It’s Now Or Never For Morocco’s Feminists Reply

Morroco’s feminist movement re-adjusts its course amid calls for reform.

By: Lynnsay Maynard

In March 2014, the nonpartisan African public polling group Afrobarometer released a policy paper entitled “Support for African Women’s Equality Rises: Education, Jobs and Political Participation Still Unequal” which grouped together data from 34 countries across the continent. Among various conclusions, the data indicated that Moroccan women reported the highest level of inequality in the workplace and the second highest level of inequality in dealings with police and local judicial systems among their Maghrebi counterparts. When asked how the Moroccan government ‘handled women’s empowerment’, views were essentially split: 44 percent said fairly well, 44 percent said fairly poorly and 13 percent did not know.

That Morocco received such a grim assessment from its own citizens illustrates how the past decade of reform has not drastically enhanced gender parity or quality of life for Moroccan women. In 2004, a substantial overhaul of the Moroccan ‘moudawana’, or family code, marked a number of legislative advancements for women such as a woman’s right to petition for divorce and shared spousal authority as head of household; additionally, the legal age of marriage was raised from 15 to 18 and polygamy now requires both spousal and judicial approval. After the 2011-2012 countrywide protests of the February 20th movement, the Moroccan constitution underwent substantial reforms including Article 19, which states that men and women have equal rights and protection under Moroccan and international law. Gender experts and activists alike acknowledge that implementation of said legislative victories has and will continue to be met with resistance due to unwavering and culturally cemented gender roles.

Much attention has been paid to how officials, employers and judges are reacting to new legal standards of equality in Morocco, and rightly so; the past decade of legislative reform regarding gender parity in Morocco sits in sharp contrast to other Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries in post-Arab Spring periods of transition, or lack thereof. As particular attention is paid to the nation, scholars and journalists point to a driving and dynamic force behind the reforms: female activism.

As Moroccan women have increasingly become active participants in social and political activism, particularly the February 20th movement, their methods have provoked discussion: Through increased visibility of women in male-dominated public spaces and a more socially inclusive activist base, are traditional Moroccan feminist practices and organizations being reshaped?

In a piece for the Boston University International Law Journal entitled “Anatomy of an Uprising: Women, Democracy and the Moroccan Feminist Spring”, Karla McKanders, Associate Professor of Law at University of Tennessee Knoxville, describes how organizations such as Democratic Association of Moroccan Women pushed for reform during the February 20th movement, dubbing their efforts, the “Feminist Spring”. In “Anatomy of an Uprising”, McKanders states: “Women are taking the forefront and utilizing male-dominated public spaces to demand that the de jure (of the law) rights espoused in the new constitution do not become empty words.” McKanders argues that women are visible at initial pushes for reform but later concedes: “However, when the institutionalization phase emerges, women are excluded from traditionally patriarchal places.”

Souad Talsi, founder of Al-Hasaniya Women’s Centre in London, England, says Moroccan women have been active demonstrators for decades, citing Morocco’s struggle against French and Spanish protectorate forces in the mid-20th century and the ongoing battle for gender equality as examples.  

“Moroccan women are fighters and have always played a strong part in the society they live in. The difference is perhaps they were less visible to the naked eye then, than they are now,” says Talsi, but adds that after the struggle at hand subsides women are “expected to go back to the sink”.  

According to Zakia Salime, who wrote an article entitled “A New Feminism? Gender Dynamics in Morocco’s February 20th Movement” for the Journal of International Women’s Studies, the demonstrations of the February 20th movement marked a deviation from the traditional pushes for reform employed by feminist groups in years past, possibly ushering in a ‘new feminism’. Salime details how feminist organizations worked through bureaucratic to bring about legislative changes such as the 2004 moudawana revisions. However, as the February 20th movement comprised of male and female activists took to streets across the country, the mission of feminist organizations fell short of the overall mission of the movement.

In “A New Feminism”, Salime states: “The new feminism seems to be emerging from outside of the traditional spaces of feminist organizations, and seems to be carried out by men and women as partners in the struggle for social and economic justice. The question of gender equality is too narrow to encompass the general goal of social justice that includes men and women.”

Anna Theresa Day, an independent journalist who has written about upheavals in the Arab world for publications such as The Daily Beast and The Huffington Post, says she has witnessed this mentality in countries such as Egypt and Libya, as well as the United States.

“Many feminist groups in the Arab world have faced the same challenges that feminist organizers faced in the West. In several social justice movements in the US, women were told to save their struggle for later — and not to ‘distract’ from the ‘bigger issues’,” says Day. “In Egypt, for example, feminists were criticized for ‘making this all about them’ when they demonstrated on International Women’s Day and many of their comrades-in-protest during the revolution told them they needed to focus on the broader struggle instead of ‘being selfish’.”

The February 20th movement had the potential to broaden the base of the successful, existing feminist movement but arguably, it did not. The movement was composed of a variety of socioeconomic levels and utilized widely public demonstrations, two substantial deviations from the perceived elitism of feminist organizations and their systemic, “behind closed doors” approach to reform, in addition to focusing largely on social justice instead of exclusively pushing for women’s rights. In “A New Feminism”, Salime references a Moroccan female activists who said the February 20th movement “led to the emergence of a new generation of women’s leadership, while taking grassroots women, not the elites, to the streets”.

As Moroccan women continue to push for implementation of existing legislation, particularly Article 19 of the Moroccan constitution, many look to what future activism will look like and whether it will lead to substantive reform. The sentiments of McKanders and Talsi indicate that women may be instrumental in the initial stages of reform but eventually are forced out the public sphere and back into traditional gender roles as wives and mothers. As Day articulates, the face of feminism, past and present, begins with education for women.

“Poverty and disenfranchisement are significant barriers to social mobilization in any social movement. Women’s lack of literacy skills and education makes them extremely vulnerable, both in terms of mobilizing for systemic social change, but also in the most personal spheres of feminism — in their own households.”

Lynnsay Maynard is a freelance writer and public radio producer based in Morocco. She is the former producer and host of two programs at MPBN, a statewide NPR affiliate network in United States, and has been published numerous print and online publications. You can reach her on Twitter at: @LynnsayMaynard

Photo credit: Flickr Commons, user David Dennis 

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