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One Moroccan Woman's Fiery Protest

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On Monday, February 21, Fadwa Laroui set herself on fire in the small Moroccan town of Souk Sebt. Amid the dramatic news coming from other parts of the Middle East and North Africa, this story has largely been lost in the shuffle. Yet to ignore what happened to Fadwa Laroui would be a mistake. Although Morocco is consistently cited as a stable beacon of modernity and progress in North Africa, Laroui's story exemplifies some very serious issues that Morocco has been unable to resolve, namely corruption, the plight of single mothers, and the increasing disparities between the poor and the rich.

Laroui lived with her parents and her two small children in a shantytown. As part of a human development plan, her family was eligible to receive government land on which to build something more permanent. Since most poor people cannot afford to construct their own housing, often a developer will build a multifamily structure, giving them one apartment while profiting from the sale of the others. According to the Moroccan independent newspaper Lakome, Fadwa Laroui's father acquired the land, but his daughter was refused, since she was a single mother and not considered the head of a household.

On the day Laroui set herself on fire, she had visited a local official one final time after having registered six complaints, only to be thrown out of the office and dismissed as a nuisance. Laroui's brother reported that she was angry after finding out that choice land near her father's plot would go directly to businessmen with connections, even though it was supposed to be reserved for the poor. Her family in chaos, their makeshift housing already destroyed though they still had nowhere to live, Laroui poured flammable liquid on herself in front of city hall. As flames surrounded her, her last plea, recorded on a cell phone camera and posted on YouTube, was to wonder if her sacrifice would make people "take a stand against injustice, corruption, and tyranny."

The other obstacle Laroui faced, in addition to her poverty, was her status as a single mother. Morocco is frequently praised for its progress in women's rights, with significant reforms to its marriage laws in 2004. Professional women work as doctors and lawyers, activists and university professors. Yet these types of accomplishments have only touched the upper strata of society. 64% of Moroccan women are illiterate, and 130 out of 100,000 women still die in childbirth each year. For single mothers, whose very existence challenges taboos about female sexuality, the situation is dire. Most single mothers are poor, and as many as 90% of them, according to Moroccan activist Souad Tawessi, were once child maids. Young girls from impoverished rural families are often sent to the cities to work as maids in homes where they are frequently subject to physical and sexual abuse. Lacking the close supervision of girls common among the middle and upper classes, they are also more likely to get pregnant. They have no legal right to demand financial support or a paternity test, since this is tantamount to accusing the would-be father of the crime of sex outside marriage. What happens to their children is equally grim: in addition to facing the stigma of illegitimacy, some end up in orphanages, while of an estimated 15-30,000 Moroccan street children, many are the children of single mothers.

The leaders of Morocco's own protests, which have been widespread throughout the country since February 20, have adopted Laroui as a martyr, although she was not an activist. Protesters insist that they do not want an overthrow of the king but a legitimate attempt to tackle the corruption and inequality that have grown worse in recent years. In the absence of international media (Morocco kicked out Al Jazeera last October), Amnesty International has already criticized Morocco for violently dispersing protesters. The Moroccan government, meanwhile, appears to be on a publicity campaign to discredit protesters and dismiss instances of violence and looting as the random acts of criminals.

Fadwa Laroui died in a Casablanca hospital on February 23. Her fiery self-sacrifice is a testimony to the hopelessness of Moroccans on the lowest rung of the social ladder. There have been six reported immolations in Morocco in the same number of weeks, two of which have resulted in death. If these individual acts of desperation are any indication, Morocco's peaceful and stable façade conceals many of the same incendiary ingredients that have resulted in revolution elsewhere.