastic transformation of the role of female musicians in Morocco.  In the space of a few years, the story of the B'net Houariyat parallels the journey of Moroccan women in a local culture enclosed within its geographic and symbolic boundaries until their entry into the processes which shape present-day multi-ethnic society. This transformation is accompanied by changes in the group's musical repertory, whose origins are rooted in the agricultural-pastoral culture of  the badia, Bedouin nomadism. This was subsequently integrated into popular culture, cha`abi, and developed in the urban context, finally converging into the ambiguously defined phenomenon of World Music.

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