The countries of the Maghreb strive to reinterpret Islam in modern social contexts through their revised family codes, which secure women's rights without compromising Islamic values, writes Fatima Sadiqi
Women in North Africa have made tremendous progress in promoting and upholding their rights. Women in this region – commonly known as the Maghreb – are at the forefront of the Arab world in terms of individual rights and gender equality, and constitute models for other Arab women to follow. A number of lessons may be drawn from the inspiring experience of women in North Africa, especially in Morocco and Tunisia.
Access to justice has been greatly facilitated by the new Family Courts in Morocco as necessitated by the Moroccan Family Code of 2004. When women marry, they are now able to retain ownership of their property thanks to Article 49 of the code, which allows for a separate contract on property alongside the marriage contract.
This is in accordance with Islamic law, in which women may remain the sole owners of their property and have no legal obligation to share it with their husbands.
In addition, mothers married to foreign nationals in Morocco and Tunisia can now pass on their citizenship to their children – a privilege previously allowed only to men.
The countries of the Maghreb have made significant headway in combating violence against women. Almost all Arab countries have signed the most important international convention that bans such violence, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), with exceptions to articles that clashed with a literal interpretation of the Islamic law. But Morocco has recently agreed to the convention in full.
Considerable progress for female rights
Women are also more visible in economic and academic spheres than before in the Maghreb. Nationwide youth literacy is gradually becoming a reality with women demanding accessible and standardised educational opportunities. And women often spearhead business ventures, are increasingly choosing their professions freely and feeling safer at the workplace as a result of laws that combat sexual harassment, and have better access to clinics and more independence in making decisions about their reproductive health.
Fertility rates have dropped considerably in the region, from well above six children per women in the 1970s to approximately two per woman in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, according to the Journal of African and Asian Studies. This reduction is impressive: the Maghreb accomplished in 25 years what took almost 200 years in France.
Women in the Maghreb have also progressed when it comes to exercising their political rights and civic voice, with more and more women becoming members of their nations' parliaments (43 in Tunisia, 34 in Morocco and 30 in Algeria) and local governing councils (no less than 3,406 in Morocco).
Non-governmental organisations have played an essential role in pushing women's rights forward in the Maghreb region. Networking between associations at national and grassroots levels ensures that activists can disseminate information and rally multiple groups to help promote new legislation or initiatives that help women.
Moroccan women's associations getting stronger
Support networks, such as Anaruz, a network of Moroccan women's associations, are getting stronger despite the society's conservative social norms. Women's rights organisations and individual activists have helped the government to improve the rights of all women, which the state sees as a way to improve society as a whole.
Another lesson that the Moroccan and Tunisian experiences offer is the importance of the place given to gender and women studies in some universities. These academic programmes have proved instrumental in changing social perceptions, attitudes and structures that obstruct gender equality.
One of the main reasons for the slow progress in women's rights in the rest of the Arab world is an unfounded fear among conservatives that granting full equality to women constitutes an imposition of Western values and a deviation from Islamic norms. Proponents of women's rights in the Maghreb, however, have made every effort in their thinking and action to show that it is patriarchy and social norms, and not Islam itself, that constitute the roots of their problems.
Women's rights are indeed congruent with the spirit of Islam and with universal ideals. Islamic jurisprudence has a tradition of ijtihad– an independent and contextual interpretation of the Qur'an and hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad – which allows consideration of culture as a changing concept.
The countries of the Maghreb strive to reinterpret Islam in modern social contexts through their revised family codes, which secure women's rights without compromising Islamic values. Tradition and modernity are not lived as mutually exclusive. The future of women's rights in the Maghreb greatly depends both on the work of civil society activists and continued Islamic legal reform based on universal human rights.
© Common Ground News Service 2009
Fatima Sadiqi is a professor of linguistics and gender studies and a UN expert on gender. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).