Debunking the Progressive State: The Plight of Women in Morocco

The Kingdom of Morocco has been reputed in the international community as being a modern, liberal, and progressive state. Thanks to Mohamed IV’s reformist socio-political agenda, Morocco is often praised for its legal reforms in terms of attributing more rights and liberties to women. Morocco, however, is not the progressive state it claims to be. This is due to its patriarchal family code, lack of legal support for victims of domestic violence, and the rise in child & forced marriages. Nevertheless, there have been attempts to remedy this fractured system, mostly via local NGO’s providing literacy programs for impoverished women as well as the state-sponsored reformation of Islamic law. As such, it is always important to keep in mind that how a state and its populace navigates the realm of women’s rights can be very complex.

Morocco has a much lauded reformed Justice and Family Code which states that its aim is “doing justice to women, protecting children’s rights, and preserving men’s dignity”. Though this may be ‘progressive’ language, the Family code still maintains patriarchal standards and does not extend legal protection to single women. The Family Code is often praised for allowing women of legal age the right to be married without the permission of a legal guardian and for spouses having rights and obligation to one another. Both examples supposedly showcase Morocco’s initiative to “institute legal gender equality”.

However, the Family Code also “obliges the husband to provide financially for his wife and children” and “designates the father as the primary legal representative of his children regardless of whether or not he has custody over them”. This reinforces patriarchal standards of the workings of a household. While these articles may be perceived as a strategy to ensure the protection of women’s financial circumstances while wed, it also reinforces the harmful stereotype that the role of women is confined to the “domestic sphere” while men belong in the “public sphere”. It is also a way of discriminating against women in the work field.

Firms regularly overlook female candidates because of the societal belief that men are more deserving of employment due to their legal responsibility to financially maintain their family. It fuels the societal view that women must take on a domestic role after marriage, an expectation that is very much alive in the conservative areas of the country. Although, criticism of the Family Code is justified, it is nevertheless a progressive and revolutionary act within the socio-political context of MENA. A region historically known for stifling attempts to improve the condition of women.

In Moroccan society, domestic violence is deemed a taboo, yet it plagues couples across the country. According to a survey carried out in 2000 by the Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc, 45.3% of respondents believe that it is justifiable for a husband to beat his wife if she commits adultery or disobeys her husband. This lax attitude towards domestic violence against women is fuelled by a number of things, including the lack of cooperation from law enforcement, illiteracy, poverty, and the absence of support structures for victims.

It was reported by the Ministry of Social Development, Family and Solidarity that “there were as many as 28,000 cases of violence against women between 2006 and 2008”. The Penal Code does not make the stigma any easier for victims, according to the law, women are required to have a medical certificate and an eye witness to bring their case of domestic violence to court, meaning the number of domestic violence victims is probably much higher than estimated.. Domestic violence is often done in the privacy of one’s home, and the likelihood having someone plead on your behalf is slim due to the taboo surrounding the topic.

In addition, law enforcement maintains that domestic violence is a private issue, that does not require their intervention. As such, many women turn to NGO’s for help. However, Article 496 of the Penal Code states that “anyone who hides a married woman from her husband is subject to imprisonment from 2 to 5 years”; this includes those who help victims of domestic violence who have left their marital homes without their husband’s permissions.

This law prevents NGO’s from building shelters for “battered women”, as well as concerned locals who are looking to provide refuge for them. As such, Morocco’s legal framework enables domestic violence and thus facilitates ongoing gender discrimination. However, in May 2008 the Ministry of Social Development, Family and Solidarity launched an initiative to eliminate violence against women; the program was called Tamkine, which means “empowerment” in Arabic. Despite Morocco’s complicated legal and societal context, it is nonetheless progress in the direction of protecting women’s rights.

Child & forced marriage has also long been an issue in Morocco. The government has attempted to remedy this by raising the minimum age of consent for marriage from 15 to 18 for girls. Though the Family Code has been praised for its contribution to women’s ‘rights’ in marriage, the code also allows for a judge to to authorize an underage marriage. This legal loophole is frequently used to marry off girls “as young as 15”. In fact, “the rates of child marriage have risen steadily in the years following the introduction of the new Family Code. In 2007, 33,596 underage marriages were allowed to take place. Figures released by the Ministry of Justice for the year 2010 reveal that 41,098 child marriages were authorized. Compared to 2009, this represents a 23.59% increase, with judges approving over 90% of petitions.

Child & forced marriages have detrimental effects on the health and socio-economic outcome of these girls. They prevent girls from pursuing education, thus impoverishing them economically. A study done by the Moroccan High Commission for Planning states that “women who married without consent are almost three times more likely to experience partner violence, including sexual violence, in the domestic household”. Moreover, the Moroccan Penal Code stresses the illegality of extramarital sex, thus enabling forced marriages to legalize the crime. In the case that an underage girl is raped, the rapists can escape jail time by marrying her. As such, Morocco’s supposed progressive stance on women’s issues has in fact, not only increased child/forced marriage, but also condones the torment said “brides” are subjected to.

Although this may all seem very bleak, Morocco is nevertheless one of the most progressive state in terms of gender relations in the MENA region. The most impactful agents of empowerment within the kingdom have been grassroots organizations. They’re able to navigate Moroccan society and promote women’s independence from within. There currently is a network of female-run NGOs in Morocco, who are employing programs to educate illiterate women on both their human and legal rights.

