The 2004 women’s revolution in Morocco

By Rania Maktabi, University of Oslo

Moroccan women demonstrating outside parliament to protect their right to land, Rabat, May 2014. All photos by author.

Heading off to Morocco soon with Russia on my mind.
No, it’s not the dramatic geopolitical changes in international relations following President Putin’s response to the Assad-regime’s call to intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war. Neither is it my humming to the tune of “Back in the USSR” reminding me that John Lennon (1940 – 1980) would have been 75 years today.
It is this puzzle I find troubling: Why did a revolutionary change in 2004 regarding paradigmatic reforms in women’s civic rights within family law, known as mudawwana, occur in Morocco – a state with low levels of economic development combined with rural poverty, and a staggering 60 per cent illiteracy rate among women at the time the reform was legislated? Why not in a more affluent Arab state with higher literacy rates among women, for instance Lebanon, Jordan or Kuwait?
Are there parallels to the 1917 October revolution in Russia which – contrary to Marxist ideology that envisioned revolutionary change in an advanced industrialized state – occurred in one of Europe’s least industrialized states? One of the major impacts on women after the 1917 socialist revolution in Russia was the diminishing of the Orthodox church’s powers by means of liberalizing divorce laws and requiring that marriages be recorded in civil registries.
The Moroccan king as revolutionary tsar? Looks like it, although objectives and means differ. King Mohammed VI came to the throne in 1999, and was hailed as the “women’s king” (roi des femmes) five years later when the mudawwana reform was passed unanimously through parliament. An approach where type of political regime, and its preferred governance strategies to maintain its rule may shed more light on the woman-friendly reform in Morocco, than socio-economic factors related to women per se, as I shall point out later.
But, first – what is the mudawwana reform, why is it important for women, and how has it impacted on women’s lives in the past decade?

What is the mudawwana reform?
The 2004 mudawwana reform remains the most paradigmatic post-colonial legal amendment that equalized women’s and men’s civic rights to have occurred among the 22 member states of the Arab League since Tunisia’s codification of family law in 1956.
It is, indeed, a women’s revolution in terms of the collaborated efforts made by women’s groups at the local and regional levels, and in terms of the innovative textual religious interpretation that amalgamated notions of gender justice with Islamic jurisprudence. The 2004 mudawwana inspired women’s groups all over the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA) after its legislation. It continues to motivate activists and feminists in their persisting struggle to address and change state laws that discriminate between male and female citizens.
The reform raised the minimum age for women from fifteen to eighteen, established a woman’s unilateral right to divorce, set stricter judicial control on polygyny and repudiation, incorporated the principle of the protection of children, made both spouses responsible for the family, eliminated a wife’s legal obligation to obey her husband, and made male guardianship (wilaya) over female citizens in marriage optional.
To a Norwegian, let alone a Western eye, these reforms do not amount to revolutionary standards. In a MENA context, they are. Only Turkish women (since 1926), and Tunisian women have enjoyed fairly similar marital de jure civic rights with men uninterruptedly.

Why is family law important for women in MENA?
Family law regulates legal issues linked to the kinship structure and what is often termed as a person’s ‘private sphere’, such as marriage, divorce, custody over children, maintenance, inheritance, and adoption. In most Arab states, family law embodies the clerical imprint of religious law which principles male guardianship over females. As a result, female and male adult citizens are accorded with differential rights and duties, such as official perceptions that males are heads of households and primal economic providers for the family, and women as primarily caretakers and homemakers.
Herein lies what Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe calls ‘the political’: because the state administers family law, it implicitly institutionalizes gendered citizenship where state laws confer differential rights and duties to female and male citizens.
Family remains the essential guarantor of individual welfare in Arab states. The primacy of kinship-based social and political systems thus accentuates the importance of family laws due to the substantial social and economic impact of these laws on the quality of life of all family members, including females, who are pre-dominantly outside the waged labor market. As such, the quality of female citizenship in MENA states today is to large extent contingent on pressures to reform family law.

