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The Women’s Movement and Political Discourse in Morocco
by Rabéa Naciri

In Morocco, the status of women is a “taboo” subject, and consequently any discussion of the issue elicits deep-rooted passions, particularly with regard to the country’s national identity. At present this tendency is particularly pronounced because Morocco, like other Muslim and Arab countries, has seen the development of Islamic fundamentalist movements. These intensify the national identity crisis, as well as the contradictions inherent in the progressive image of the state and political élites, by focusing attention on the status of women.

The strong emphasis on the country’s Muslim and Arab identity and its focus on ethnic, linguistic and cultural unity are some of the factors that contribute to the ambivalence of the state and political bodies with regard to women’s claims. They also help to explain the varied strategies adopted by women’s associations in order to achieve their goals.

Conventional political actors have used the pretext of religious and cultural sensitivity in their attempts to keep women’s issues off the political agenda, and to limit women’s visibility and their impact on public life. Despite its claims to eschew conventional “politics,” the women’s movement has nonetheless established itself as a partner in political discussions on women’s issues and in reformulating the terms of the debate. Indeed, the greatest success of the movement has been the “politicization” of women’s issues.

Many women have thus seized the opportunity structure of the post-independence years to advance their interests. They have not contented themselves to operate solely within the framework of rights granted to them. Education has not only permitted them to “improve” their functions as wives and mothers; it has also become a means for entering other spheres and for overcoming male resistance, allowing women to challenge their inferior status in the family and in the public sphere. Indeed, from this group of educated career women have emerged the rare women leaders of formal political institutions of the state and political parties, as well as the founders and leaders of the women’s movement. In other words, it is a new élite that competes with the traditional male political élite.

The tension between secular and religious law helps to explain the delay in women’s enjoyment of full legal rights and participation in mainstream political institutions, in spite of the enormous changes in their socio-economic position. The Moroccan Code of Personal Status, which governs the status of women and family relations, is based on traditional Islamic law whereas all other legal provisions are secularized and modern. This code places the woman under male tutelage throughout her life — celibacy, marriage, divorce, widowhood — and institutionalizes the strict division of gender roles: the man is the head of the family and is responsible for maintaining the women and children; the woman has duties only towards her spouse.

Political exclusion also operates through the economic marginalization of women, despite their effective and important economic participation. The precariousness of their employment status and working conditions, mirrored by a high gender gap in wage levels, are such that employment provides a poor conduit for emancipation from family control. Law is used to institutionalize economic marginalization. A woman still requires authorization from her husband to go into business, work or obtain a passport. Finally, inheritance laws grant women only one half of what men inherit on the pretext that women do not contribute to household expenses — although statistics demonstrate the contrary. The result is social devaluation of women’s unpaid work in general and marginalization of women’s paid employment.

The gradual but hesitant recognition of the women’s movement by the state can be seen at various levels. In recent years, in official speeches and press conferences, the king has recognized that the problems expressed by various women’s groups are fair and their demands relevant. A further aspect of the political recognition of women has been the consultations set up with civil society. Women’s associations were invited by the king to give their opinion on the revision of the Code of Personal Status. They were also involved in the formulation of the national report for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995.

The women’s movement, which was initially marginal and sometimes considered extremist, has progressed since the mid-1980s. Its discourse and claims have become points of reference for intellectuals and the political establishment. Its visibility and energy have turned it into a defining element in the structure of civil society. In short, by representing their independent interests, feminists have helped to redefine gender identities and political identities simultaneously. The movement has helped shift “political” boundaries by encouraging public discussion and debate on issues traditionally associated with the domestic and private sphere, such as divorce, polygamy, matrimonial tutelage, violence, and the political participation of women — all subjects which were previously “taboo”, to be discussed “among women only” or among specialists in theology or Islamic law. In so doing the women’s movement has helped to increase political participation and broaden the political terrain in Morocco.

Rabéa Naciri, of the Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines at the University of Rabat, coordinates country-level research in Morocco for the UNRISD project Technical Co-operation and Women's Lives.

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