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After 10 Years of Fighting, Morocco’s Soulalyat Women Find Justice

The approval of the new law has cemented an important step in the fight for women claiming rights to communal lands.

Fez – “Although it is too late for me to get back some of my lands, when I see all these women finally getting justice, I feel like the struggle has been worth it. I feel that their joy is my joy,” said Rkia Bellot, a soulalya woman and activist, to Morocco World News. 

“Whether they like it or not, it is our right. The law is on our side now.” 

The House of Councillors has adopted a new set of laws designed to protect the rights of women who have a stake in communally-owned lands, also known as soulalyat women. The new laws, passed on August 2, affirmed women’s rights to benefit from their ancestral lands alongside men. The approval of the new law has cemented an important step in the fight for gender equality in land rights that has lasted over a decade

Soulalyat activism in 2008. Photo courtesy of Rkia Bellot.

“After ten years, it is an incredible moment in the struggle for the rights of soulalyat women,” affirms Saida Idrissi, a women’s rights activist who has been involved in the fight since its very beginning, in an interview with MWN. 

“Before, we were talking about a lawless situation, where the issue was dealt with through the administrative circular of 2009. Now these women know that they have the power of the law on their side. They can go to court if need be.” 

A long struggle

The term soulalyat comes from the Arabic word “soulala,” meaning bloodline, family, or tribe. The soulala system has been in place in Morocco since pre-Islamic times. Under this form of land management, the land belongs to the kinship group as a whole, and thus could not be sold. 

The right to use the land for agriculture and benefit from its proceeds, however, was transferred from father to son according to the “orf,” or custom, which denied women the right to inherit

According to Saida Idrissi, over 15 million hectares of land across the kingdom falls under the soulala system. Over 10 million people have claims to using the land. Based on that figure, the issue affects approximately 5 million Moroccan women. Until the new laws passed in August, the main legal texts governing soulala lands were the Dahirs of 1919 and 1969, which upheld the power of the “orf.”

“Before, the men were more responsible, they took care of their mothers, sisters and nieces, the system worked. Now, everyone is just looking to profit,” says Bellot. She has been one of the movement’s figureheads since its early days. She is from the Lhadada commune in Morocco’s Gharb region, which includes Rabat, Sale, and Kenitra. Although the movement has expanded nationwide, the Gharb region is still considered its epicenter. 

Read also: Communal Lands: Moroccan Women Fight for Right to Inheritance

“Women have always contributed to the lands. They have always worked alongside the men in agriculture, in addition to tending to the home and raising children,” Bellot comments.

Photo courtesy of Rkia Bellot.

“The situation was illogical, unnatural. Women have worked those lands and were just as entitled to them as men, but they would be denied and their rights trampled on. Women would invest in the land and work on it. Many would build houses on the small plots they owned, only to be kicked out when their brothers got married and wanted to start a family” insists Bellot.  

With Morocco’s rising economy and expanding cities, many soulala lands have been purchased through public domain or private acquisitions. The money goes into an account managed by the office for rural affairs at the Ministry of the Interior. It is then supposed to be distributed according to the official lists of rightful claimants presented by the “nuwab,” the elected representatives of the soulala. 

Before the administrative circular of 2009, the nuwab omitted the names of women from those lists.     

When Bellot started working on this issue back in 2007, she faced plenty of resistance, not only from local representatives, but also from the NGOs she reached out to for help. “Nobody wanted to touch this topic, it was too complicated, too risky,” she says. 

Soulalyat activism. Photo courtesy of Rkia Bellot.

Bellot went to see the Democratic Association of Women in Morocco, ADFM, who finally gave her the support and attention she was looking for. The ADFM rallied women to the cause, providing awareness campaigns among those affected and lobbying before the government. 

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Incremental Progress

The hard work accomplished by the movement began to bear fruit. The first real progress was seen on the issue in 2009, when the Ministry of the Interior issued an administrative circular stating that the Office for Rural Affairs would refuse to consider lists which did not include women. 

However, the burden was still on women to present themselves and try to get their names put on the registry of legitimate claimants. As Bellot affirms: “When women try to claim their lands, they still hear: This is none of your business. Only men have the right to use these lands. This is what our traditions say.”

“Since the movement for Soulalyat rights has started, the Office for Rural affairs and everyone in the central administration has always been very helpful. However, we faced and still face a great deal of resistance from local officials.” 

Many of the nuwab would outright ignore the provisions of the circular, feigning ignorance or citing the supremacy of the “orf.” 

Some women faced threats from male family members if they tried to put themselves on the list. “Many men threatened to divorce their wives if they put their names forward,” Bellot says. For women in rural areas who still depend heavily on their husbands for support and where divorce is a social taboo, this is a sizeable threat. 

A long road ahead

For many of the women and activists involved with this topic, the new laws are only the first step to guaranteeing true equality for soulalyat women. As Saida Idrissi points out, “Authorities must make it easier for these women to access information. Much work still needs to be done to guarantee access to information and administrative services.” 

For rural women in Morocco, poverty rates are high and illiteracy rates are even higher. In 2015, seven out of 10 rural women had never had access to formal education. Despite the many efforts by NGOs and the Ministry of the Interior to empower women, they still face barriers when it comes to claiming their birth rights. 

In addition, the procedure for women to claim their rights is still difficult. According to Bellot,  women first have to submit a claim to the local “kaid” and the local “naib,” or representative. If at this stage the woman’s claim is refused, she must then submit a complaint to the Office for Rural Affairs at the Ministry of the Interior. If her case is subsequently dismissed, she can now, thanks to the new laws, go to court.

The process is both lengthy and financially draining for women, many of whom are working in agriculture, have families to care for, and have to incur the costs and time burden of hiring a lawyer and handling the legal procedures. According to Bellot, it can take up to a year or two and cost up to MAD 5,000. For many women living in rural areas in Morocco, that is a fortune.

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“There is still a lot of resistance, many men still want to keep the lands and profits to themselves, even educated men go back to the ‘orf’ when it suits them. Although things have been changing, [and] more women have been able to sit on the nuwab councils,” Bellot says.

“What we really need is an awareness campaign. We need these laws to trickle down into the ground. We need local officials to be aware of the laws and to apply them. Laws by themselves will not change much unless there is genuine awareness and punishment for those who break them.”