Uncertainty for the future of the Moroccan women’s movement

For the past twenty years Moroccan women, from the liberal camp to the Islamist, have campaigned for equal rights for women. Their struggle has borne many triumphs and is gradually beginning to change the lives of women throughout the country. But how will they face the new challenges presented by Morocco's first Islamist-majority government?

In the Moroccan parliamentary elections of November 25, 2011, for the first time in Morocco’s history, an Islamist faction, the Justice and Development Party (PJD) won 40 percent of the seats in the government, giving it the majority in Morocco’s legislative body. Since then the leaders and members of Morocco’s liberal/secular women’s movement have been on alert. In January 2012, when Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane (PJD) revealed the appointments of his cabinet, much to the chagrin of the liberal women’s movement, only one woman was given a ministerial position. Bassima al-Hakkaoui, former MP and member of the PJD and, now, the Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development, is the first hijab-wearing Islamist political figure to serve in the Moroccan government. Maguy Kakon, Social Center Party parliamentary candidate in 2007 and 2011, claims that while it may be too soon to tell exactly what the PJD government’s agenda will be, women are preparing “to fight to keep their hard-earned rights” that they fear may soon come under attack.

In Morocco, the struggle for the expansion and implementation of women’s rights scored a concrete victory and began to gain momentum in 1992. Led by the Union of Women’s Action (UAF), a petition calling for reform of the personal status code and Sharia-based family law garnered signatures of one million women. The petition's second demand beseeched the government to sign the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and use its articles to amend the country’s Moudawana -- the official family code that dictates the roles and relationships between men and women within the family and family law.  Zakia Selime claims this was the entry point for the emergence of “liberal feminism” in the North African context, as well as the birth of the feminist movement and the Islamist women’s movement in Morocco. One year later in 1993, CEDAW was ratified by Morocco, albeit with a number of reservations. Nevertheless, change began to occur in the matter of marriage; an amendment to the Moudawana was made whereby women were allowed to choose their “guardian” – the male relative who signed her marriage contract, making, at least, the indirect consent of a Moroccan woman a prerequisite for matrimony.

Fatima Sadiqi, founder and president of the Center for Research on Women in Fez, claims that the decentralization of power in the 1990s contributed to progress for women, as they increasingly travelled abroad, were exposed to different media sources, and began to be politically engaged in the burgeoning debate on religion and women. Zakia Selime believes that the success of the CEDAW campaign also motivated Islamist women to acknowledge their marginalization in the Islamist movements to which they contributed and to take action in asserting their power. This also led to increasing participation of Islamist-oriented women who sought to be part of the discussion on women’s status in Morocco. Recognizing the advantage of including Islamist women activists, the liberal feminist movement encouraged dialogue with its tradition-oriented counterpart. Signs of this cooperation appeared in the form of using Arabic instead of French, promoting in-depth knowledge of religious scripture pertaining to women in Islam, and parsing out Islam’s treatment of women from traditional practices in Morocco -- to understand that Islam was revealed in a deeply patriarchal social context. In Morocco, treatment of women is rooted as much in Islam as it is in social notions and customs, or clan traditions. For these reasons, Sadiqi believes that the Moroccan women’s movement has been at the cutting edge of “reform, engaging Islamization, modernization, democratization, and feminism.” Consequently, the unique combination of religious and secular women, the shrewd calculations of political parties, and the significant role of Morocco’s “first feminist” King Mohammed VI, are what Sadiqi attributes to having ushered in the era of sociopolitical change for the women of Morocco.

However, in the summer of 2000 when measures were taken to further reform the Moudawana, half a million people showed up in Casablanca to protest the “secularization of family law.” A coalition of Islamist groups organized the demonstration and Islamist women had a strong presence at the rally. Opposition to the Moudawana reform claimed divorce would increase and the willingness to marry would decrease in Morocco if the laws were changed. This incident caused secular feminists to fear that instead of having sincere allies, Islamist women were only being used by their organizations to push a competing conservative agenda that would ultimately unravel the achievements the women’s movement had made thus far.

