Women's Rights

Morocco's King Takes a Courageous Step

In mid-January 2004, the Moroccan parliament passed a new law governing family rights and matters of personal identity. Theoretically, Morocco's women are now among the most emancipated in the Arabian world. An analysis by Martina Sabra

October 10, 2003, is already a historical date for many feminists and human rights activists in Morocco. On that

photo: AP
Morocco's King Mohammed VI

​​date – a Friday, the Muslim day of rest - King Mohammed VI was expected to address the subject of reforming citizen's rights (Mudawwana) in a speech from the throne. The monarch – who according to the constitution is simultaneously the head of government, commander in chief, leader of the faithful and according to Article 23 even holy and inviolable – began his speech to his subjects as always with the formal greeting, "My dear people."

But what he went on to announce was anything but business as usual. It was the most wide-reaching social reform since Morocco gained independence:

1) Wives and husbands are now jointly and equally responsible for their households and families; the previous duties of wives to obey their husbands will be abolished.

2) Men and women may enter into marriage of their own free will and with equal rights. Brides no longer require the permission of a male legal guardian, but may have themselves "given away" if they so desire. Polygamy (the right of a man to marry up to four women) will be starkly restricted.

3) A husband can no longer simply abandon his wife without consequences; divorce is being made easier for women. Simply uttering the ritual words for a divorce (repudiation, or talaq) is no longer sufficient for legal divorce, nor can a divorce be authorized by a notary public (adul). In all cases, the desire of a husband or wife for divorce must be authorized by a government family court.

4) The minimum age at which women may marry will be raised to 18; exceptions may be made with a judge's permission.

5) Couples will have joint custody of children conceived pre-maritally (during the "engagement"). If the husband refuses to recognize the child as his own, he can be forced to undergo a parentage test. This was not possible in Morocco up to now, leading many fathers to refuse to accept responsibility for children conceived out of wedlock, and causing the number of single mothers in Morocco to skyrocket.

Uniting Islam with emancipation

With this reform, the women of Morocco are theoretically among the most emancipated women in the entire Arabian world. "We're at the bottom of the class in North Africa," said the Algerian lawyer and feminist Nadia Ait Zai on the day after the king's speech. "Algeria is now the only country where women need a man's permission to get married."

In crafting the reform, King Mohammed VI took into consideration international standards of law

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while remaining within the framework of Islamic interpretation in his role as the supreme legal authority of the land. This enabled him to satisfy those on all sides of the issue – even the Islamists who had rejected making any changes at all: "We agree to the reform because the foundation of Islam remains unchanged," said a spokesman for the "Party of Justice and Development" (PJD).

"We accept the new law because it focuses not on women but on the family." And people like 34-year-old Buschra Abdu, general secretary of the secular-oriented League for Women's Rights (LDDF) in Casablanca found cause for rejoicing, although she also advocates the separation of church and state: "This reform is a tremendous step forward. We have been fighting and waiting for so many years, we had almost given up hope. And now, at last, something is changing after all."

Women used to be minors for life

The previous law governing family rights in Morocco was written in the year 1957 and based on an archaic interpretation of the Sunnite school of legal thought. Morocco's women were granted the right to vote in 1956, and had the right to a free education. And indeed, many women took advantage of that right. But female government representatives, cabinet members, entrepreneurs and gold medal winners remained "underage" in the legal sense.

"The fundamental principle of marriage was: Obedience in trade for provision," explained communication scientist Leila Rhiwi, a politically independent human rights activist who has handled the coordination of the national association of feminists, "Springtime for Equal Rights": "That meant: the husband earned the money, and the wife obeyed. And if she didn't, he could turn her out at any time, without a judge's authorization."

The reform was long overdue

The Moroccan legal code on family rights was not only in conflict with international conventions Morocco had already ratified, it was also out of step with the reality of many women and families in the country: One third of the Moroccan work force is female. One out of every five families is headed by a woman, either because she is divorced or widowed, or because her husband works outside the country.

