Agadir – In the last two decades Morocco has seen sweeping reforms when it comes to the struggle for gender equality, yet some observers remain unconvinced.
In a blog post from 2018 titled “Morocco: The Leader for Women’s Progress in MENA,” former US politician Betsy Markey detailed her experiences and observations from the time she spent in Morocco.
“When discussing women in predominantly Islamic societies,” Merkey said that most Western media tend to focus on oppression and lack of opportunity. Still, Morocco “stands out as an example that devoutly practices Islam, promotes tolerance, and is committed to advancing its women.”
The former politician pointed to female representation in Morocco’s government as one of the country’s success stories on the path toward gender equality. In 2017 women held 21% of the seats in the Lower House, compared to 19% in the US at the time. This is the result of the constitutional reforms which doubled the number of parliamentary seats reserved for women between 2007 and 2011, from 30 to 60 out of the 395 seat total.
Morocco’s government has long touted reforms in terms of gender equality, drawing attention to itself on the global stage. The Moroccan government was instrumental in the launch of Group of Friends for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls in 2019, part of EU-UN partnership with an initial budget of €500 million. The launch ceremony took place virtually on December 7 in the presence of more than 200 representatives from UN organizations, diplomatic missions, and NGOs.
Beyond the optics
Despite the government’s efforts, linguist and prominent academic Moha Ennaji believes that it is in fact women’s activism which has considerably shaped democracy in countries like Morocco.
In his study titled “Women, Gender, and Politics in Morocco,” Ennaji unravels the state of feminism and gender equality in Morocco today following various developments since the country’s independence.
Speaking of “state feminism,” which he describes as the official state policy for the emancipation of women, he believes that it was the aristocracy and the women of upper class that benefited the most. While state feminism succeeded in developing certain material conditions, such as access to education, healthcare, and employment, it did little to fight the negative social and cultural attitudes toward women.
Meanwhile the number of women’s NGOs in Morocco grew rapidly in the last two decades, which Ennaji described as “characterized by pragmatism and clear objectives,” focused on improving women’s socioeconomic conditions.
Ennaji explained that this is one of the ways people can directly approach and solve some of the most pressing issues which government programs might not be able to address in an appropriate or a timely manner.
Highlighting citizen-led initiatives
Focusing on improving life for women, many NGOs in Morocco have intensified their efforts to advance gender equality, fight gender-based violence, and assist vulnerable women through shelter and legal advice.
One such program is the L’Union Féministe Libre (UFL), a Moroccan non-governmental organization founded in 2016.
The initiative provides legal and psychological support to any survivors of violence based on gender and sexuality, while also organizing lectures, film screenings and debates, group therapies, reading sessions, self-defense classes, and other workshops.
Similarly working on improving the material conditions of women, the Feminine Solidarity Association (ASF), which Aicha Ech Chenna started in 1985, has launched one of its first income-generating projects: The Solidarité Féminine restaurant in Casablanca.
The initiative aims to help single mothers become independent by providing a stable and lasting income. Speaking to a local Moroccan news outlet, Ech Chenna explained that “to ensure that a single mother does not abandon her child, you have to give her the means to do so.”
Despite these advances towards equality, reports suggest that gender-based violence continues to be part of daily life for many of Morocco’s women. One such study found that 82.6% of women aged 15 to 74 in Morocco have suffered at least one act of gender-based violence during their life. The High Commission for Planning also found that 58.8% of girls and women aged 15 to 24 suffered violence from their romantic partners or exes, while 52.1% of married women suffered domestic violence.
Many activists also call for a change in what they see as outdated government views on abortion and body autonomy. Meanwhile, Morocco’s Head of Government Saad Eddine El Othmani, condemning NGOs’ calls for the decriminalization of abortion, has spoken of the country’s “crumbling” traditional values.
Moreover, Ennaji pointed out that illiteracy is still much more widespread among women than among men, that they still suffer from social injustices such as unequal pay and poverty, and that they have had little access to top jobs or decision-making positions.
Moroccan journalist Zineb Ibnouzahir, speaking of progress and the improving status of Moroccan women to local outlet Le360 in 2019, pointed to the fact that “[Moroccan women] have made some gains.” She cited the “right not to be repudiated, to ask for divorce,” “the right to transfer our nationality to our children,” and “the right to be treated as an adult and autonomous being, not an eternal minor in need of [male] tutelage…”
Even then, as Ennaji underlined, Morocco’s gender equality reforms would not be possible without the “feminist movement’s long struggle and strong advocacy based on real expertise and linked to the grassroots reality and experiences of women.”
While it is important to celebrate accomplishments, of which there are many, activists emphasize that Morocco still has much work to do on integrating women socially, politically, and economically.