Progress and Rat Poison in Morocco

Some rights gains are never permanent.

By Amy Levin

As the climate warms and the new season approaches, one might notice a comparatively calmer “Arab spring” this year. Distracted by presidential politics and plans to “Occupy Spring,” the revolutionary wave that shifted our gaze eastward last year may be experiencing somewhat of a sea change. Nevertheless, revolutionary movements in the Arab spring countries and their non-Arab neighbors are continuing to ride the proverbial wave. One particular question many of us are still asking is semi- rhetorical: Is Arab Spring democracy a “Win for Women?” Indeed, just this week, global outrage ignighted over the suicide of Amina Filali, a 16-year old Moroccan girl who was forced to marry her rapist.

If you haven’t paid much attention to Moroccan gender politics lately, Filali’s death might seem like another unfortunate symptom of a mix of centuries-long patriarchal oppression legitimized through religious rhetoric and a cultural appeal to tradition. However, many Morrocan feminists are particularly fraught with this news given that, as Morrocan women, they are relatively more politically protected than their neighboring Arab countries. According to University of Fes professor Fatima Sadiqi, with the establishment of the first ever socialist party in 1998, followed by the “first feminist,” King, Mohammed VI, the status of women in Morocco has made unprecedented strides. King Mohammed VI brought 35 women into Parliament in 2002 and in 2004 said Parliament enacted a Family Law that mandates “full equality between men and women as “head of household,” full authority for state courts in matters of divorce, creation of special family courts, and the possibility of maternal custody in the event of divorce.”

Hamid and Souad, the sister and mother of Amina Al Filali who committed suicide last week attend a sit-in protest outside the local court in Larache that had approved the marriage on March 15, 2012. (Getty via HuffPo)

If we can learn anything from our slightly longer experience with “democracy” in the U.S., it’s that “progress” is relative and impermanent. Especially for women. That’s why, according to Heidi Basch-Harod, the November 2011 Moroccan parliamentary elections that, for the first time in Morocco’s history, yielded an Islamist-majority government, caused Moroccan women’s movement groups to be on alert. To add to the mix (or rather detract from it), Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of the majority party, the Justice and Development Party (JDP), appointed only one woman to his cabinet.

In her recent analysis in Open Democracy, Basch-Harod comments on the potential implications of this political change for Moroccan feminism–a movement fraught with its own internal complexities and uncertainties. The beliefs and practices of Moroccan women when it comes to Islam is anything but homogeneous, and the way those beliefs are mapped onto the political spectrum are even more obscure. Thus, as Basch-Harod notes, collaboration between liberal and Islamist women activists has proven quite fruitful for reform laws regarding women’s rights.

Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane of the new Islamist-majority government with all the men on is cabinet. (Image: Jadaliyya)

Recognizing the advantage of including Islamist women activists, the liberal feminist movement encouraged dialogue with its tradition-oriented counterpart. Signs of this cooperation appeared in the form of using Arabic instead of French, promoting in-depth knowledge of religious scripture pertaining to women in Islam, and parsing out Islam’s treatment of women from traditional practices in Morocco — to understand that Islam was revealed in a deeply patriarchal social context. In Morocco, treatment of women is rooted as much in Islam as it is in social notions and customs, or clan traditions.

Whether we rally around Amina Firari’s consumption of rat poison to avoid marrying her rapist or Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane appointing only a single woman to his cabinet (who happens to oppose quotas for women in the Moroccan government, and is in the far back right corner, partly obscured, of the above photo), it is clear that the successes regarding the status of Moroccan women in the past 20 years are not impervious change. However, as Basch-Harod argues, “the vibrant women’s movement of Morocco in the past 20 years has been a unique example of dynamic dialogue between diverse women’s groups along the religious-secular political spectrum.” Instead of looking forward towards the voice of progress, we might learn from the collaborative efforts along this religious-secular divide, because when it comes to the meeting of religion and gender politics, the path to progress is anything but straight and narrow.

Amy Levin is a graduate student in Religious Studies at New York University and editorial assistant/regular contributor to The Revealer.  She is also a permablogger at Feminism and Religion.

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