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Morocco: A Look At Women's Rights 5 Years After Reforms

First Posted: 07/10/09 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 02:25 PM ET

Morocco

RABAT, Morocco -- In the lottery of arranged marriage, winners and losers sometimes take years to reveal themselves.

But one soft-spoken woman seated in a Casablanca women's shelter said her fortunes were apparent from the start. Soon after her 2003 wedding, her husband made a regular practice of abusing her, said the woman, 27, who asked for safety reasons to go only by her initials, S.H.

For six years, S. stuck with her husband, an unemployed textile worker, who insulted her, punched her and, once, smashed a glass on her head, she said. As the daughter of a poor farmer, she believed she had little choice but to keep suffering. But in the five years since her son was born, the legal landscape in this North African nation has shifted.

"Now you can get your rights," said S., who has filed for divorce and full custody of her son. "All your rights."

The Moroccan parliament cemented these rights with a set of sweeping changes to the country's family code, or Moudawana, in 2004. The reforms give women the right to divorce and protect them from the traditional practice of repudiation, whereby husbands could dissolve marriages nearly at will.

Spurred by a home-grown women's movement, supported by Morocco's king and denounced by Islamists, Morocco's revamped family law has been held up as a model by feminists throughout the Muslim world. But, on the fifth anniversary of the reform, some traditionalists here worry that marriage is under attack -- even as feminists insist the revolution has yet to fully deliver on its promise.

"It has really energized reform in countries across the region," said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, whose book, "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East," is due to be published next year. "Family law is a very sensitive and critical issue around the region and the example from Morocco is being brought to bear in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Iran."

In particular, the million signature campaign currently at the center of Iranian feminists' efforts to rework their country's family law was "really inspired by what women in Morocco had accomplished," Coleman said.

Moroccan feminists did gather a million signatures in their push to reform the family code. But activists here say a key to their success was arguing for reform in the vocabulary of Islam, rather than Western feminism. The effort required re-reading Muslim theology and applying its lessons on social justice to the question of gender discrimination. The result was a uniquely Moroccan case for change.

"It's very important that the movement emerged from inside, took its strength from inside," said Fouzia Assouli, president of the activist group Morocco's Democratic League for Women's Rights. "Morocco shows that you can accede to modernity without contradicting your faith."

The head of another activist group, Latifa Jbabdi of the Women's Action Union, described local feminism with a term known to any American who has glanced inside a shirt constructed by her nation's vast textile industry.

Switching mid-sentence to English, she joked, "I would say it's 'made in Morocco.'"
Jbabdi and others say Morocco still falls short in some important areas of women's rights. Women enjoy fewer rights of inheritance than their husband's surviving male relatives, and there are contexts where men unfairly retain sole legal authority over their children, she said.
"We've seen cases of fathers who never their see their child, yet their permission is still needed before the child can get a life-saving surgery," Jbabdi said.

The reformed family code increased the legal age of marriage to 18 from 15. But a small provision in the law allows judges to grant exceptions to the rule. Jbabdi said the loophole has created an alarming resurgence of underage marriage in Morocco's more conservative, rural areas.

"This little window that was opened by Islamists in parliament has become a huge door," Jbabdi said.

However, many Moroccans are concerned that the reforms have gone too far. On March 12, 2000, a coalition of Islamist groups, opposed to the proposed family laws on religious grounds, flooded the streets of Casablanca with a demonstration half a million people strong. Among the arguments Islamists employed was the notion that all the new rules would cause a spike in divorces and at the same time discourage men from matrimony.

Such thinking can still be found in unexpected places -- such as the campus of Mohammad V University in Rabat, Morocco's capital, on a recent sunny afternoon. Amri Nouria, a 23-year-old biology major, said she's pleased that she can chose whom to marry and when.
"But the negative side is that, because of the change in the law, men are afraid of getting married," Nouria added. "And now there are more unmarried women than married women. It has complicated things a bit."

The Moroccan minister who oversees issues relating women and the family, Nouzha Skalli, dismissed such claims, saying the numbers don't bear them out.

The latest figures released by the Justice Ministry suggest that the number of people filing for marriage registrations actually rose about 30 percent in the four years after the code was changed, to 307,000 from 236,000. The number of divorces, according to the ministry,
has stayed relatively flat over the same period, rising to 27,900 from 26,900, or about 3 percent.

Skalli was herself a women's rights activist before being appointed minister of social development, family and solidarity. As for the feminists who want change to come faster, Skalli counseled patience. "It's very difficult to uproot a culture in five years," she said. "No problem is going to be solved with the touch of a magic wand."

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Filed by Morgan Korn  |