By Souad Belhorma
By Souad Belhorma
Fez – The Arab Spring protests have resulted in regime-change in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and destabilized regimes in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, as well as Morocco. As part of the call for democratic reform, the activists in the Middle East and North African region (MENA) are seeking the establishment of individuals’ social, economic and political rights—which presents a platform and a battleground for gender equality.
Understanding the Arab Spring in Morocco: the February 20th Movement
The Moroccan incarnation of the Arab Spring is known as the February 20th Movement. It is characterized by youth demonstrations and sit-ins with the objective of creating a coalition in support of pro-democratic change using Facebook and other social media platforms as organizing tools. A combination of demographic, social, and political factors are at the root of the movement. For example, despite their educational achievement and professional experience, many young people are confronted with unemployment and find little help in a corrupt, stagnant, and repressive government.
As a result, Moroccan youth put their futures at risk in rising to protest, showing they would stop at nothing to improve their lives and change the socioeconomic and political system. Demonstrators expressed the need for a new constitution in which human rights are guaranteed, including equality between men and women.
On March 9, in response to these uprising, King Mohammed VI issued a televised statement announcing new guidelines to the Moroccan political system and a revision of the 1996 constitution. A commission was appointed by His Majesty to draft a proposal for a reformed constitution, chaired by Abdellatif Menouni, a prominent jurist.
On June 17, the King issued a second nationally televised speech in which he expressed his support for the constitutional draft, which he confirmed as an initiative to enhance the separation of powers, newly empower parliamentary mechanisms within the political system, and support gender equality, to name some of the liberalizing initiatives. On July 1, the new constitutional draft was submitted to a public referendum and it passed with over 98% of the vote.
The reform of the Moroccan constitution has been a clear response to the pro-change movement and a unique reaction to the MENA region’s pro-democracy revolutions. Notably, the Moroccan protests have been relatively peaceable compared to other nations, though clashes between citizens and security forces occurred in some cities, and also some violent conflict with pro-monarchy demonstrators. This comparatively bloodless path to change and the receptivity of the regime to the demands of the people, is considered to be an example of ‘’ Moroccan Exceptionalism’’ and a model for other regions.
Will reform be complete without gender equality?
The new constitution strengthens the role of the prime minister, allows for greater independence of the legislature and the judiciary, and offers protection of individuals’ rights with special recognition of women’s rights and Berber rights. The King retains crucial executive powers: he has the ability to fire ministers and dissolve the parliament, he will chair the new body that oversees the judiciary, and he remains commander in chief of the military and the country’s religious authority. The Arab Spring has proven that change can come from citizens. But the question I’d like to focus on is what specific change does it bring for women in Morocco?
Article 19 of the Constitution: Honor for Moroccan Women
A discussion about how the constitutional reform influences gender equality must include mention of past measures. Since 2000, growing activism in civil society, in particular Moroccan women’s associations, human rights organizations, and feminist groups, plus the liberal character of the King have improved the situation of women. A new family code, known as the Mudawana, based on the Malikite School of Islamic law, governs the status of women under civil law. It emphasizes equality between men and women and confirms joint responsibility of the husband and the wife.
The code gives women the right to repudiation and simplifies divorce, raises the legal age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18 and allows for free choice of spouse, and abolishes polygamy. After divorce, women are given custody of children and are entitled to money. Family court judges and the patriarchal mentality have impeded the full implementation of the new family code and women continue to suffer from discriminatory practices, inequality, violence, and abusive actions.
In the past decade, efforts were made by the state as well as civil society activists to fight gender based violence. For instance, information centers for women have been created, special training in women’s rights is available for lawyers, and judicial assistance is offered to women who are victims of violence.
As a member of a human rights association, I believe what is needed is more collaboration between the government and women’s associations to create a strong network of services for women. The network should offer support to women in reporting violence to the police, obtaining medical service, and achieving justice–helping women gain self-esteem, autonomy, and feel empowered to be active in society. The state should bolster the work of NGOs, especially in providing access to these services for women living in smaller towns.
The reform of the nationality code in 2007 also strengthened the status of women in Morocco. Article 7 of the nationality code gives women who are married to foreign Muslim men in accordance with the Moudawana the right to pass on their nationality to their children. Previously, under the code in 1958, transfer of nationality was restricted in cases where the father is unknown or stateless.
The gains for women in the past decade have resulted in greater representation in decision-making positions, as noted by Moroccan feminist and scholar, Fatima Sadiqi: “women are increasingly taking up national and local political posts and becoming more involved with the judiciary.’’ A change in the quota system for elections helped in the development of the presence of women in political arena. The 2009 local elections showed a 12% quota for women.
There is hope for further increase in the political participation of women with the recent constitutional reforms. Article 19 of the 2011 constitution makes men and women equal citizens in law–this article is a tribute to the effectiveness of the work of women’s associations and human rights associations leading up to the Arab Spring. Article 19 guarantees men and women equal social, economic, political, and environmental rights as well as equal enjoyment of civil rights. Further, the constitutional reform creates an “Authority for Equality and Fight against all Forms of Discrimination” which will put into practice the constitutional recognition of equal rights. Even the existence of this on paper is an essential step to reinforce the presence of women everywhere in the state. The challenge now is in the implementation of the provisions provided by the new constitution–that is, to make the dream become reality.
Reforms since 2000 laid the groundwork for the more radical changes achieved through the February 20th Movement, and is the background for “Moroccan Exceptionalism.” The Arab Spring opened up social dialogue and encouraged the acceleration of reform, evident in the how quickly after the King’s March announcement a new constitution was put to vote. To me, the remaining barriers to gender equality are clear.
A large proportion of Moroccan women are illiterate, preventing them from full knowledge of the change in their rights. The feminization of poverty, limited social mobility for women, and discriminatory gender practices tied to culture are also limiting factors. The cultural norm of a man “who commands and should be obeyed” needs to be challenged. Article 19 invites Moroccan society to reduce illiteracy, spread the culture of equality in society, coordinate government and civil society in democratic reform, and eradicate gender based discrimination through rapid implementation of support structures. The answers to the most important questions–can the admirable political statements contained in the new constitution be translated to tangible outcomes? and how long will it take to secure the promised women’s rights?–remain to be seen.
Souad Belhorma is from Fez, Morocco. She holds a Bachelor degree of Arts in English and a Master degree in English with a specialization in women’s and gender studies from the University of Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdullah, Fez. She is currently preparing a dissertation in fulfillment of the requirement of the PhD degree on women and development under the title “Women of the Shadows in Focus: Analyzing the Participation of Women in the Informal Sector and Poverty Reduction, Fez as a Case Study”. Belhorma holds certificates from various courses on women’s rights, human rights, gender based violence, youth awareness, both at the national and the international level.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial policy.
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- Al- Aoula Television in Arabic, March 9, 2011.
- Al- Aoula Television in Arabic, June 17, 2011.
- Le Monde, ’’Maroc: les réformes politiques du roi sont plébiscitées’’July3, 2011.
- Moroccan Constitution, 2011.
- Sadiqi, Fatima. ‘’Morocco’’ In Kelly, S and Breslin, J. Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa: Progress amid Resistance. New York, Freedom House, 2010.