In addition, thanks to a quota system, there are now at least 30 women in the Moroccan parliament - just under 10 percent of the representatives. Even inveterate Islamists and arch-conservatives admitted that reform was long overdue.

But the scope of reform has been the subject of an intense debate in the past few years, and the on-going discussion revealed deep social and cultural rifts in Moroccan society. The rejection by Morocco's Islamic legal experts (Ulama) of all things Western is not new in Morocco, which is a modern a country with a strong European influence.

Islamists' fear of destruction of Islamic culture

The family rights law, as a symbol of Islamic identity, was a touchy subject in Morocco even in colonial days. Every attempt at change, no matter how small, enraged the arch-conservative Ulama. The controversy escalated even more due to the growing influence of political Islam in Morocco.

In 1998, when it became known that the "National Plan for the Integration of Women into Development", sponsored by the World Bank, would call for the abolition of polygamy and repudiation, the Islamists again and again turned the sensitive subject of family rights into a political issue.

Emancipation seen as a US-imperialist conspiracy

The largest Islamist organization, with an estimated membership of one million, a non-parliamentary group called "Justice and Spirituality" led by Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, and the "Party for Justice and Development" (PJD) that is represented in parliament, both attacked the "Plan" as a US-American imperialist conspiracy designed to destroy Islamic culture.

Similar cries were heard from the conservative Arabian nationalists, particularly from the right wing of the Istiqlal party. Moroccan political scientist Mohammed Tozy believes the debate on women's rights introduced by the Islamists was politically motivated: "The Islamists were not really interested in women's rights. They used the debate in order to remain in the public discussion and gain political influence. They want political power."

The Islamists are popular in Morocco because they are the only political force that radically questions the legitimacy of the monarchy. "In the days of the Prophet there were no inherited dynasties and no inherited monarchy," says 27-year-old physician Fatima Kassid, a member of the inner circle of "Justice and Spirituality".

"The monarchy was forced upon the Umma, the community of the faithful. In reality, the people should elect their leader themselves."

The King chose the moment to act carefully

Site of the May 2003 bombing, Casablanca

​​Experts on Moroccan interior affairs say the date for the historical royal speech by Mohammed VI in October 2003 was carefully chosen. Following the Islamist bomb attacks in Casablanca on May 16, 2003, in which more than 40 people died, shaking the previously peaceful country of Morocco to the core, the Islamic opposition found itself on the defensive – the right moment to push through the controversial project.

Noureddine Ayouch, a successful advertising executive and the sponsor of ambitious women's projects in Casablanca, was amazed how little opposition came from the Islamists in the end: "Was that all? No loud protests, no violence? Then why couldn't we have passed these reforms ten years earlier?"

From now on, Moroccan women will be among the most emancipated women in the Arab world – theoretically, at least – along with the women of Tunisia.

The most emancipated women in the Arab world – in theory

However, few of them will have the opportunity to exercise their rights – because of the dysfunctional state of Morocco's legal system, and for financial reasons.

More than two thirds of Morocco's women are unable to read and write; in some rural areas, more than 90 percent of young girls have never set foot in a school. Just under half of all Moroccans must subsist on just one euro per day.

In the slums surrounding Morocco's large cities, millions of people live in squalid conditions, without access to clean water and even the most basic medical care.

Coexistence of Islamic identity and human rights

Granting women more rights is certain to contribute to the democratization of Moroccan society. But Morocco's political system will not automatically become more democratic – on the contrary. The reform helps Mohammed the Sixth stabilize his absolute monarchy by uniting the small but economically important liberal middle class, which feels just as threatened by the Islamists as the Mahkzen (the ruling class) itself.

Still: Mohammed VI's reform of Moroccan family statutes is historically important and a courageous signal. It shows that Islamic identity and universal human rights can coexist. And for the first time in many years, Morocco's women have the feeling that something is finally changing in their country.

Martina Sabra

© 2004 Qantara.de

Translation from German: Mark Rossman

Martina Sabra is a freelance radio and print media journalist, working in Cologne, Germany. Her main areas of focus are political and social issues in the Arabic world as well as Arabic music.

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