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Reforming Societies: The Case of Women’s Rights in Morocco – Caitlin Dearing Scott

 

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* “The pressure for change is building,” reports The New York Times on the progress of women’s rights in Morocco. To the degree Morocco’s key actors can continue working together to achieve consensus on real reforms, positive results will continue building as well. *

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Caitlin Dearing Scott, SVP, Research, Projects, and Programs, MAC

Caitlin Dearing Scott, SVP, Research, Projects, and Programs, MAC

Caitlin Dearing Scott, MAC
March 17, 2014

In an article in today’s New York Times, “Gender Inequality in Morocco Continues, Despite Amendments to Family Law,” Aida Alami assesses the reforms of Morocco’s family code, the moudawana, a decade on.  In 2004, based on the unprecedented initiative of King Mohammed VI, Morocco approved the moudawana, one of the most progressive laws on women’s and family rights in the Arab world. The new law raised the age of marriage for girls from 15 to 18 and gave wives joint responsibility for the family with their husbands, notably in the area of equal rights to property upon divorce.

Reforming the code wasn’t easy in traditionally conservative Morocco. As the article notes, “At the time, the Moroccan ruler, King Mohammed VI, had to arbitrate between the demands of feminist organizations, who were calling for an expansion of women’s rights, and the Islamic political parties, who were strongly resistant to change.”

Despite very real improvements, including the enshrining of gender equality under the law in the 2011 Constitution, these societal challenges haven’t gone away and remain a barrier to full implementation of the reforms. “Moroccan women say that equality is still a long way off,” Alami writes. As an example, she cites the case of judges in rural villages granting permission for minors to marry despite the law mandating a marriage age of 18.

In most instances, this is at the request of the parents, and “judges have to go by the reality on the ground,” argues Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a research associate specializing in women and Islamic law at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at the University of London.

This isn’t a problem that can be solved simply by enacting laws on women rights; it is a much broader problem in traditionally conservative societies, where governments and activists have to work together to balance demands for change with societal realities. Mir-Hosseini acknowledges the limits of government reforms in this regard, noting, “It takes much more time for changes in the law to be translated into practice. Studies show that it takes about one generation or 30 years for legislation to push society in a different direction.”

Thirty years is a long time to wait for change. As we have seen with the events of the Arab Spring, patience for gradual reforms is in short supply. How then to achieve this balance more quickly? Government and civil society must work together to push for both top-down and bottom-up reform.

This has been Morocco’s model on a number of key reforms—the government and the King provide the impetus for reform at the top, while civil society activists keep the pressure on from the bottom.

In addition to working with the government, scholars also say that “Feminists and other groups seeking change must work with conservatives and avoid using alienating language.” They also must keep the pressure on—in this last year alone, demands for reform from Morocco’s National Human Rights Council and active civil society have helped spur three important changes in Morocco on the rights of migrants, victims of rape, and with regard to civilians being tried in military trials.

The country still has a ways to go, but these cases illustrate that institutions—and the legislative process —are working in Morocco to bring about reform. “The pressure for change is building,” notes the article. To the degree Morocco’s key actors can continue working together to achieve consensus on real reforms, positive results will continue building as well.

Caitlin Dearing Scott is Senior Vice President of Research, Projects and Programs at the Moroccan American Center.

 

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