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Woman challenges sexism of Islamic fundamentalism By SHEIKH BEKAYE ASSOCIATED PRESS writer

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania — Khaled came home crying one day and said a teacher had lectured about an infidel woman in the government who was trying to destroy Islam. The woman was his mother

Mariem bin Ahmed Aisha, who is 35 and does not wear a veil, is director of the Women’s Affairs Department in President Sid Ahmed Ould Taya’s largely military government

She got into trouble with fundamentalists by speaking out against polygamy. Mariem said her efforts are not directed against Islam, but at improving the status of women in this overwhelmingly Muslim nation

When her 14-year-old son described what had happened in school, she told him: “Your mother is a good Muslim. She is not what the fundamentalist teacher said

Mariem is one of two women in high government positions–Khadjetou bin Ahmed is minister of commerce and tourism–but she became a special target because of her stand on polygamy. Fundamentalists have urged that her husband divorce her for such “anti-religious activities

In December, Mariem was a guest on a state radio program, she explained to an interviewer in her office, and “the subject of the debate was the emancipation of women. I expressed my point of view on certain issues, among which was polygamy, which is for me a very retrograde practice that doesn’t reflect our modern age,” she said

Polygamy is a sensitive issue in Mauritania, a largely desert land in North Africa

Aissata Kan, who in the 1970s became the first woman Cabinet member, worked hard as minister of social affairs for a law prohibiting polygamy. She succeeded in getting it passed, but her husband left her the night of its approval and returned a few days later with a second wife. The law against polygamy was repealed later.

Of the angry reaction by fundamentalists to her own stand against polygamy, Mariem said: “To say that polygamy has no place in our era was, for them, the same as saying that Islam is not good for every time and place”

The storm surrounding Mariem put the government in the difficult position of trying to safeguard her without offending the fundamentalists

As she explained it, the teacher at her son’s school had spoken of “an infidel woman protected by the government who is using the official media to destroy Islam”

Official media, particularly television, were ordered not to cover her activities. She already had caused a stir in Islamic circles by appearing on television in her non-traditional clothing

In mosques, public meetings and speeches, the campaign against her grew .”I was really terrified,” she said. “I became a devil for our conservative society. My husband, who is a religious man, was told to divorce me because a Muslim is not permitted to be married to an apostate”

Her main opponent has been Sheik Mohamed Ould Sidi Yahya, a cleric with a wide following. His speeches have been played over loudspeakers all over the country. They are heard on buses and even in taxis, often whether the passenger wants to hear them or not

Sidi Yahya made two tapes attacking Mariem. The government finally ordered their confiscation and the withdrawal of all recorded speeches by fundamentalists. “They are good proof against him,” she said of the tapes. “I was prepared to prosecute him, but could not because of pressure from his tribe (and) from different personalities sent as mediators

“The most important thing is that I deprived them of a good means of propaganda”

Mariem’s department has been attached directly to the secretariat of the ruling military committee. She described that as a government gesture to strengthen her position

She said her fight in a country where the segregation of women is still the rule “will not be finished until Mauritanian women achieve their rights”

The situation of Mauritanian women is not . . . what it should be,” Mariem said. “We arestill considered a beautiful creation whose only task is to please men

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