Alarmed by the substantial public outcry against Moudawana reform, the King put reform policy on hold. Nevertheless, the women's movement continued to pursue its objectives to a somewhat successful extent. In 2002 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which had been created in 1998, developed a national strategy to combat violence against women. (68 per cent of Moroccan women have experienced domestic violence and 48% have been subjected to psychological abuse, according to a recent study carried out by Morocco’s High Commission for Planning.) In addition, the liberal women’s rights movement continued to organize around issues pertaining to women in the realms of personal status, citizenship, public employment laws, access to healthcare and abortion, and the removal of Morocco’s reservations to CEDAW. At the grassroots level, organizations such as the Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) and the Association el Amane pour le Developpement de la Femme worked for the implementation of state-guaranteed women’s rights. They did so by creating an infrastructure of care centers and shelters for at-risk Moroccan women.

In 2003, a bombing in Casablanca carried out by Islamist radicals shook Moroccan society. King Mohammed VI’s response was to join the global war against terror and the main targets of that decision, of course, were the Islamist factions of Morocco. In the great tradition of divide and rule, one of the measures that the King took to reaffirm his grasp of authority was to push through the long-awaited reform of the Moudawana, despite the protests of Islamist leaders and the accusation that he did so under pressure of the EU and the United States. In 2004, women were granted the right to divorce, as well as receive protection from repudiation. Prior to the reform, in the matter of divorce, according to the Family Code drafted in 1957, even in cases of domestic violence, the burden of proof fell upon the wife, and a judge could force her to return home if the husband submitted a formal request for her to do so. In addition, as Maguy Kakon said, the 2004 Moudawana reform prohibits a man “simply putting a letter in the mail,” that informs his wife that they are divorced.  Polygamy is now acceptable in rare cases and only with the approval of a judge and the consent of a first wife. Legal marrying age was raised from fifteen to eighteen years, with judges having to preside over cases that claim to be exceptions to the rule.

Although it marked a victory for the Moroccan women’s movement, due to the trajectory of events that led to the amendment of the Moudawana, Islamists remained staunchly against it, as did their women supporters. Nadia Yassine, a spokeswoman for the Justice and Charity/Spirituality Islamic Movement, who originally championed the efforts to reform the Moudawana in the 1990s, accused the reform as representing the interests of foreigners and the international feminist movement, rather than the legitimate will of the Moroccan people. Again, these tensions were present between the liberal feminist and Islamist women’s movements as early as 2000. This tension was also tangible when al-Hakkaoui, in her capacity as the head of the women’s organization of the PJD, made public that she was against a National Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development (NPA).

Despite these disagreements, the balance of power has thus far proved to be in the hands of the liberal women’s movement. In 2006, the Moroccan government announced the establishment of a gender responsive budgeting plan that would take women’s issues into account in formulating national plans and, since then, many government departments created gender issues’ units. In 2007, the nationality code, Article 7 of the Moroccan constitution, was amended to given women married to non-nationals (foreign Muslim men) the right to pass on their nationality. Under the previous code, established in 1958, only in cases where the father was unknown or stateless were women able to grant their Moroccanness to their offspring.

Yet, in contrast to these victories at the top, the most indomitable challenge to the women’s movement has been the inability to integrate these reforms throughout the country. In 2006, the rate of illiteracy among rural women in Morocco was 64 percent (in 2011, that statistic has dropped to 40 percent). The ongoing obstacle of women’s illiteracy implies that a substantial number of Moroccan women are unaware of the efforts being waged on their behalf by their educated and mobilized counterparts, and the rights they now have to exercise within the Moroccan state.

When the rumblings of the Arab Spring surfaced in Morocco, it was not surprising that the February 20 Movement, which led the protest against the Moroccan political system and demanded action on the part of the King, included several women activists. As soon as March 9, 2011, Mohammed VI responded to the people with a television announcement of new guidelines for the Moroccan government and a revision of the 1996 Constitution. In the same month, the “Government Agenda for Equality” was ratified. In a television appearance on June 17, he expressed support for a constitutional draft that would enhance the separation of powers in government and support gender equality. The referendum outlining these reforms took place on July 1, and passed with 98% of the Moroccan electorate.  For the women’s rights movement, at least on paper, this event heralded a long-awaited realization of 20 years of activism.

