In a recent interview on 2M, Nouzha Skalli, Morocco’s minister of social development, family, and solidarity, commented on allegations made by Najlae Lhimer, saying that in today’s Morocco, there are no arranged marriages. Lhimer is a Moroccan teenager who allegedly fled to France to avoid a forced marriage; she was deported for being in the country illegally; her cause was championed by French human rights associations and international media.
To those attuned to the reality of the Morocco outside the affluent spheres of Rabat and Casablanca, arranged unions and the marriage of minors are still very common in rural areas and in low and lower-middle strata of the Moroccan urban society. In fact, according to Fouzia Assouli, the head of Morocco’s Democratic League for Women’s Rights (LDDP), the rate of underage marriages in rural areas increased since the reformed Moudawana – family law – was adopted in January 2004. Najlae Lhimer, U.S. MMA champion Iman Achhal, and others are not exceptions as Mrs. Skalli would like us to believe. They are women who wanted nothing more than the right to choose. They were denied it. Mrs. Skalli’s politicized glossing over is even more shocking when one knows that long before she became a minister, when she was a neophyte pharmacist, she was a stalwart advocate of women’s rights. She still is, but not at the expense of a government-centric agenda.
The King ‘strategy was at the vanguard of women’s rights. When most Arab leaders tiptoed around the issue, Mohammed VI’s vision for Moroccan women was a tectonic movement that shook the foundation of the Moroccan society. He ordered, in April, 2001, the formation of a commission to examine the possibility of amending the antiquated Moudawana. The 1957 code was the only set of laws within the Moroccan judicial system that was solely based on sharia’. The revision of the Moudawana was strongly opposed by conservative pundits and misogynistic Islamic fundamentalists alike.
It wasn’t until October 2003, after the May terrorist attacks in Casablanca, that the King, riding the nations’ rife anti-fundamentalist antipathy, revealed the draft of a revised family law in parliament.
The new law was passed in January 2004. It provided women with greater leverage against discrimination not just in professional environments, but at home as well. For the first time, Moroccan women had the right to divorce and to child custody; new laws were enacted to prohibit sexual harassment and physical abuse. The legal age of marriage was raised from 15 to 18. Thanks to the Moudawana, Moroccan women have swept into the employment market and took jobs that were traditionally exclusively men’s. Part of the King’s anti-jihadist approach was the appointment of female religious leaders – Mourshidat. So far, the Kingdom boasts 14 female ministers within its government. The foundation for the amelioration of the female condition was set and their access to education, political influence, and economic power became unobstructed. Jennifer Windsor, executive director of The Freedom House, a human rights watchdog, stated in a recent report that “There are more women entrepreneurs, more women doctors, more women Ph.D.s, and more women in universities than ever before.” The implementation of the new Moudawana affected a host of other legal codes such as labor and nationality. Women’s liberation movements, which, during the reign of Hassan II, consisted of small groups of women meeting informally to discuss shared problems, throve in multifarious teemingness; their efforts, in conjunction with the government’s, to raise consciousness to women issues and educate a population crippled by an illiteracy rate of over 50% on the long term benefits of the new family code intensified. Finally, their steadfast resolve paid off; no longer will they stand to be abused in silent indignation, nor will their dignity be fettered.
There is a palpable feeling that Mohammed VI’s commitment to push for a broader and deeper involvement of women in the development of the country is genuine. There is also a lingering fear that the drive behind such a push is the fact that it is one of the prerequisites for Morocco’s rapprochement with the European Union and the United States. The reform has, indeed, been a major foreign policy tool. Morocco has been hailed in numerous international human rights reports as the epitome of gender equality in the Arab world.
Six years after the revised Moudawana, the revolution stands incomplete. True gender equality remains elusive. It appears now that the progressive reform was a lilliputian step toward the eradication of a pervasive, sometimes blatant, but often recondite, subjugation of women in a society still steeped in Islamic conservatism and patriarchal ethics. The enforcement of the law in homes, private businesses, and within the government itself has been butterfingered and inconsistent. Despite the draconian efforts of human and women’s rights activists, a large segment of the Moroccan population is uninformed about the underlying concepts of the reformed Moudawana, or unwilling to abide by it. Notaries public – ‘douls, in a flagrant contravention of the law, fail to advise couples of the provisions of Article 49 of the Moudawana dealing with pre-nuptial agreements.
The immediate tangible and positive impact expected from the reform failed to materialize fully. While it restricted such “Islamic” practices as polygamy, the law did not abolish it, nor did it abolish repudiation, and compensated separation (khula). When the Moudawana became effective, dispensation was put under a judge’s discretion and was to be granted in exceptional cases; today, judges, the most misogynic and gynophobic institution in Morocco, grant exemptions from the law routinely. The unfair laws on inheritance remain unchallenged and a rapist does not go to prison if he chooses to marry his victim.
The Moudawana (and the Moroccan canon in general) remains ridiculously unsophisticated when it comes to certain women issues such as abortion. According to Professor Chafik Chraïbi, the president of the Moroccan Association Against Clandestine Abortion (Association Marocaine de lutte contre l’avortement clandestin or AMLAC), over 600 abortions are conducted covertly by doctors and over 250 by individuals with no medical training. He bemoans the country’s prohibitive laws that criminalize abortion and do not account for cases, such as rape, teenage pregnancies, fetal deformities that pose a threat to the life of the mother, in which it is the only option. Female underage prostitution and sex trafficking is on the rise and will require more than just containment, but comprehensive socioeconomic solutions.
The anachronistic battle of the sexes between the moderates and the Islamic fundamentalists is still raging on. It is still an uphill fight, but gone is the time when the only achievement of a Moroccan woman was to serve her husband and raise her children; the younger generation of Morocco’s men no longer subscribe to the idea that the Moroccan woman ought to be submissive and the Moroccan women no longer buy into that regressive ideology. Much remains to be done. With her growing role, new-found freedom, higher education, and expanding economic and political power comes increased responsibility; much will be asked of Morocco’s emancipating woman and she will have to deliver. She needs to expand her horizon and seek out role models, irregardless of nationality, religion, or race, that will inspire her to be the creator of her own destiny and an indispensable contributor to the betterment of not just Morocco, but the world. But above all, she will need focused action and perseverance.