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Fatima Sadiqi
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.


The roots of the Moroccan feminist movement go back to 1946, when the Sisters of Purity Association (the first feminist association in Morocco) publicly issued a set of demands including the abolition of polygamy, full and equal political rights, and increased visibility of women in the public sphere. These demands were taken up by female journalists, academics, and civil society in the decades after Morocco gained independence from France in 1956. Although on the eve of Independence, the state (i.e., male) feminism did not target the empowerment of women as individuals, middle- and upper-class women gained from it in two fields—education and job opportunities—granting them entry into the public sphere. It was the new post-independence bourgeois class that produced the first women pharmacists, jurists, medical doctors, and university professors. The general feminist trend of these women was liberal in the sense that they readily embraced “modern” ideas and practices without rejecting their local specificities, including being Muslim. This liberal trend was accompanied by changes in dress, as well as other social practices, such as the adoption of French ways of life. However, this style never succeeded in replacing traditional Moroccan practices and ways of life, including dress.

During this period, through journalistic and academic discourse, feminists started to question gender divisions, examine historical and ideological roots of gender inequality, and promote recognition of women's labor. They depicted women's condition not as a “natural state,” but as a state that stems from historical practices, and women's work not as merely reproduction, but as production.

Legal Changes.

Women in the movement were bitterly disappointed by the first Personal Status Code (Mudawwana), which relegated women to second-class citizenship in 1957. The fundamental principle of marriage required a wife's obedience to her husband in exchange for financial maintenance, and the husband retained the power to abandon his wife without a judge's authorization. Not surprisingly, the Moroccan feminist movement focused its efforts on the Mudawwana, which was seen as the prime locus of legal and civil discrimination against women.

The socialism and Arab nationalism of the sixties and seventies enhanced women's rights as a prerequisite for Morocco's overall development, invigorating the Moroccan feminist movement. Many women became active in leftist political parties, brandishing political engagement as a form of resistance against oppression.

Islamist Pressures.

From the 1980s onward, the feminist movement also had to contend with growing support for Islamism, here defined as a social movement or organization based on the exploitation of Islam for political aims, or the exercise of political power in the name of religion only. Like any social movement, Islamism had its moderate (such as the recognized Justice and Development Party) and extreme (such as the unrecognized Justice and Charity Association) manifestations. In whatever shape, Islamism appealed particularly to young, unemployed males, who were easily led to believe that women working outside the home robbed them of opportunities. In response, feminists also began to push for women's rights from a religious perspective. They implemented new strategies, including a gradual downplaying of the “religious” role of the veil in their writings and practices; increased use of Arabic and references to the Qurʾān and ḥadīth (the sayings of Prophet Muḥammad); a gradual inclusion of children's rights within women's issues; and reinforcement of Islam as both culture and spirituality.

Feminist activists also endeavored to draw attention to the problems that women faced as a result of their lack of legal protection. They made excellent use of the media in depicting the victimization of women and children frequently accompanying divorce, thus reclaiming such social issues from the Islamists and reiterating the necessity of reforming the Personal Status Code. Nonetheless, a package of reforms proposed by the government in 1999, including the abolition of polygamy, ultimately failed in the face of Islamist and conservative opposition. Despite this setback, feminists continued their campaign, increasingly concentrating on the “goals of Sharīʿah” (maqāṣid al-Sharīʿah) instead of a rigid reading of Sharīʿah rules and traditions, which would return to the rationale of the text and which was supported by a school of Moroccan scholars. They also forged an alliance with King Muḥammed VI, who took the throne that year and did not welcome increased control by Islamists.

Types of Moroccan Feminism.