Fine on paper, but…
What has been the impact of the 2004 mudawwana reform a decade after its legislation?
Legal reforms are “invisible”. They touch upon immaterial aspects which do not immediately lead to tangible results in terms of material welfare such as greater economic security, or more content women who experience better social protection.
Seen from the perspective of women’s groups, the reform in 2004 was the end of one struggle: that of obtaining equal rights. With the passing of the law, a new struggle started: that of implementing what looks fine on paper, but which needs to be translated into everyday practice. Activists and women’s rights groups are concerned that the law be enforced by more attentive and less corrupt state officials, in particular judges who are either ignorant of, or oblivious towards, how the mudawwana statutes shall be interpreted and applied. For instance, lawyers are disturbed by high rates of underage marriage. According to statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice and Freedoms in 20014, the number of permits granted by judges, who can allow women under 18 to marry, rose from over 18,000 in 2004 to around 39,000 in 2011.
Two books have been recently published that look into some of the opportunities and obstacles of the mudawwana: one serves lemons, the other strawberries.

Lemons first,
Social anthropologist Katja Zvan Elliott looks behind the fanfare and the statistics of reform her article “Morocco and its women’s rights struggle: A failure to live up to its progressive image” (Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, vol. 10, no. 2), and book Modernizing Patriarchy: The Politics of Women’s Rights in Morocco (University of Texas Press, 2015). Her analysis is critical of the alleged legal empowerment of Moroccan women. She argues that legal change has not had any significant impact on improving women’s lives because patriarchal structures persist, in particular in rural areas. Traditional norms of women dependent on, and subordinated by, male relatives continue to make their toll along with notions of marriage and motherhood as women’s primal destiny. She points out that illiteracy rates continue to be among the highest in MENA, and that more than half of the female population has experienced gender-based violence. Rather than hailing the revolutionary impact of the 2004 reform on improving the lives of Moroccan women, Zvan Elliott argues that the reform helped the authoritarian state to modernize and re-institutionalize patriarchy. For instance, women have been given a wider range of choices, but economic conditions, illiteracy rates, and poor infrastructure impede women from exercising their rights. Also, the official promotion of women’s rights has, according to her, disenfranchised Moroccan men who feel alienated by what is perceived as female-biased state projects. In short, she contends that de jure legal rights have not resulted in de facto justice for Moroccan women.

…. then strawberries
Another social anthropologist, Amy Young Evrard, provides more optimistic ethnographic observations and analysis of the struggle of women’s groups towards legal reform before 2004, and points out some of its promising features in The Moroccan Women’s Rights Movement (Syracuse University Press, 2014).
The transnational character of the Moroccan women’s movement provides her theoretical framework. She looks at the interplay between ideas, actions, and state policies relating to pressures for greater legal equality between men and women’s civic and human rights. Whereas the monarch’s key role in ensuring the mudawwana reform is underlined, Evrard focuses on individual activists and the organization of women’s groups at the local and international levels. Throughout the book, she sheds light on the struggle for dignified lives among vulnerable groups such as divorced women, unwed mothers, and girls who risk to be taken out of school after their primary education. Rather than reflecting on the impact of the mudawwana, she points out inherent dilemmas, such as women’s groups assisting young unwed mothers to keep their children and helping them to qualify for jobs, while openly expressing that “marriage is the only route to respectability for women” (p. 234).
Another dilemma Evrard perceives is the reframing of the women’s rights movement objective from one where women’s legal autonomy was at center before 2003, towards a new approach where notions of ‘the harmonious family’ surfaced after 2004 when the reform went through. Perhaps ironically, or uplifting – depends how you look at it – Evrard points out that new alliances are made. Some secular women’s groups are receiving growing aid from Islamist groups who seek to support marriage and help families as means to address societal problems.

