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The Many Paths to Gender Equality in Morocco

Doris H. Gray, Ph.D.
Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco

Women's rights are often seen as an achievement of Western secular societies. However, gender equality is a hotly debated topic in many Muslim-majority countries as well. In Morocco, not a week goes by without a major journal, newspaper, TV or radio station discussing an aspect of women's rights. Most recently, in November 2013, parliament discussed passage of a law that would criminalize sexual harassment, triggering an official discourse about this widespread problem in Morocco. (After several months of acrimonious debate, parliament unanimously voted to scrap the law at the end of January 2014.)

Still, the world mostly hears about women's rights issues in the Muslim world when there is a particularly egregious case of oppression, discrimination, or cruelty, such as the 2012 case of 16 year-old Amina Filali, who killed herself after being forced by her parents and the court to marry her rapist. Article 475 of the Moroccan Penal Code provides that whoever "abducts or deceives" a minor, without using violence, threat or fraud, can escape prosecution and imprisonment if the abductor marries the victim. This provision in the law has mostly been applied in cases of rape when the woman has been coerced to marry the man who violated her.

However cruel and unjust this law, it has also cleverly been used by girls and women to marry a man their parents disapprove of by claiming he had raped her. As law in this North African country forbids sexual relations outside of marriage, claiming rape is also a mechanism for a woman to declare innocence when she is found to have had a pre- or extramarital relationship.1 Because of cultural biases against sexually active women, the law is rarely invoked when men stray from the narrow path of sexual morals. Underlying these laws are cultural norms—perceived by many as rooted in Islam—that today are questioned by many young Moroccans who want to understand what it means to be modern, a contemporary Muslim, or a non-believer in a society that imposes a state religion.2

Gender provides a lens through which to look at a variety of social issues. Some fear social disintegration and prefer the status quo, even if it comes with undeniable injustice. Others advocate for change—reform of the above-mentioned law, for instance—but there is no overall consensus on the role and status of women. Discourse on women's rights is not limited to what women do or do not want (and of course, women do not constitute a homogenous population); it extends to an entire country, caught between various notions of tradition and modernity. In Morocco, as in most Muslim-majority countries, the demarcation between religion and state is either non-existent or much less obvious than in most Western countries. Therefore, changes to laws and societal norms must be consistent with some interpretation of religious doctrine. This is particularly the case in Morocco, where the King occupies the dual function of head of state and Amir al-Mu'minim, or "Commander of the Faithful," i.e. the highest religious authority in the kingdom.3

In highly authoritarian cultures, a central aspect in the quest for gender equality and justice is the dismantling of patriarchal structures. Most female Moroccan activists across the spectrum, from Islamists to secular or liberal women's rights advocates, embrace this pursuit because patriarchy is seen as a major obstacle to the advancement of women's rights. At issue here is the superior status associated with maleness and the abuses such superior status allows. Religiously sanctioned male privilege has remained intact for centuries; therefore discussions about women's rights are linked to reinterpretation of sacred texts. Tariq Ramadan puts it this way:

It may well be over the women's issue that tensions, contradictions, and concerns are most frequent and most complex. This involves human relationships, deep-seated representation, and relationship logic that, beyond scriptural sources themselves, have to do with age-old cultural and social heritages that remain deeply ingrained and highly sensitive. Speaking about women in any human group means interfering with the groundwork of social structures, of cultural symbolisms, of gender roles, of the position in the family unit, and of authority and power relationships.4

Ramadan's assessment implies that rights and freedoms accorded to men are an indisputable fact of life. The implication of Ramadan's assertion is that, whether justified or not, conventions of male domination ensure some measure of stability in the home and in society at large. It is when the status and role of women are at stake that questions about social order arise.

Gender equality and justice are closely linked to issues of economic development, unemployment, minority rights, the process of democratization, integration, and questions of national and religious identity. Why are women at the center of debates concerning all manner of issues that are not necessarily linked to gender? While there is no definite answer to this question, it is possible to venture some guesses. Though their legal status and treatment is often that of a disenfranchised minority, women make up roughly half of the population. Every human being is linked in some way to a woman: a mother, a sister, wife, and daughter. Beyond political, social and economic experts with specialized concerns, then, every human being has vested interest in the role and status of women.