The programs are to designed to “develop their individual capacities to critically analyze their lives from a human rights perspective, claim and defend their legal rights, and increase their control over their lives; and enhance their collective capacity to impact the world around them and the decisions that affect them through mobilization and advocacy for change”. These programs include sessions on how to attain rights-protective clauses in marriage contracts, field trips to civil status offices in which the women are given Q&A sessions, economic cooperatives and many other resources. The NGO’s have proven to be adaptable to geographical context, tailoring their initiative according the the needs of the women in a specific region.

For instance, “in the southeastern oasis region near the Algerian border, where women frequently work in the agricultural sector, program facilitators hold sessions with women during their lunch break outdoors under the date palm trees”. Moreover, in northwestern Morocco, a local NGO has partnered with local hairdressing institutes, and held “sessions with the students so that when they complete their training and go on to work in salons, where they have contact and long conversations with numbers of women everyday, they serve as the community women’s legal rights resource”.

The work of these NGOs has been met with some skepticism, claiming that rural women are in need of financial assistance rather than legal literacy. As such, these NGO’s have triggered complex and proactive discourse amongst Moroccan women, who often live within the constraints of societal taboos. Educating illiterate and marginalized women on their human and legal rights is inherently transformative and empowering, on both a social and economic spectrum.

Moroccan women are now emerging into a climate that supports their collective advocacy, which subsequently allows them to unify and mobilize as women with a common goal of equity and justice. The impact of the local NGO and grassroots programs have not gone unnoticed.  Legal literacy has given Moroccan women the platform to challenge patriarchal norms as well as the state. They are now armed with the necessary tools that support their ability to impact change. Scholars Stephanie W. Bordat, Susan S. Davis, and Saida Kouzzi highlight a situation in which “two single mothers in their community decided to register their children with the civil status authorities without fear of imprisonment”.

It is further reported that in a program instituted to educated females on laws pertaining to marriage a number of “girls who participated in the program refused to marry at an early age, after they attended the session on the age of marriage”. As such, women who took part in the program have not only expressed their demands amongst themselves, but now voice them directly with elected officials and local authorities. This new paradigm has not only empowered Moroccan women, but has put in motion pressure on the kingdom’s institutions to meet the demands of their female populace.

Reforming Islamic Law in Morocco is key in the emancipation of Moroccan women. Islam plays an integral role in Moroccan society. The country has identified itself with a prideful and unapologetic adherence to cultural and religious traditions, with over 96% of the county identifying as Muslim.

According to the Moroccan feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi, “Islam revolutionized the treatment of women”. However, Mernissi argues that the field of Islamic law has been overwhelmingly grounded on male interpretation since its founding. She states that “many commentators now regard Islam and Islamic law as sexist, although these attitudes are not supported by Islamic legal texts.”. In fact, there’s a growing trend of both female and male Islamic scholars who have been studying religious scripture with the intent of justifying egalitarian gender treatment, and denouncing previous interpretations of Islamic law by a few elite men whose views are deeply rooted in ancient patriarchal norms.

This method of gender empowerment is quite effective within the context of the Muslim world, as it “criticizes the interpreters of Islam, but not Islam”. Renowned female Islamic scholars such as Mernissi, Asma Barlas, and Amina Wadud continuously advocate and showcase that the “Qur’an allows for a strong reading of gender equality and women’s rights within Islamic law”. However, reinterpreting Islamic law does not guarantee a change in perspective from the conservative populace, but has triggered some change within the Moroccan state.

In an attempt to redefine Islamic authority and to stifle religious extremism, Morocco has introduced state sponsored training of women in the theological field. The state-trained female Religious Guides and Scholars program was created with the intent of “promoting gender equality and moderate Islam”. The Religious Guides and Scholars program provides women with an in depth education in religious as well as social disciplines, students are trained by senior scholars from the Supreme Religious Council as well as academics appointed by the king.

For instance, the female students “take courses in a wide range of disciplines, such as Islamic sciences, Arabic language, Sociology, Economics, Law, and History, as well as the art of preaching and public speaking. After they have completed their training, the murshidat (religious guides) receive a monthly salary of 5,000 DH ($560); arrangements are usually made for them to work in locations close to their families”. Ahmed Toufiqd, the minister of Islamic affairs explains that the emerging trend of women Islamic scholars is a vital component for curbing all forms of extremism within the country. They are taught Sufi and Maliki Islam which are sects that emphasize spirituality, are adaptable to contemporary realities, and highlight the importance of the feminist interpretation of Islam.

Moreover, The Religious Guides and Scholars program and emerging egalitarian discourse has translated into an unprecedented amount of female scholars being assigned positions of authority within both the Supreme Religious and local councils. In addition, within the religious councils, these women are specifically tasked with overseeing sections of Islamic law pertaining to women.

In sum, the increased presence of Moroccan women in the religious and political field is a monumental shift in the traditional structures of religious authority. They are proudly occupying their space in mosques, religious councils and inspiring women across the country. Though they are faced with limitations, they have nevertheless invoked massive impact on the social welfare of their community and by extension the women of their nation. This is a massive step forward for positive change in gender relations.

Despite striving towards gender equality, there continues to exist systematic underpinnings of gender discrimination.  Morocco’s attempt at creating gender equality has historically been performative, serving the purpose of pleasing the global theatre. The ‘revolutionary’ Family Code continues to enforce patriarchal standards of dependency on one’s male guardian/spouse thus enabling child/forced marriage. Whereas, the Penal code prevents the creation of support systems for victims of domestic violence, consequently promoting rape culture.

The status of women reflects the condition of society. The small advances made in support of women’s rights bode well for future reforms. Building on this momentum will likely promote further discourse on the rights of women in Morocco thus shaping a promising future.

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