Back to the power-play: The monarch and the centralization of power
The standardization of the judicial and religious spheres under the auspices of centralizing authorities is a basic marker of state sovereignty in modern state formation, according to Norwegian poIitical sociologist Stein Rokkan (1921 – 1979). His insights provide a fruitful approach to understanding the role of the mudawwana as part of the Moroccan monarch’s endeavor to strengthen his power particularly over the religious and judicial fields in the past decade.
In Morocco, as in most other MENA states, the spheres of law and religion intertwine in different ways. The codification and legislation of reforms in family law represent an entry into unveiling the points of interaction between theological premises, political aspirations of different social groups, and the governance strategies of rulers.
Significantly, in Morocco, the king extracts religious legitimacy through article 41 of the Constitution, and rules as ‘Commander of the Faithful’. With this unparalleled position compared to other rulers in the region, the current king’s grandfather, Mohammad V, embarked on abolishing the autonomy of clerics who previously promulgated and regulated shari’a rulings within family law.
Under the rule of the current king’s father – Hassan II – harsh coercive means of repression were used between 1960 up until the current king Mohammad VI ascended the throne in 1999. This forty years’ period saw the process of consolidation of monarchical rule through the jailing of religious and political dissidents during a period which came to be known as Years of Lead (sanawat al-rusas).

The state’s extended arm in the religious sphere. The signpost of the regional office of the Moroccan kingdom’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Salé, a town in the vicinity of Rabat, May, 2014.
The state’s extended arm in the religious sphere. The signpost of the regional office of the Moroccan kingdom’s Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Salé, a town in the vicinity of Rabat, May, 2014.

Seen from this perspective, family law reform was part of the new king ’s ambitions to further bolster his rule over the religious-legal sphere when he came to power in 1999. Importantly, in May 2003, during the period when the text of the mudawwana was being formed and discussed by the 16-member commission, five synchronized terror attacks known as the Casablanca bombings occurred. These atrocities left 43 killed, and stripped Islamist groups who opposed the way in which the family law was being revised from their legitimate dissatisfaction. The attacks contained therefore the power of Islamist groups as opponents against reform. At a critical conjuncture, the political scale tipped towards strengthened support for reform among Moroccans.
At another politically important crossroad – the Arab Uprisings which erupted in Tunisia in December 2010 – the monarch was exceptionally swift in responding to the uproars by presenting a new constitution in July 2011. Women’s civil rights were addressed in the new Constitution: art. 16 pledged to protect the rights of female and male citizens outside Morocco; art. 19 enshrined the principle of equality between men and women; and art. 115 specified that female judges be appointed in the High Judicial Council. Also, art. 41 specifies that the only body allowed to issue religious opinions – fatwas – is the Superior Ulama Council which is headed by the monarch.
In tandem with constitutional change, researchers have noted the growing feminization of religious institutes whereby women are sought included in central positions of theological learning. In April 2015, the monarch reiterated his calls for including women by requesting the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs to ensure women’s representation and participation in religious institutions.

The Moroccan king as revolutionary tsar?
Inasmuch as a ‘revolutionary tsar’ sounds as a contradiction in terms, I suggest that the term fits the Moroccan monarch. Women are, indeed, seen as part of the king’s objective to contain religious extremism.
Are ‘women’ as category instrumentalised to meet certain political objectives? “Why not, if it serves our own interests?”, appears to be the standpoint of some women’s groups in Morocco, according to Evrard’s study of the women’s movement. This point of view has alienated younger generations within the 20th February Movement who are critical of the king’s autocratic rule.
As for the Moroccan monarch’s contemporary Russian counterpart? Well…. he has befriended church and priests to such a degree that he felt his powers threatened by cats – Pussycats who riot, that is.

Not afraid to riot. The Moroccan 20th February Movement is child of the 2011 Arab Uprisings. Supporters from movement’s Salé-branch demonstrate with a banner which reads “Continued struggle against subjugation and corruption for the sake of dignity, freedom, equality and social justice”. Rabat, May 2014.