It is interesting to note here that no matter how fervent the contemporary discussion about women's rights in Morocco, this debate is not new. In modern Moroccan history, it dates back to the period of 1912–56, when the country was a French Protectorate. In 1935, legal scholar Tahar Essafi observed: "Legal liberation is held hostage by habits, morals and customs passed from time immemorial."5 Essafi described the need for some form of feminism (a term he used as early as 1935) and warned that conservative Muslims perceived emancipation as a threat. The foreword to his book states: "To be a feminist is first and foremost wanting dignity for women. Dignity through freedom, dignity through equality. North Africans should not be terrified by these concepts. However, evolution progresses slowly." This text, written nearly 80 years ago, puts into perspective current discussions about women's rights. Essafi's arguments are as current today as they were at the time of his writing, a pertinent reminder of plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. To quote once more from his book:

The condition of Arab women—the woman in Islam—has always been confused, mixed in with all sorts of other problems. Questions about Islam are so-to-say à la mode just as the question of the veil, polygamy and emancipation.6

In fact, contemporary Muslim women's rights advocates in North Africa are re-claiming the heritage of women who were active in the anti-colonial struggle and contributed to the nationalist project. However, once independence was achieved in the name of establishing a post-colonial national Islamic identity, these same courageous women were sidelined and relegated to domestic duties.

One distinction between more secular-minded women's rights advocates and those who use religion as a major point of reference is the use of certain terms. While conventional feminists speak of "gender equality," religiously focused activists prefer the term "gender justice." This is because the Qurʿān, like the Bible, does not contain the term "equality." To the contrary, the scriptures are full of references of subordination of one kind of human being under another, be it based on gender, social status—including that of slaves—ethnicity, religious affiliation etc. Sacred texts however do emphasize "justice" as a major concept guiding human and societal relationships. In fact, most Islamist political parties or movements contain the term "justice" such as the leading Islamist party PJD (Party of Justice and Development) that has headed the Moroccan parliament since 2011, or the Islamist Movement Al Adl wa Ihsane (Justice and Charity). The importance of this terminology also is based on the notion that "justice" is a divinely inspired or commanded concept with universal mandate, whereas "equality" is a human or humanistic idea that therefore lacks universal application because it can be defined differently depending on cultural, geographic, political, or historical context.

For lack of a better one, I have coined the term "third way" to describe conceptual approaches to gender justice that are in essence the same as gender equality, and are developed by Moroccan thinkers and activists who insist on references to Islam.7 For a women's rights agenda to take root and be culturally consistent, these third way protagonists insist that gender justice can be derived from a scholarly re-reading of sacred texts. It describes an alternative paradigm for gender equality that de-secularizes the project of women's emancipation while at the same time employing a non-confrontational attitude towards the West. Third way advocates presuppose the existence of a basic set of human values that reaches across borders and cultures. It also aims at building a bridge between the often-poisonous rift of secular women's rights activists and certain Islamists.8 This third way is most commonly referred to as Islamic feminism. I prefer to avoid this term as it erroneously implies a unified, coherent approach when in fact Muslim-majority countries produce distinct approaches that are germane to a specific cultural context in an effort to bring about the kind of justice demanded by the scriptures.

Third way ideas are not limited to gender issues.9 In Morocco, the idea of a third way grew, in part, from an informal survey of Moroccan women conducted by a group of scholars from social sciences and religion. One of the questions asked respondents about their concerns about their religion. The overwhelming majority of women described a chief concern as "fear of questions." They said there were many aspects of the practice of Islam that troubled them, but that they did not want to risk being unfaithful and so preferred not to ask questions. Fear of being regarded a "disbeliever" was of paramount concern among the women surveyed; they did not want to risk being ostracized by their community for overstepping real or imagined boundaries. Many responded that it was more important how their community viewed them than to pose questions that could potentially create trouble for them. Conformity rather than individuality is still a highly valued—or feared and despised—aspect of contemporary Moroccan life.

Thus, re-interpreting the scriptures also aims to challenge conventional Islamist discourse wherein women are defined primarily as relational beings; that is, in term of their function as a mother, wife, sister, or daughter rather than as an individual. This view does not allow for women to be viewed as autonomous, independent agents. Yet the Qurʿān portrays women not as a sub-species but as human beings who, like men, are endowed with the right to freedom of individual agency. Proponents of a third way call on this portrayal in the scriptures and insist that women are to be considered as individuals and not defined through their relations with men: their father, husband, brother etc.

Another issue the so-called third way approaches concerns secularization of the state. Separating religion from the state is seen as offering greater freedom to the practice of religion, especially in cases where someone's faith is at odds with official monarchic discourse on Islam. Wanting to be true to the Qurʿānic admonition that "there is no compulsion in Islam" (2:256), imposing religious beliefs is seen as counter to genuine faith. In reality, the Moroccan Muslim religious landscape today is already pluralistic, and there is an intrinsic link between accepting individual agency and choice in matters of religion and issues of gender equity.

Diverse thinkers are developing ideas of a third way. Asma Lamrabet is a medical doctor who spent several years in South America, where she was exposed to Catholic liberation theology which inspired her to look for new interpretations within her own religion. Over the past decade she has embarked on scholarly re-reading of sacred texts and published several books which led her to be appointed in 2011 as Director of Feminine Studies within the Mohammedian Council of Scholars in Morocco, a body created by King Mohammed VI (Centre des Etudes Féminines en Islam au sein de la Rabita Mohammadia des ulémas du Maroc).

