In a city where Western-style dress is increasingly becoming the norm, especially among the youth, Khalouma, a student at Mohammad V University in Rabat, Morocco, still stands out. Wearing an arm-exposing tank top, tight pleather pants, and American flag high-tops in the streets of the capital city, the 24-year old’s dress could be described as anything from unexpected to hashouma — an Arabic word meaning shameful. Peering out from under darkly penciled eyebrows and exuding a devil-may-care attitude, her words don’t exactly come as a surprise: “Yes, I would consider myself a feminist”.

Yet, Khalouma cannot be called a “typical Moroccan feminist,” for such a concept is meaningless. While she vouches for a secular, liberal interpretation of feminism based on the universal principles of human rights and insists that she is independent of any institution, Khadija advocates a completely different sort of Moroccan feminism. An employee and researcher at the Center for Studies and Research in Women’s Issues in Islam, Khadija works through the state-sponsored institution to negotiate feminism in the context of Islam.

“To me, all forms of feminism are similar since they tend to defend women’s rights,” says Khadija. But for the Moroccan feminist movement, the means are just as important as the ends—and these means reveal much about the country’s politics.

 

***

 

Launched in 1992 by the independent institution Union for Feminine Action (UAF)’s petition to change the Family Code, the Moroccan feminist movement was initially considered to be at odds with a legal system based on Sharia, the Islamic moral code of behavior. Islamists protested the feminist movement’s claims to be in accordance with the spirit of the texts, denying that women should be involved in the lawmaking process. The Movement for Unity and Reform (MUR) denounced the UAF and Muslim clerics issued fatwas, legal opinions regarding interpretations of Islamic law, against them. Moroccan feminism and Muslim culture appeared to be mutually exclusive, given that the liberal Moroccan feminist movement had couched its demands in the universal and secular principles of social equality and human rights.

Within a decade, however, the Moroccan government had proposed a reformist Plan for the Inclusion of Women in Development, while the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) affirmed that the Islamic state already existed in Morocco. Nevertheless, popular opinion diverged. A march by Al-‘Adl wa-l-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence) in Casablanca in 2000 opposed a feminist demonstration demanding a revision of the Family Code, on the grounds that the reforms amounted to an illegitimate exercise of power by the Moroccan government. Al-‘Adl wa-l-Ihsan challenged the religious legitimacy of the monarchy, believing that the state did not properly implement the teachings of Islam. Even the supporting PJD deputy Bassima Hakkaoui admitted that the development of the new Family Code relied heavily on King Mohammed VI’s own itjihad, or textual interpretation.  Popular and political responses to the King’s actions suggested the state’s shift in attitude had been premature.

Why, then, has the administration demonstrated its readiness to lead the charge on women’s rights, at a time when public dialogue on the issue had just barely begun?

Since its 1984 departure from the African Union–following the intensification of the Western Sahara conflict and its 1987 application for EU membership–Morocco has been relegated to a secondary role, left vying for regional influence. After a period of economic hardship in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Morocco witnessed a wave of its citizens migrate to Europe.  Particularly at a time when internal unemployment exceeds 9.5 percent, Moroccan expatriates working in Europe form an integral part of Morocco’s economy, as their remittances comprise the largest source of internal cash flow. Seasonal returns of nationals living abroad — a common phenomenon—brings significant gains from tourism and increased consumption. Furthermore, returning migrants often start local businesses and invest in the local economy.

Needless to say, the Moroccan diaspora plays an invaluable role in Morocco’s economy, and each year, the administration expends significant efforts to “court” its expatriates, through voting rights and sponsored cultural trips back to Morocco through a variety of state and civil society institutions — the Hassan II Foundation, Ministry of Migration, and Council of the Moroccan Community Residing Abroad (CCME).

Correspondingly, the openness of European borders–which permits the easy flow of Moroccan emigrants–has become essential to Morocco’s economic vitality. This fact, coupled with the dependence of many Moroccan institutions on international funding, has galvanized a national effort to cultivate a positive international reputation, especially in Europe. In the wake of the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city, the state’s reliability and international standing was called into question. The Moroccan government was pressured by Western nations to distinguish itself from other Islamic states and prove its commitment to an agenda opposed to Islamic fundamentalism.

In a post-9/11 global society that values an egalitarian approach to human rights, Morocco’s promotion of the Moroccan Maliki Islam feminist movement became essential to its efforts to present itself as a moderate state.

 

***

 

Today, the degree to which the Moroccan feminist movement works from within the administration is striking. “Whereas in the West, you see a focus on external factors — same jobs, same pay, etc. — in Morocco, there’s a focus on the internal— for example, education on what rights each women has,” says Angie, an American health professional who has lived in Marrakesh for 13 years.

However, what’s interesting to note is that this internal focus often recalls the Moroccan “third-way” feminism backed by King Mohammed VI. The new Mudawana, or family code law, defines and educates women on their internal rights; however, since it is a religious law, it is not open to public debate. In attaching the policy change to Islam, the King effectively institutionalized Moroccan Islam and redefined his religious authority not only as King of the country but Commander of the Faithful.

“The feminists could never fully appropriate this issue; here, the state owns the language of feminism,” says Eddouada. “He [the King] interprets his own reading of the text and his way becomes the new ‘Moroccan way.’” An institution like the Center for Studies and Research in Women’s Issues in Islam, for example, could never exist in the United States; in “Western” feminist movements, women in civil society have acted independently of the state to implement change. In Morocco, feminism has been very much reliant on cooperation with the state.

Thanks in part to the state’s active role in the campaign for women’s rights, the Moroccan feminist movement has largely remained a phenomenon of the elite — protests and dialogue, for example, only reach Rabat and Casablanca, Morocco’s cosmopolitan hubs. According to Eddouada, “Moroccan feminism has always been expressed through politics and is not a movement, because [the feminists] are also politicians. It started as a [faction of the] political left and it never broke away from that.” The dialogue, of course, had to be started by those in the positions to create that dialogue. What resulted was fragmentation of the feminist movement; individuals would use of the title of “Moroccan women” to advance separate political agendas that were not actually representative of the people’s desires.

Today, the Moroccan feminist movement still operates from the top-down. But as Stephanie Bordat, founder of women’s rights NGO, it might not be a bad thing for feminists to do this — as long as they can maintain a balance between government cooperation and democratization. The steady rise in NGOs focusing on the matter indicates a gradual shift towards more independently directed social change and development, and feminism is increasingly seen as no longer separate from other social issues. For example, women now make up almost fifty percent of the youth movement, trade unions, and other organizations. This new form of feminism does not totally adhere to the way that feminism defined by NGOs separates women from men; as a homogenous entity; gender now intersects with a variety of factors such as class.

The future path of the feminist movement is unclear, including whether or not the feminist movement will ever effectively break into the lower strata of society. According to Eddouada, there’s hope, in the reform of the local feminist language. The northern Rif region used women’s cooperatives as a local solution to bringing women independent jobs. These grassroots initiatives succeed over the large NGOs because they move straight past the philosophy to figuring out how to ensure the women in local neighborhoods are not excluded just because they are born in isolated areas or because they don’t speak Arabic or Amazigh.

Though the feminist movement in Morocco has a long way to go, perhaps in the future, the greatest progress will come when the impossibility of homogenizing the movement is realized and outside onlookers move past trying to define one Moroccan feminism.

Published by Amy Chang

Amy Chang is an Associate Editor of The Politic from Hockessin, Delaware. Contact her at amy.chang@yale.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *