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Revisiting Family Code Reform in Morocco – Analysis


In Doris A. Gray’s Beyond Feminism and Islamism, the social researcher and writer states that: “many of the worlds’ pressing problems of the twenty-first century are embodied within Morocco’s borders, including tensions between the West and the Muslim world… the role of religion in a modern society… [and] women’s rights” (Gray 8).

The struggle for women’s rights in independent Morocco has been ongoing since independence that was gained in the 1956.

Moroccan men who led the movement initially prioritized women’s rights, not because of their belief in women as their equals in society, but as a hallmark of a “modern” or “advanced” country, meaning that this “equality” existed on the surface and did not last long, (Sadiqi, “The Central Role…”).

When Moroccan laws were put in place, many were modeled after the French civil law that had so long governed their country – the glaring exception was the personal status or family code which was based in shari’a law. Consisting of a set of laws that predominantly affect Moroccan women, it has been described as being based on:

“age-old traditions that give men all of the legal rights in marriage but none of the responsibilities,” (Douglas and Gibbs 1).

The extremity of the Mudawana and its impact on the lives of women has spurred feminism in Morocco forward, creating a national feminist identity that blends Islamic and international standards and values, resisting the common secular versus Islamic dichotomy. (Ziai, Pruzan-Jørgensen).

The advent of women-headed Moroccan feminism can arguably be traced to the One Million Signature Campaign. Launched in 1992 by the Union de l’Action Feminine (UAF), a nonprofit organization that began in 1983 (“SWMENA Advocacy Partner: L’Union de l’Action Féminine (UAF)”), the campaign sought to obtain a million signatures in favor of a reform of the Mudawana, prompting the late King Hassan II to establish a council of Islamic advisors to consider changes to the code.

In 1993, amendments were announced, most of which were no more than slight relaxations of laws governing marriage and custody. These minimal changes were not sufficient for the UAF and other women’s organizations that had pushed for the reforms, and yet they were monumental in their own way: says Ziai in “Personal Status Codes and Women’s Rights in the Maghreb,”

“reform of the Mudawana – an area so closely associated with religion – was…a sensitive undertaking for the king and could have provoked challenges to the monarch’s claims of legitimacy” (Ziai, 77).

Despite not truly affecting the reality of Moroccan women in terms of the laws that governed their family life, people were not even aware that the Mudawana could be changed until it was.

Another side effect of the first Mudawana reform was the emergence of Islamist women on the scene. The UAF’s signature campaign had outraged many Islamist women, but also encouraged them to

“reposition themselves as women activists of an alternative discourse and agenda… Islamist women embarked on not only defending the sharia, but also rereading it as it pertains to their own marginalization within the Islamist movement” (Salime, 31).

Even if these Islamist women did not agree with the liberal feminists of UAF, discussion of women’s rights and place in society had been sparked. Indeed, 1994 saw the formation of the Organization for the Renewal of Women’s Awareness by female members of the Islamist party Movement for Reform and Unity. As the liberal feminist organizations campaigned for a Mudawana reform that reflected CEDAW standards, the Islamist women sought a family code that kept with shari’a – meaning that in the case of reforms, they would result as a process of Ijtihad and it should be deliberated upon by a commission of Islamic scholars. (Pruzan-Jørgensen).

1997 saw the first Socialist-headed government, and in March of 1999, a member of this government put forth the National Action Plan for the Integration of Women in Development (PANIFD). This plan dealt with broader issues than just those present in the Mudawana, but as it was addressed, this necessitated a second reform.

The plan came under extensive criticism for more than just its human rights frame – Pruzan-Jørgensen notes that Islamist women disagreed not solely with the content, but with the process through which it was born. They felt that the Moroccan people must have a say on the matter, and also that the plan emerged from an undemocratic process (Pruzan-Jørgensen). Amidst this heated political debate, in July, 1999 King Hassan II died and the throne was taken over by his son Mohammed VI, a vocal supporter of women’s rights.

The announcement of PANIFD and the new King’s pro-women leaning prompted a march in support of the plan in Rabat, which was then met with an Islamist counter march in Casablanca, drawing a turnout ten times as large (Htun & Weldon). But why were women marching in Casablanca? Was it because they, as conservative Islamists, opposed the improving of women’s situation through reforming of the Mudawana? It does not appear that way. A female member of the Justice and Development Party (PJD, an Islamist party) said she participated in the march because

“the plan was not the result of a national dialogue. It expressed the points of view of an elite” (Pruzan-Jørgensen, 245).

Subsequently, King Mohammed VI announced his intention to appoint a commission of Islamic scholars to review the Mudawana and propose reforms. This commission was to include women, and would hear from concerned citizens (Pruzan-Jørgensen).

