Morocco made a landmark reform to its family code (moudawana) in 2004; it is only the second Arab country (after Tunisia) to have introduced such progressive measures for women (1). Led by their own vigorous movement and supported by the king, women won greater equality notably the right to marry without the permission of a male family member and to initiate divorce on a fairer basis.
At the time there were doubts about whether these advances would be put into effect. Three years later Dr Nouzha Guessous, a specialist in bioethics, rights activist and member of the moudawana Commission, said that the reforms have been a success. Each March the ministry of justice reports on their implementation and some of the womens associations publish their own reports. So we all know whats happening.
Under the new code both women and men can file for divorce for irreconcilable differences (chiqaq), without showing any proof (2). The courts are obliged to grant the divorce within six months, whereas under the old law divorces could drag on for 10-15 years as women struggled to prove they had been mistreated; they often ended up buying a divorce (kholaa), costing them all their funds and a loss of rights.
The new divorce is very popular: in 2006 it accounted for 73% of all applications and 77.7% of these were filed by women. But men prefer it too, as it is usually less costly than the traditional talaq(repudiation). Swapping divorce stories is fashionable in upmarket Casablanca cafes like Paul in Boulevard Anfa, where men can be heard complaining of the ease with which their wives have dismissed them.
Pressure by women does not stop here. A number of associations now want fairer application of the new laws. Article 49 of the family code allows a written agreement on managing assets acquired during marriage, and sharing them in divorce. In the absence of such an agreement, the courts take the contribution of each spouse into account. Women want this article to be made automatic, and they want their work in the home to be counted as a proper job.
One association pushing for this reform is the Democratic League for Womens Rights (LDDF), headed by Fouzia Assouli, which is currently asking Moroccos 10 biggest political parties to include this and 15 other civic, economic and social measures for women in their programmes ahead of the September elections. The initiative, known as Citoyenneté responsable, is asking women to vote for candidates who will endorse the 16 points. Six of the main parties (3) have already agreed.
The LDDF delivers medical and legal aid and does youth work all over Morocco. Poverty and illiteracy (at a shocking 43%) are severe. But although most Moroccan women remain rooted in tradition, with a strong rural and often tribal basis, there have been surprising advances. Between 1982 and 2004, the birthrate decreased from 5.5 to 2.5. The sociologist Emmanuel Todd (4) compares that decrease in just 22 years to the 160 years, 1760-1910, it took in France.
Women have been given new responsibilities in mosques, principally religious teaching on the lines of female imams (murchidates). This government initiative (made after the 2003 Casablanca bombings and in response to Salafist extremism) has the full support of the PJD, who would like to see the number of murchidates increased from 50 to 200. The Islamists of Al-Adl wal-Ihsan consider the initiative too limited.
All this activity is reflected in the diversity on the streets of Casablanca and Rabat. Traditional djellabas worn without a headscarf are in fashion; hijab-wearing girls often prefer a more modern Islamic look (trousers with a slim tunic); face veils are rare and rural. No male heads turn at a sleeveless T-shirt with low decolleté.
By Wendy Kristianasen
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