Noufissa Mikou - portrait of a pioneer

The following is a loose translation of an article which appeared in L'Economiste No 2435 (03.01.2007).

Noufissa Mikou is the first Moroccan woman to become a mathematician. She was the initiator, with Abdelhaq El Jaï (born in Fez, Morocco on 14 July 1948) and the late Saad Cherkaoui, of applied mathematics in the university. Since 1997, she is a professor of computer science at Dijon Passionnée. This is certainly what best describes Noufissa Mikou, the first woman mathematician in Morocco. With Mehdi Benberka, first to obtain the aggregation, the highest teaching diploma, they pave the way for their future fellow citizens to obtain the aggregation. In her fifties, Mikou's eyes shine as soon as she delves into her memories. Between her and the mathematics, it's a long love story. At a very young age, she presented a predisposition for the x and y. A penchant that her family encouraged and helped cultivate. "At my parents' home, girls were encouraged to go to school and go very far. It was the watchword," she recalls wistfully. The encouragement was not exclusively from the family. "Students on the path of excellence also benefited from political support. They saw in us the future leaders of the nation."

These were the first years of Independence, and it was necessary to ensure succession. Curiously this disciple of Al Khawarizmi and others Poincaré or Euclid will find the time, between two equations, to fight alongside her male classmates in the National Union of Moroccan Students (Unem). "Noufissa was a politically engaged activist. What was rather rare at the time for a woman who, moreover, had opted for a subject reputed to isolate and marginalize its followers," said her colleague Awatif Sayah, a professor at the Faculty of Sciences of Rabat. Her commitment and her nationalist fibre, he adds, have ensured that, later and despite a tempting offer, Noufissa Mikou will prefer to return to Morocco. It is in Rabat, at Lalla-Nezha high school, that she will get her baccalaureate (series D) in 1965. She then enters the Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca where she will complete her two years of preparatory classes. She successfully passes the entrance examination at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Fontenay-aux-Roses (the women's ENS) and systematically benefits from a scholarship. In 1972, she passed her aggregation examination, becoming the first woman mathematician in Morocco. Her aggregation opens easily to her a career in the civil service in France.

"I was offered an assistant-associate position at Paris-XIII University, which I left after carrying it out for few years," she remembers. She prefers to go home instead. It was in 1977, launches this Cartesian who, at a glance, asks her colleagues to support her. After a series of dead ends, Noufissa Mikou, who is particularly interested in the applications of mathematics to computer and telecommunications networks, begins a thesis d'Etat which she will complete in 1981. Her research will focus on networks of queues and will require countless trips to Paris. "My work was done between two countries," recalls Noufissa Mikou, who praises in passing the openness of science that prevailed at the time. In 1977, back in Morocco, the mathematician will be surprised at the content of the mathematics programmes taught at the faculty. "Some of the subjects taught were old mathematics. Myself, I did not follow them," she recalls. Noufissa Mikou is also part of the small team that also includes teachers Abdelhaq El Jaï and the late Saad Cherkaoui (her husband), who worked on the introduction of applied mathematics at the faculty of Rabat. "It was not easy. We were faced with a series of direct or indirect blockages from the administration and even from colleagues," she says. "That's normal," says Sayah, "as soon as things are jostled, there is resistance. Higher education is no exception to this rule." An innovative visionary, not wanting to dwell too much on this episode of conflict, Noufissa Mikou goes on with another novelty that has marked her era. In addition to applied mathematics now integrated as a discipline in its own right, the faculty of Rabat will initiate a programme for training teachers.

"This programme will help supply other universities with teachers, resources that were rare at the time," recalls Mikou. This is what has earned the faculty of Rabat the nickname "mother faculty", recalls for his part Awatif Sayah. However, the two teachers emphasize, if these different achievements have emerged, it is partly thanks to the scientific relations and exchanges followed with European universities and schools, particularly French ones. "It was not assistance, but genuine partnerships," says Sayah. The dynamics that prevailed then was galvanizing. Not only for the teachers who initiated new programmes and supervised but especially for students who were sure then not to be unemployed. After two years of intensive courses and even before the defence of his/her thesis, the student acceded to the post of university lecturer and was paid accordingly. This is no longer the case today, says Sayah. "Every time we think about setting up a master's degree in mathematics, we ask ourselves whether our students will find work at its end." Hence this obvious disinterest is seen to go both up and down since the 90s. In this period, says Sayah, students who went abroad to study did not return. Teachers in need of recognition were also declining. It was a lean period for the university. It was at this time, and following a competition of opportunities, that Noufissa Mikou decided to return to France. Since 1997, she is a professor of computer science in Dijon.


JOC/EFR March 2019