Elisabeth Norgall Award for Aicha Chenna

A Muslim Heart with a Secular Mind

Twenty years ago, Aicha Chenna founded the self-help organization "Solidarité Féminine" to assist single mothers and their children. She recently received the Elisabeth Norgall Award 2005 in Frankfurt for her work. Martina Sabra visited Aicha Chenna in Casablanca

photo: Martina Sabra
Under the auspices of Solidarité Féminine in Casablanca, unmarried mothers run a restaurant, receive further training and offer each other mutual support.

​​Friends and colleagues affectionately call the enthusiastic Mecca pilgrim "Hajja," while preachers of hate in Morocco's mosques revile her as godless and insinuate that she is fostering prostitutes and infidels.

But Aicha Chenna does not let that stop her: "I have a Muslim heart with a secular mind," is the 64-year-old's quick-witted summation of her own personal credo. And she is determined to continue to fight for the rights of single mothers and their children, as she has done for more than 20 years, although she sees herself more as a conservative.

"I don't know how I would have reacted if my own daughter had become pregnant out of wedlock," she admits with a smile. "But I am against injustice, especially when it comes to children. And that doesn't go only for babies. Many of the mothers I see were themselves abused as children."

"That was the moment when it clicked for me!"

Unmarried and pregnant – in Morocco this is still considered scandalous, and in extreme cases is even punished with imprisonment. Extramarital sex is also a crime in Morocco and a reason for social ostracism, especially of women.

The fact that they have been branded "h'shuma," a disgrace for their family and society, is something many unmarried mothers in Morocco have taken to heart. For a long time, it therefore simply went without saying that any children born out of wedlock would be given up for adoption directly after birth, whether or not it was what the young mother wanted.

When Aicha Chenna worked in the Ministry of Social Affairs in the eighties, she encountered such tragic stories on a daily basis, until one day she couldn't take it anymore.

"In my office sat a young woman who was nursing her baby. She was about to sign the adoption papers, and took the baby away from her breast to do so. The little one screamed and cried. That was the moment when it clicked for me. I had just had a baby myself and had recently returned from maternity leave. That night, I couldn't sleep. The story kept going around and around in my head."

The incarnation of motherliness

The trained nurse and social worker pondered ways she could help unmarried women keep their children. It was clear that they would have to earn their own keep, because there was and still is no social assistance available in Morocco.

Since most of the unmarried mothers were housekeepers and had worked in households since childhood, one obvious idea was to open a simple restaurant or canteen.

Aicha Chenna thought about this for a while, looked for like-minded souls to help her, and finally founded the association "Solidarité Féminine," women's solidarity. The organization set up two kitchens and several kiosks, which supplied a livelihood for some two dozen single mothers.

That was 1985. Today, "Solidarité Féminine" is one of the best-known women's projects in Morocco and Aicha Chenna one of the country's most popular women. She seems like the incarnation of motherliness.

But Aicha Chenna is not a typical Good Samaritan. What inspires her are a liberal spirit and sense of justice. "Why should women be punished for having a child? Are children that come from legal relationships somehow different? Every child has the right to a decent life and every mother has the right to raise her own child."

A hammam for well-heeled customers

True to this maxim, Aicha Chenna has persistently expanded "Solidarité Féminine" in recent years and continuously extended its activities: Among other things, she has added an advisory center that is open to all single mothers.

Within the project itself, more than 40 young mothers have now found work and training, for example in the newly built women's bath house. The ultramodern, box-shaped building in friendly blue and white with its round windows looks almost like a large ship from far away, with Aicha Chenna as its captain.

"We wanted to build a genuine Moroccan hammam, with everything that Moroccan women expect to find there," explains Aicha Chenna during a tour. "But we also wanted it to be modern, bright and spacious, with additional features such as medical massage, a beauty salon and fitness room, to appeal to wealthy women from all over the world, including foreign tourists."

The fact that the hammam is not a commercial project but rather serves a social purpose is evident when we reach the top floor: here, the babies of single mothers are looked after in the project's brand new day-care center.

Royal support

Opened in fall 2004 with a personal visit by the wife of the Moroccan king, Princess Salma, the lovely hammam, which was co-financed by the "Christlicher Friedensdienst" (CFD), is the crowning achievement of Aicha Chenna's life's work till now.

With growing media interest in both Morocco and abroad and the newly gained royal support for "Solidarité Féminine," it is easy to forget how much courage and strength are still necessary to help single mothers and their children obtain the most elementary human rights in Morocco.

Thanks to the family law reform in early 2004, extramarital sex is no longer necessarily a crime in Morocco. Paternity tests have been introduced and the legal situation of children born out of wedlock has been improved.

But unmarried mothers are still socially ostracized, while the father's role is usually overlooked. Sometimes she feels suffocated by the taboos and double standards in her society, says Aicha Chenna. Then she escapes for a few days to her hometown of Marrakech, in order to regain her mental equilibrium.

How does she always manage to find renewed energy? "I don't know. Perhaps when I see a mother who is happy to be together with her child. Or when someone greets me on the street and says, Aicha, we saw you on TV yesterday and we agree with you wholeheartedly! That gives me courage."

Martina Sabra

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

To honor the memory of Elisabeth Norgall, the "Elisabeth Norgall Award," including a grant of 5,500 EUR, is awarded each year in March to a woman who has devoted herself to the interests and problems of women and children. Since 1978, the International Women's Club of Frankfurt e.V. has been conferring the prize alternately on a German or foreign woman.

Aicha Chenna published the book "Miséria" in 1997 (in French, Le Fennec, Casablanca).

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