The evolutionary aspect of the new constitution is that it offers protection of individual rights and gives special recognition to women’s rights and Berber rights. Moreover, Article 19, titled “Honor for Moroccan Women,” makes men and women equal citizens under the law, specifically, it grants men and women equal social, economic, political and environmental rights, and equal civil rights. It also created the Authority for Equality and the Fight Against All Forms of Discrimination, charged with the function of putting into practice the constitutional recognition of equal rights.

Bringing the story full circle, the June 2011 constitution also addresses the supremacy of international gender laws over national ones, a component that could lead to policy that lifts Morocco’s reservation to CEDAW, particularly Article 16 which relates to the discrimination inherent to family law. This would make way for the full implementation of women’s right as proscribed in the treaty, a long-term demand of the liberal women’s rights movement in Morocco.

However, when Benikrane announced the composition of his cabinet that included but one woman minister, the news cast an ominous shadow over a period that initially felt like Morocco's transition to an era of increasing democratization. In previous cabinets formed in the 2000s, there were anywhere from two to seven female members of the 30-person decision making body. On the other hand, there are 67 female members of Moroccan parliament, 18 of them being members of the PJD. Moreover, the constitutional reform has increased the number of seats reserved to women from 30 out of 325 to 60 out of the 395 seats (15%) in 2011. Although this falls short of the women's movement's campaign to secure a 30% quota that it claims would make a difference in the influence of women in the government.

Yet, it is worrisome that the only female member of the cabinet, Hakkaoui, doesn’t support quotas for women in Moroccan government (quotas were seen to be the main factor that enabled women to hold prominent government positions, for the first time in Moroccan history, in 2002 and 2009). Moreover, it doesn’t seem to bother her that she was given the ministry with the smallest budget, the least political clout, and charged with the task of providing welfare for children, the elderly and the disabled, as well as women.

On top of this, she has reaffirmed her disagreement with CEDAW’s Article 16 and its granting of parity to men and women vis-à-vis the family code, citing it as incongruous with a Muslim state under the command of believers. In fact, this encapsulates the main point of contention between Islamist women and liberal/secular women in Morocco: how the praxis of Islam – in relation to women, marriage, family, and the personal choices involved therein – should or shouldn't be reflected Moroccan civil law. In further comments, Hakkaoui stated that, “ultimately the state must comply with its laws and constitutions,” although everyone can certainly ask for what they want. In light of these words, suddenly, it seems that the long-awaited policy reform on that status of women, although presently ensured in the constitution of the state, may not continue to be promoted by the people currently in power.

After the elections, when Prime Minister Benikrane was asked if his party intended to impose the veil and other “Islamist” modes of living, his answer was that “If we want to fail we will impose the veil…We will not interfere in people’s choices...” But it is difficult to ignore the customary use of the composition of women's rights throughout the Middle East and North Africa as a way to demonstrate who holds the reins of power. The case of Morocco is no different. Moroccan woman activists in the liberal women's movement have expressed concern that they can't trust the PJD's vision concerning gender equality, women's rights, cultural diversity, and individual rights. There are many that talk about the 'exceptionalism' of Morocco in the region but these women argue that Morocco has the same social, political, and economic problems as other countries, and that corruption and dirt are everywhere.

Overall, the vibrant women’s movement of Morocco in the past 20 years has been a unique example of dynamic dialogue between diverse women’s groups along the religious-secular political spectrum. As mentioned earlier, it has been the combined efforts of secular and religious Moroccan women that made change possible. The gains that women have made in Morocco over the previous two decades can be attributed to consensus among the camps of the women's movement that genuine change regarding the status of women must be legitimate in the eyes of the people. Nevertheless, the women’s movement of Morocco has pursued a path of legitimate reform, taking into account the particular socio-cultural and religious realities of this specific North African country. Ultimately, in the Moroccan women’s movement, there is a belief in the democratic process and women, from the liberal-secularist to the Islamist, see themselves as nonnegotiable partners in its pursuit. Hopefully in the months to come, the spirit of cooperation will prevail and encourage honest negotiation and democratic compromise on the sensitive points of departure between the women of Morocco.

About the author

Heidi Basch-Harod is the executive director of Women’s Voices Now, a not-for-profit social enterprise whose mission is to empower all women living in Muslim-majority societies by promoting their free expression, thereby giving voice to their struggles for civil, economic, political, and gender rights