Nadia Yassine has been the leader of the Feminine Section of the above mentioned semi-legal Al Adl wa Ihsane (Justice and Charity) movement in Morocco. Daughter of the founder and lifelong charismatic leader of Al Adl, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, she built the largest and most active section of the movement until her father's death in December of 2012. Since then a leadership struggle within the movement left her sidelined. The erstwhile most prominent public face of the Islamist movement has since completely disappeared from public view and the feminine section, "Sisters for Eternity," has for the time being ceased its activities. Still, Nadia Yassine had been instrumental in developing a progressive gender justice agenda and members of her movement have been encouraged to pursue higher education and a role in public life, including women of advanced age, which is exceedingly rare even for men in Morocco.

Merieme Yefout is a young scholar who has written her dissertation on women in Islamist movements and contents that these movements offer greater prospects for self-realization and advancement than many secular associations that have more rigid internal power structures.10

The discourse on women's rights within Morocco is vibrant, controversial, and contentious. The 2011 uprisings that shook countries in the region—and the subsequent instability, turbulence, and increased economic hardship—have left Moroccans to ponder the best way to move their society forward while maintaining some sense of stability. A law criminalizing sexual harassment and abolishing the infamous paragraph 475 are some important building blocks in constructing a more gender egalitarian Morocco.

Doris H. Gray is Associate Professor for Gender Studies at Al Akhawayn University, Ifrane, Morocco and also directs the Hillary Clinton Center of Women's Empowerment. Prior to her appointment at AUI, she taught at Florida State University. She is the author of two books: Beyond Islamism and Feminism: Gender and Equality in North Africa, London, I.B. Tauris, 2012 and Muslim Women on the Move: Women in Morocco and France speak out, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008. Her most recent articles include: "In search of righting wrongs: Women and the transitional justice process in Tunisia," E-International Relations. www.e-IR-info, April 2013."Silence kills! Women and the transitional justice process in post-revolutionary Tunisia," International Journal for Transitional Justice. February 2013. "Tunisia after the uprising: Islamist and secular quests for women's rights," Mediterranean Politics. Vol. 17, Issue 3, October 2012, pp 285–302. "The Tunisian Revolution and its implications for the Arab world," Expressions maghrébines. Vol. 11, No. 1, Summer 2012, pp 217–228.


1 See Le Film 475: Quand le mariage devient châtiment, Documentary available on YouTube, Morocco, 2012.

2 Article 6 of the Moroccan Constitution reads: Islam shall be the state religion. The state shall guarantee freedom of worship for all.

3 Article 19 of the Moroccan Constitution reads: The King, Amir Al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful) shall be the supreme representative of the Nation and the Symbol of the unity thereof.

4 Ramadan, Tariq. Radical Reform—Islamic Ethics and Liberation. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p 207.

5 Essafi, Tahar. La Marocaine: Mœurs—Condition Sociale—Evolution. Marrakesh: Imp. du Sud, 1935, p 91.

6 Ibid.

7 See "Feminism, Islamism and a Third Way" in Contemporary Morocco—State, Politics and Society under Mohammed VI, edited by Bruce Maddy-Weitzman and Daniel Zisenwine. New York: Rutledge, 2013. Beyond Feminism and Islamism—Gender and Equality in North Africa, Gray, Doris H. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013.

8 In this context, I am using the term 'Islamist' to refer to individuals or groups that use religion as their main source of reference in order to achieve a more egalitarian society. I accept that this is a problematic term as 'Islamist' also refers to violent and criminal elements. Islamists, to be sure, are not a homogeneous group.

9 Dr. Fred Dallmayr proposed "Islam and Democracy: A Third Way" in a presentation in Rabat 2007. Also see Dallmayr, Fred. Integral Pluralism: Beyond Culture Wars, University Press of Kentucky, 2010.

10 See Lamrabet, Asma. Le Coran et les femmes: une lecture de libération, Lyon: Tawhid, 2007. ________ ; Aïcha, épouse du prophète ou Islam au féminine. Lyon: Tawhid, 2003; Yafout, Merieme. Femmes au sein des mouvements islamistes: facteur de modernisation? Doctoral Dissertaion Ribat Al Kutub, April 2013; Yassine, Nadia. Le féminisme islamique: combats et résistances www.oumma.com, December 2008.

Homepage image: Activists from various women's rights associations gather while holding placards as they protest against the suicide of Amina al-Filali, 16, who was forced to marry the man who raped her, in Rabat March 17, 2012. CRDIT LINEe: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal. IMAGE ID: RTR2ZHXE.

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