Women's Rights in Morocco

New Family Code Faces Many Hurdles

In Morocco many women's rights organizations are pointing to great difficulties in implementing the new family code. Reasons include the vague legal requirements and the government's inadequate information policy. By Beat Stauffer

A veiled Moroccan woman talks with her daughter in the streets of Essaouira (photo: AP)
Even the revised "Moudawana" does not yet provide for legal equality between men and women

​​A little over three years ago, in October 2003, Morocco's King Mohamed VI gave the crucial impetus for reforming the family code, the so-called "Moudawana".

After parliamentary discussions, the revised law was ultimately put into effect at the beginning of February 2004. Since then, Morocco has garnered much international praise.

However, Moroccan women's organizations are coming up with a mixed interim balance sheet: the implementation of the new family code faces numerous hurdles, and even the revised Moudawana does not yet provide for legal equality between men and women.

It was a good three years ago that King Mohammed VI gave the starting shot for the introduction of the new family code with his speech to the Moroccan parliament. This amendment brought Morocco much praise internationally.

However, the implementation presents a much less rosy picture, at least from the perspective of the critical media. "All over the world Morocco is presented as exemplary with regard to women's rights in the Arab world", wrote Le Journal Hebdomadaire. "But the Moroccan authorities are not doing enough to explain the Moudawana to the citizens and to take its application seriously."

Few changes in practice

The interim assessment by independent Moroccan women's organizations is just as critical. For Mina Tafnout, board member of the Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM), there is no question that the introduction of the new Moudawana represents major progress.

In practice, however, few changes can yet be seen. As before, women are suffering from discrimination, domestic violence and patriarchal patterns of behavior, explains Tafnout, and old practices such as polygamy or the marriage of underage girls is still commonplace.

Tafnout also locates the main problem in the implementation of the new family code. In many respects, the requirements of the new law are kept very vague, and the judges have barely been prepared to work with the new Moudawana. For this reason, much depends on the individual judges and their world views.

In the eyes of the Moroccan women's organization ADFM, the Moroccan people have not really been informed about the changes in the Moudawana either. Moroccan public television did broadcast occasional ads two years ago, Tafnout says.

However, these ads were in Modern Standard Arabic and in very technical languages, and they did not reach the vast majority of poorly-educated, often illiterate women.

Thus Tafnout hardly finds it surprising that the new family code has made little headway with many men and has in part been sweepingly rejected. "I have the impression that many men feel threatened by the new Moudawana and fear the loss of their traditional role as head of the family and the privileges associated with it," explains Tafnout.

The ADFM has received countless phone calls and threatening letters from indignant men. Nonetheless, the women's rights activist is optimistic that this deeply-anchored mentality can be changed in the foreseeable future. But this will require a broad educational campaign in schools, mosques, and in the media.

A similar view of the situation is taken by Morocco's second-largest women's organization, the "Ligue Démocratique pour les Droits de la Femme" (LDDF).

In spring 2006 the organization presented its first interim assessment, with statistics on permits for marriages with minors and for polygamy, among other things.

In the view of the LDDF, most of these special permits clearly violate the new Moudawana, which provides for such marriages only under very specific circumstances.

Distrust of Islamist women

Both women's organizations are very skeptical about cooperating with Islamist women and their organizations. They accuse the PJD, the Islamist party in parliament, of taking an unclear and contradictory position on the new family code.

Though all the members of the PJD voted for the amendment in parliament, since then the Islamist press has regularly published critical and negative articles.

For Mina Tafnout, the role played by the internationally-known Islamist Nadia Yassine is also ambiguous: on the one hand, she functions as an informal spokesperson for "Justice and Welfare", the country's biggest Islamist movement, which has always taken a clear stance against revising the family code; on the other hand, she openly propagates an "Islamist feminism".

At any rate, there seems to be a deep divide between the emphatically secular women's organizations and the Islamist ones, one which at this time can be bridged only here and there.

Many proponents of a modern, liberal family code mistrust the Islamist women's motives and regard their involvement in women's organizations and commissions largely as a strategy of infiltration and power grabbing.

For instance, the fact that the LDDF has been repeatedly attacked verbally and even physically by the Islamists is apt to have increased this distrust.

Aicha Ech-Channa (photo: Beat Stauffer)
Women's rights activist Aicha Ech-Channa, founder of the Moroccan Feminine Solidarity Association, was awarded the "Elisabeth Norgall Price" 2005

​​Aicha Ech-Channa, probably the best-known Moroccan women's rights activist, has repeatedly been made the target of Islamist attacks. But the founder of "Solidarité Féminine", who has been fighting for over 20 years for single mothers' rights, refuses to be ruffled by such attacks.

Patiently she lists the discriminations still contained in the new family code. At the same time, however, she expresses understanding about the need for proceeding cautiously in the matter. "If the new Moudawana had gone even further," says Ech-Channa, "it would certainly have been rejected by conservative and fundamentalist circles."

Ech-Channa sets greater store by changing hearts and minds than by confrontation. And she argues passionately for new forms of sexual education to effectively address deep-seated resistance toward gender relations based on equality.

An uphill battle

A somewhat more positive assessment of what has been achieved so far comes from the (Swiss) aid organization cfd, which supports "Empowerment-Programs" for women and disadvantaged children in Maghreb.

Severina Eggenspiller, project coordinator for the Maghreb, says she has the impression that it has become much easier for Moroccan women to file for divorce. At the same time, she also points to problems in implementing the new law, to a number of shortcomings and to the lack of improvement in the situation of single mothers.

However, in Morocco hardly anyone can afford to lobby for these people, due to the taboos on pre- and extramarital sex.

In terms of their demands for the future, the three Moroccan women's organizations are largely in agreement. First polygamy must be banned on principle, says Mina Tafnout, as it is a form of contempt for women.

Second, inheritance law, which is still influenced by Islam, must be revised. And finally it is extremely important to reform the laws regarding child custody, which still disadvantage women. "This is the next battle we must wage!" Tafnout says emphatically.

At the same time, she makes it clear that this battle will not be easy; in Morocco, too, the champions of the Sharia have good cards.

Beat Stauffer

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Isabel Cole

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