However, shortly before the decisions of the King’s committee were to be released, Casablanca experienced a series of terrorist attacks On May 16, 2003, performed by Islamist-affiliated suicide bombers. It was in this light of apprehension about what an Islamist agenda might bring about that the Mudawana reforms were announced. Many scholars have been interested in the issue of the effect the bombings had on subsequent Islamist action surrounding the Mudawana, with Ennaji and Sadiqi saying that liberal feminists

“seized the event to take a “historical revenge” on the Islamists, and their strongly public presence was greatly enhanced by the significant diminution in power of the Islamists” (Ennaji and Sadiqi, 108).

The Islamists felt, firstly, that they were in not much of a position to pursue their goals in respect to keeping the Mudawana intact, and, after the reform was announced, in voicing their disapproval – if they had any. When the King released his decision, he outlined three principal ideas upon which the new Mudawana should be based: “equality between spouses, family equilibrium, and the protection of the children” (Ennaji and Sadiqi, 108), as well as setting forth some provisions towards these aims. He then left it up to parliament to craft the laws as they saw fit, thus involving the people (through their ability to speak with and influence his commission), Islam (by appointing Islamic scholars and his commission’s – and his – consultation of shari’a, etc, and also because of his role as Commander of the Faithful), the crown (in his authority), and the democratically elected Parliament (in their ability to craft the actual laws).

The King’s reform was very similar to PANIFD, though he argued for the changes within an Islamic framework. Thus, not only were liberal feminists pleased with the outcome, but

“also received praise from Islamist activists… [they] maintain that it was a victory for them that the new law remained (solely) based on shari’a” (Pruzan- Jørgensen, 250).

Not only had both liberal and Islamic feminists affected the process of the reform, but they had also effected change in one another. A lasting effect of the demand for Mudawana reform, though it engendered severe hostility between liberal and Islamist feminists, was that it helped to create a dialogue for Moroccan women.

I have said earlier that the One Million Signatures Campaign induced Islamist women to question their own role in Moroccan society and within their political faction and claim their voices within them. But liberal feminists also learned from Islamist women: while UAF and the like had been working in cities, writing newspapers and other intellectual literature, Islamist women had been working with women living in poverty or rural areas, or both. They had a connection with the women of Morocco that the liberal feminists did not ; however, after witnessing its effectiveness and importance to the Islamists cause, they sought to change this. They began to put more effort into

“filling gaps left by the deficient state structures in terms of social and economic development” (Ennaji and Sadiqi, 106).

This cross-cause exchange of ideas and tactics ultimately serves to better the political process and the lives of all women in Morocco.

In Meriem El Haitami’s article “Restructuring Female Religious Authority: State- Sponsored Women Religious Guides (Murshidat) and Scholars (‘Alimat) in Contemporary Morocco,” she describes new training programs for women to become more involved in positions of religious authority within Islam. This demonstrates the dual-role of Moroccan women as Muslims involved in and concerned with their faith, yet also interested in furthering the position of women. Immersing themselves in the texts of Islam with state-sanctioned religious authority, and being able to re-interpret them through a progressive, women’s rights perspective is incredibly valuable to the betterment of women’s position in Moroccan society.

This case is, I believe, an excellent example of the fluidity of Moroccan feminism and the overlap which exists between secular and Islamist feminists. Truly, much of what the Mudawana has accomplished is in helping to construct a new national feminist identity.

But, all in all, the gap between urban and rural women remains big, in so much as rural women are victims of the plights of poverty, illiteracy and patriarchy and no Moroccan government, to date, has considered intitiating rural programs of literacy, poverty-alleviation and civic education to empower this important faction of Moroccan society. Worse, young girls are no granted the right to access education and thus are married off as minors and are exploited in agricultural fields or as mule women in the vicinity of Spanish presidios of Ceuta and Melilla:

“In northern Morocco, the high poverty rate resulting from the high illiteracy rate has pushed women to work on a daily basis in the fields, either growing crops or growing illegal herbs (kif), in the most inhuman possible conditions, from 6 o’clock in the morning to 6 in the early evening, not forgetting of course that these very women when, home, have to cook for the family and take care of the children. After a long tiring day, women on the way back home will act, also, as mules carrying huge loads of grass for the domestic animals and wood for cooking.

In rural areas, near the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila, women are shamefully exploited, jointly by both Morocco and Spain, as means of transportation of contraband goods, and are referred to as mule women. This misnomer is doubly insulting because it considers women as stupid animals, good only for transportation, and, also, as second class citizens devoid of any human feelings.

Sadly, this inhuman treatment of Moroccan women is the direct responsibility of Morocco, Spain and, also, indirectly, the EU” (Mohamed Chtatou).

You can follow Professor Mohamed CHTATOU on Twitter : @Ayurinu

Works Cited :

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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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