WOMAN: When we talk of the next elections, we must talk about the past and look ahead to the future.
ENRIQUE CERNA: Recently, 60 women gathered in a Casablanca hotel, to learn how to run for political office. They're involved in a historic movement in Morocco, to expand the role of women in the nation's political system.
WOMAN: Let's do a checkup of what we need to do to get started.
ENRIQUE CERNA: On this day, they were being trained by a team of women from the United States.
MARYAM MONTAGUE: We have an incredible group of women here today. We've gone to the political parties in Parliament, and we have asked them to send their best and their brightest. They come from all kinds of backgrounds. We have doctors, lawyers, teachers, you name it, and they come from all over Morocco.
WOMAN (Translated): Politicians today cannot do without the participation of women.
ENRIQUE CERNA: As in most Muslim countries, the political system in Morocco has long been dominated by men. Of the 325 members of Morocco's parliament, only two are women. (Chanting and applause) But the country's 39-year-old king, Mohamed VI, who has been pushing democratic reforms in Morocco, wants that to change. In May, Morocco's parliament, which has limited powers and authorities, approved a proposal, backed by the king, that sets aside 30 seats for the election of women in the September national elections.
MOHAMMED ACHAARI, Minister of Culture (Translated): The king thinks it's only fair to have women be largely represented in the parliament because, after all, they constitute 50 percent of the population, and they should therefore be represented accordingly.
ENRIQUE CERNA: This act by Morocco's parliament is rare in the Arab world, where the percentage of women in elected positions is minimal. It has forced Morocco's political parties to find strong candidates for election to parliament. Fatima Bellmouden says it's long overdue. She is one of the two women in the current parliament.
FATIMA BELLMOUDEN (Translated): This is extremely important for Moroccan women in the upcoming national election. The parties, in general, have always been filled by men, so this is an opportunity to break this patriarchal system in this country.
CATHY ALLEN, Center for Women and Democracy: Morocco is looking at this election to put it on the map. If these women are elected, it the parliamentary rules are followed, what happens is that they become the first nation in the Arab 40 that actually will have 10 percent or more of their parliament as women. Most of these countries have 2.3 percent or less.
ENRIQUE CERNA: Morocco is considered a moderate Islamic nation. Of its 30 million people, 98 percent are Muslim. For the most part, Morocco's constitutional monarchy has had friendly ties with the United States. While recently critical of the U.S. Foreign policy in Middle East, King Mohammed strongly condemned Islamic extremists for the September 11 attack on America.
In a post-September 11 world, it's so important to reach out to moderate Muslim, democratic states.
ENRIQUE CERNA: Maryam Montague is resident director for the National Democratic Institute in Morocco.
MARYAM MONTAGUE: We are all very busy women. How will we find the time to campaign?
ENRIQUE CERNA: NDI is a Washington, D.C., based non- profit organization that promotes international democracy projects. It co-sponsored the candidate training with the Moroccan women's political group, and brought in trainers from the University of Washington Center for Women and Democracy.
MARYAM MONTAGUE: And Morocco is really striving to be a third way between an authoritarian regime on one side, and an Islamic fundamentalist regime on the other side. It's really striving to be a progressive, modern state.
ENRIQUE CERNA: Morocco is a country of contrast. Many of its people are fluent in Arabic and French, the language of Morocco's colonial ruler that still has close ties with this North African country. In urban areas, like Casablanca, western influences abound -- from outdoor advertisements promoting American movies and consumer products, to rooftops crowded with satellite dishes, and young women wearing jeans and leather.
Still, the traditional Arab Islamic roots are profound in a country whose ruler is a direct descendent of the prophet Mohammed. For Morocco and its people, this is a crucial period, especially with the upcoming national elections.
MARYAM MONTAGUE: And although there have been elections for Parliament, up until now, they've been questionable. In fact, many political observers believe that they have been completely rigged.
ENRIQUE CERNA: It's believed that over a 15-year period, the former minister of interior played a significant role in election irregularity, then human rights abuses. After ascending to the thrown in 1989, King Mohammed removed the minister from his post, in a crackdown on corruption and government abuse. For veteran political activist Nouzha Skalli, these are the days she has been waiting for.
NOUZHA SKALLI (Translated): In the beginning, my involvement in politics was for general reasons, but then I started realizing how important it is to promote women's rights. So I devoted a lot of my time to promoting women's political participation, and now seeing that 30 women can make it in to Parliament is a real achievement.
ENRIQUE CERNA: A pharmacist by trade, Nouzha is a locally elected representative in Casablanca. Politics runs in her family, as her sister is the other female member of Parliament, along with Fatima Bellmouden. Nouzha can often be found visiting her constituents, to hear their needs and concerns.
NOUZHA SKALLI (Translated): I have a record, in terms of women who have actually run for office. Since 1976, I have run for literally every single legislative and local election in the country. You can't imagine the satisfaction I derived from just being in an election campaign. Like when a little girl, for example, comes and holds my hand and smiles at me, I feel emotionally moved because I feel I have given hope for her to see women in Parliament.
WOMAN: You got to make sure you got all the important deadlines of when everything has got to be filed...
ENRIQUE CERNA: Unlike Nouzha Skalli, most of the Moroccan women at this candidate training are new to campaigning.
WOMAN: Every woman will need a dozen good friends to help them succeed in campaigning.
ENRIQUE CERNA: So the American trainers give them the basics, from deadlines to fundraising; press relations to planning a campaign strategy...
WOMAN: Stand over there. Okay.
ENRIQUE CERNA: ...And how to deliver a campaign pitch.
CATHY ALLEN: They really are very strong- willed women. Don't be angry, don't be angry.
ENRIQUE CERNA: Cathy Allen of the Center for Women and Democracy:
CATHY ALLEN: While they are talking about whey women should be elected, you've got to realize that most populations are going to be scared to death if they come off really stridently. So we try to tell them, you know, "Now, be reasonable. Don't look like you're trying to change the world in one day. Settle for just changing one village in Morocco, so that the kids can read."
ENRIQUE CERNA: Bouchra el-Mourabiti understood that message well. The 32-year-old philosophy professor says getting involved in a politics is a religious and national obligation of every Moroccan woman.
BOUCHRA EL-MOURABITI (Translated): In Islam, women are equal to men. Women were the first to support the prophet Mohammed. I would say, confidently, that men who are in power are the results of women who educated them-- literally.
ENRIQUE CERNA: Nouzha Skalli will make another run for parliament. Her party has put her at the top of their list for the September 27 national vote. She hopes Bouchra El-Mourabiti will get the same opportunity. Both feel this is a new era for Morocco, its women and the nation's political system.