From the 1990s onward, and under the influence of rising conservatism and Islamism in the region, two major types of female feminists stand out in Morocco: the secularists and the Islamists. Both types lead movements that are urban, middle-class, and centered on women's material (legal and social) rights. Both are also led by educated women and focus on gender representations and political strategies in order to affect state gender policies. Ideologically, the core difference between the two is not Islam, as neither group denies it, but the type and degree of Islamization involved. While Islamists take doctrinal or legal Islam as their reference, secularists opt, if at all, for a spiritual (universal) Islam. As for strategies, the secularists use academic scholarship, journalism, and activism, while the Islamists, being historically younger, use activism and journalism. Each type of feminism comprises, in turn, various nuances that depend on variables like location and political inclination. Since around 2000, the two types of feminism have started to interact and even converge, adding a considerable dose of Islamization to secularist thought and a considerable dose of secularization to the Islamists’ camp. The change in both feminisms is a product of the overall local and regional political climate. The advent of the digital age and new media gave this interaction and convergence a new edge: the younger new media-savvy generation call themselves “democrats,” focus on employment, and speak to both the secularists and the Islamists.

One thing that brings the two movements together is the reform of the Mudawwana. It is important to note that voices from inside the Islamist movement started to push for more reforms of the Mudawwana on the eve of the twenty-first century. Hence, strong Islamists like Nadia Yassine and Bassima Hakkaoui started to rally to demands initiated by Fatima Mernissi and others in the 1970s, again expanding the notion of feminism in Morocco.

Reform of the Mudawwana.

In April 2001, the king formed a commission to study the possibility of revising the Mudawwana, but the final push for reform came after the May 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, which stoked widespread antifundamentalist sentiment. The king announced a draft family law in parliament in October 2003. During the next few months, women's rights organizations, organized within the Spring of Equality network, (a network of the Moroccan women's associations that work on the reform of the Family Law) analyzed the details of the draft legislation and organized workshops, roundtables, and discussion groups to prepare for renewed lobbying efforts in parliament and to educate the public about the reforms. The final text was adopted in January 2004, securing several important rights for women, including the right to self-guardianship, the right to divorce, and the right to child custody. It also placed new restrictions on polygamy, raised the legal age of marriage from fifteen to eighteen, and made sexual harassment punishable by law. However, it did not completely abolish polygamy, unilateral repudiation of the wife by the husband, separation by compensation (khulʿ), or discrimination in inheritance rules. This was in part because such provisions are explicitly authorized by literal readings of the Qurʾān.

Whereas the 1998–2003 period was characterized by a flurry of ideological and political debates about women and their rights in Morocco, the period since 2004 has been characterized by calmer legal discussion about the gains and implementation of the new family law, the new labor code (promulgated in December 2003), and the revised nationality code (which took effect in April 2008).

Effects of the New Law.

The implementation of the family law in particular varies from region to region, but it has generally been met with resistance. It is still very poorly understood in rural and sometimes even urban areas, and many male judges are reluctant to apply it. Moreover, the ongoing societal influences of patriarchy, tradition, illiteracy, and ignorance may prevent women from invoking their rights or reporting crimes such as rape, child abuse, sexual exploitation, and domestic violence. Existing efforts to overcome this societal resistance, such as education campaigns conducted in the mother tongues (Berber and Moroccan Arabic), have proven insufficient. Many feminists argue that the new family law can be adequately implemented only in a democratic context, while some advocate a purely secular government system. Another issue is that the law does not adequately address the problems of single women and the non-Moroccan wives of Moroccan men.

Nevertheless, Moroccan women have achieved considerable progress in consolidating legal equality and access to justice in recent years, and the autonomy, security, and personal freedom of women have also improved. Women now have more freedom to travel and to obtain employment and education, greater equality at home, and more leeway to negotiate their marriage rights. They are spearheading business ventures and advancing to higher levels of education. Important progress has also been made in protecting women from domestic violence, and support networks are getting stronger despite restrictive social norms. Women are increasingly taking up national and local political posts and becoming more involved with the judiciary. A 12 percent quota for women was applied to the June 2009 local elections, substantially increasing female political representation. The quota system in parliament brought new faces of Islamist women with strong demands in the 2007 and 2011 elections, facilitating awareness of women's issues.

Women's rights groups and individual activists have collaborated with the government to improve the rights of all women, but true equality remains a distant goal. Although the recent legal reforms have allowed the government to promote a modern and democratic image of Morocco at the international level, bringing certain benefits to society at large, more needs to be done to translate these changes into tangible gains for individual women in their daily lives.



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