Local elections to mark another quiet step for women
For the first time, the Moroccan government has stipulated a 12 percent quota for women in Friday's municipal polls.Bouknadel -- She's young, at ease in Arabic, French or English, travels, loves scuba diving, campaigns in a T-shirt and jeans and is bent on winning a seat in Morocco's municipal elections on Friday.
Kaoutar Benhamou, who turns 34 the same day, says she embodies modern Morocco. But she is also riding the kingdom's latest wave to promote the role of women in this conservative Muslim state.
For the first time, the government has stipulated a 12 percent quota for women in Friday's municipal polls -- a major leap over the 0.58 percent, or 127 women, now holding local council seats across the country, according to interior ministry figures.
"I've never been involved in politics before," says Benhamou, behind the wheel of her white, four-wheel drive vehicle as she drums up support in the town of Bouknadel, 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of the capital Rabat.
She is running for the new, reformist Authenticity and Modernity Party, or PAM, an alliance of five smaller groups facing a first electoral challenge it views as a litmus test for general elections three years away.
"I've lived abroad and would like to see women and children in my own country in good health, living a normal life, as they do in Europe or North America."
"You know, many homes here don't have water or electricity and there are still many people who don't know how to read or write. This saddens me and I want to change that," she said.
Contesting an election held the same day as her June 12 birthday has buoyed this pharmacist who holds a doctorate degree, has studied in Poland and the United States and headed to Thailand to learn about alternative medicine.
"It's a very, very positive sign," she said. "By entering politics, I'm trying to do something for my country."
Some 13 million voters will cast their ballot for nearly 28,000 council seats in 1,503 towns and cities across the country -- the only vote to take place between the last general election in 2007 and the next one in 2012.
Women represent 15.7 percent of the candidates -- about 20,000 women in all -- according to interior ministry figures, or triple the 4.8 percent in the last local election in 2003.
The 12 percent quota was imposed with little fanfare or opposition -- unlike some earlier measures promoted by King Mohammed VI to end inequities towards women in this constitutional monarchy.
A moderniser who took over in 1999, the king has encouraged social and economic reforms while distancing Morocco -- a NATO ally with aspirations to join the European Union -- from human rights abuses associated with the reign of his late father, Hassan II.
He notably drove through a landmark reform in family law called "Mudawana" -- boosting women's rights in divorce, property ownership and other areas -- that finally passed in 2004 after a bitter fight from religious conservatives.
Two years later, Morocco for the first time appointed women preachers called Morchidat, or guides, to fight any slide towards Islamic extremism by teaching "tolerant" Islam in vulnerable zones.
Kaoutar said she chose to run for PAM, founded by former interior minister Fouad Ali El Himma, a friend of the king, "because it's a new party. I saw its program and I liked it."
Friday's vote will be PAM's first serious challenge to both historic groupings like the nationalist Istiqlal party of Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi and the main opposition force in parliament, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD).
"These local elections are a preparation for the general elections and a strong signal that we have our sights set on 2012," said PAM secretary general Mohamed Cheikh Biadillah.
In Kaoutar's district, the main rival is Istiqlal. Of the 30 parties taking part in Friday's vote, PAM and Istiqlal are fielding the most candidates and are the only parties running in more than 50 percent of voting districts.
"Many people in Morocco believe in change, in a better tomorrow, and we have what it takes: talent and energy," said Kaoutar, who views education as Morocco's number one handicap ... "along with so many others".
On the campaign trail, she shakes hands easily and is anything but shy about her gender, posing happily on a farm tractor, the PAM party's symbol.
"Women know more than men about how to organize," she said. "They are more patient, stronger. They are also more reasonable and more attentive to the needs of children, women.... and men."