Activist: Women in Morocco — progress but ‘could do better’
Casablanca — It was backed by the king and finally passed, a hotly disputed reform to empower women, cast off their vulnerability and set a trend in Muslim North Africa — Morocco’s landmark 2004 family law.
Five years later, the reform of "Mudawana," as it is called, is "positive overall" but still falls short of expectations, according to the rights’ activist and outspoken head of Morocco’s Democratic League for Women’s Rights (LDDP), Fouzia Assouli.
Moroccans today have "embraced the idea of women’s rights but we are still behind in terms of society’s expectations," she told AFP in an interview ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8.
Her group was created in 1993 and today counts 13,000 members in this North African country that, much like Turkey, often acts as a link between the Arab and Western world.
"There is no longer the same sort of opposition as before," Assouli conceded, "but it’s time to make changes to the family code to restrict and clarify the power of the judges."
The 2004 reforms gave women the right to divorce their husbands and to own assets and property obtained during marriage, and clamped down sharply on a man’s ability to repudiate his wife.
But Assouli said two other points are crying out for more change: the marriage of minors and the practice of polygamy, which are still allowed under a judge’s discretion in this country of 34.3 million where an estimated 31 percent of the population is under 14.
Today, 10 percent of all marriages in Morocco involve minors and the LDDF has documented a dramatic increase — more than 50 percent between 2006 and 2007 — in unions involving underage girls in rural areas, Assouli said.
"Initially, Mudawana had a dissuasive effect … but people quickly realised that it was not difficult to obtain dispensations," she said. "We have therefore proposed recommendations that the legal age of marriage, 18-years-old, be respected and that dispensations be the exception, not the rule."
She railed against one provision in the penal code that still allows a man accused with rape to avoid punishment if he marries his victim.
"It is high time to reform that because it is tantamount to a double rape: the first by the man, the second by society in legitimising the crime," she said.
On the sensitive issue of polygamy in a country where the religion once allowed a man to have up to four wives, she applauded the fact that it was now sharply limited but deplored what she said were too many exceptions.
"We see judgments in which a husband can maintain two families if the (first) wife gives her permission." But, asks Assouli, "if this woman has no other resources and is financially dependent on her husband, what choice does she have?"
She cited similar "contradictions" concerning the guardianship of children.
The Mudawana "placed the family under the authority of both parents but it is the father who is the chief. The woman comes second. To enroll children in school, you need the father’s permission. The same goes if you want to change their school," she said.
Likewise, Assouli says the laws on inheritance need revamping. "It’s unreasonable today, if your only heirs are daughters, to require that they share their inheritance with an uncle or (male) cousin. This is no longer acceptable; times have changed and women must have the same rights as men," she said.
The reforms to Mudawana, which is based on Islamic Sharia law, were pushed through by King Mohammed VI — who is also the religious authority in this constitutional monarchy — but only after a first failed attempt three years earlier.
Bitter opposition from conservative Muslims saw the government back down. That’s when Mohammed VI, who has forged a reputation as a moderniser, stepped in.
Like his late father Hassan II, who maintained an iron grip over politics, he is keen to maintain the image of this former French protectorate as a bulwark of stability in a region stalked by religious extremism. Morocco is not only a NATO ally hailed by Washington for its role in the US-led war on terrorism but has aspirations to join the European Union, its main trading partner, where a backward role for women would not be welcome.
At the time, the king told parliament the reforms would "respond to concerns that the iniquities hanging over women be lifted" in a speech that was roundly applauded by the press. "History will remember that he presided over a major social change," the independent weekly Le Journal wrote afterward.
But even Moroccan feminists concede the issue, at times, means walking a thin line in a country where religion still holds sway .
When asked about the Interior Ministry’s recent refusal to allow a French feminist group, "Ni Putes, Ni Soumises" (Neither Whores Nor Submissive), to open a branch in Morocco, Assouli understood.
"The name of this group is very provocative," she said. "It would never work in Morocco, society would refuse it, women wouldn’t join… I wouldn’t even dare to translate the name into Arabic."
But Assouli also saw a religious dimension. The ministry, she said, "was maybe also acting out of fear of giving ammunition to extremists or Islamists, who might use this for false campaigns or to harm women."