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In Morocco, Religion AND Secularism Leading the Way on Women’s Rights – Jordana Merran

Jordana Merran, MAC
June 4, 2015

PBS NewsHour’s recent broadcast on Morocco’s innovative Mourchidate program—wherein women are trained as spiritual guides—sheds light on the North African country’s efforts to promote women’s rights and curb extremism in one swoop. “Protecting the youth from extremism is a part of our mission,” explained one Mourchidate interviewed for the segment. At the same time, said segment producer Kira Kay, the Mourchidates’ speeches are “a surprising blend of traditional religious sermon and feminist activism.” As one woman explains, “Perhaps in our history, women have faced some injustice because of a misunderstanding of Islam. But all women should be aware of their important status.”

Because the Mourchidate program is particularly compelling given the growing global concern over Islamic extremism, it sometimes overshadows the equally revolutionary work that Morocco has done to promote women’s equality outside the religious sphere. Most Middle East analysts are familiar with Morocco’s 2004 Moudawana, or family law, which has been described as “one of the most progressive family law codes” in the region.  Many know that Morocco’s 2011 Constitution further enshrines gender equality.

But how many remember that before either of these milestones, according to the UN’s recent “UN Women: Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016” report released last month, “Morocco began looking at the impact of gender in [government] budgets in 2002”? It’s called “gender responsive budgeting,” or GRB, and as senior Moroccan finance ministry official Mohamed Chafiki told report authors, “Since 2002 we have seen a pragmatic move forward… whereas GRB was informal before, now it is enshrined in law.” According to the UN report, “a total of 27 departments, accounting for more than 80 per cent of the government’s budget, have adopted the tool. A new landmark was reached in 2014, with the passing of a new finance law, which legally obliges the government to consider gender throughout the budget process.”

What does that mean from a practical perspective? According to the report:

… when it comes to crucial policies such as universal education, targets are set for both sexes and the barriers which could prevent girls going to school are factored into the budgeting process. For example when a school is planned, money is put aside to ensure that there are adequate toilets that can be used by girls. Not only that, but in its efforts to improve access to running water, the government also collects information on the number of girls who have to collect water in rural areas, a burden that can prevent them from attending school.

Also noted in the report is that the Moudawana wasn’t the only law expanding women’s rights in 2004. “In the same year, Morocco’s new labor code spelt out women’s rights to maternity leave. Meanwhile, the Confederation of Moroccan Businesses (CGEM) has produced guidance to its members to make [nurseries] available in workplaces to support working mothers.”

To this latter point, it is perhaps most encouraging that these advances were not solely instituted by the government, but inspired by actors across all society: progressive business leaders, women’s rights groups, and secularists. As the UN report notes, changes in Morocco’s laws came “as a result of longstanding mobilization by the women’s rights movement. Women’s rights activists first started to rally in the early 1990s, launching a grassroots campaign for Moudawana reform that collected over 1 million signatures.”

We saw this phenomenon in action early last year. Fadoua Bakhadda, executive director of the Association Marocaine de Planification Familiale—a member association of the International Planned Parenthood Federation—wrote in The Guardian in February 2014 about how a campaign by NGOs—including her own—moved Morocco’s Parliament to close a controversial legal loophole that made it possible for rapists to be exculpated by marrying their victims. She described how “several women’s rights groups joined forces to tackle child marriage,” organizing several peaceful protest marches. “Each demonstration increased public interest.” Soon, the law was changed.

When reform is seen through a single lens—like that of the Mourchidate program—we sometimes overlook the much bigger picture of collective action and momentum that gives us reason to hope and see the glass half full.

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