Women in Morocco are central to the family structure around which Moroccan society is based. Yet the Moudawana, the family code that governs areas of family law such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody, gave few rights to women when it was first adopted in 1958, reflecting centuries-old customs. Under the law, men could unilaterally divorce their wives while women’s right to divorce was highly restricted; women could not marry without legal approval from a guardian or tutor; married women were obliged by law to obey their husbands; and men could marry multiple women without their wives’ consent.
A women’s rights group known as the Women’s Action Union, the Union de l’Action Feminine in French (UAF), and its allies wanted to reform these unjust laws and secure equal rights for women under the family code, thus catalyzing the Moudawana reform movement.
Goals and Objectives
The group of activists fighting to reform the Moudawana needed to persuade the Moroccan Parliament to change the family code in order to make it more equitable toward women. To accomplish their goal, the UAF needed to garner support from the Moroccan people and prove to the government that reforming the Moudawana was an important issue for the majority of Moroccans.
After a series of demonstrations, educational seminars, government lobbying, and a One Million Signatures petition campaign, King Hassan II was forced to take action. He ordered that a new code be drafted in consultation with some women’s groups, to be submitted to him for approval. The bill, which was passed into law in 1993, contained a few changes beneficial to women. For example, women were now allowed to designate the guardian or tutor who would give approval for their marriage, and fathers were no longer allowed to compel their daughters into marriage.
Though the UAF and other women’s groups were disappointed by the limited nature of the reforms, they still saw the new bill as a victory. According to Fatima Outaleb, a member of the UAF, «The UAF was not dissatisfied with those reforms. We thought that we have succeeded in breaking the taboo and the sacredness of the Moudawana.»
Using the momentum generated by the One Million Signatures campaign and the 1993 Moudawana reforms, the UAF and other women’s groups continued to lobby the government by raising awareness of other issues affecting women such as rape and domestic violence. King Hassan II’s death in 1999 led many activists to believe that a new age in Moroccan politics was dawning; King Mohammed VI was rumored to be much more open to change than his father had been.
In 2004, a new Moudawana was enacted that advanced women’s rights and overturned many discriminatory provisions. The minimum age for women to marry was raised from 15 to 18, the same as the men’s minimum age; women no longer needed to obtain approval from a guardian before marrying; men were forbidden from unilaterally divorcing their wives; women were given the right to divorce their husbands; and while it was still permitted for men to have multiple wives, restrictions were imposed to make polygamous marriages harder to obtain and only with the permission of a judge.
The movement did not stop once they had achieved their original goals. Since the passage of these reforms, women’s groups in Morocco have been lobbying to change some discriminatory laws that survived the reforms. They have also been conducting demonstrations and providing education to the public, aiming to ensure that the reforms are understood and are incorporated into daily life.
«My goal now is to spread the word to some of the most remote areas of Morocco – to illiterate men and women who have little access to objective information about the Moudawana reforms, and little ability to obtain legal assistance,» says UAF founder Latifa Jbabdi. «I want the people of Morocco to know that our new law is not only a victory for women, but also for the family, society, and generations to come.»
Latifa Jbabdi’s long history of activism before becoming involved with the UAF shows her commitment to feminism and reform. When she was 14, she became involved in a student movement campaigning for democratic reforms in Morocco. For her membership in an illegal Marxist group known as «March 23», Jbabdi was imprisoned from 1977 until her trial and release in 1980. Upon her release, Jbabdi founded and served as editor for 8 Mars (named for the date on which International Women’s Day is recognized each year), a newspaper written by and for Moroccan women interested in feminist issues.
Utilizing much of the leadership infrastructure and resources from 8 Mars, Jbabdi went on to found the UAF in 1987. Though the Moudawana had inspired protest and calls for reform since its adoption in 1958, it was not until the UAF’s One Million Signatures campaign, spearheaded by Jbabdi, that the Moudawana became a major national issue.
As the reform campaign garnered attention and supporters, it also gained some enemies in its fight for women’s equality. The UAF was opposed by the ulama, Islamic scholars and arbiters of religious law, as well as other religious groups that supported the existing Moudawana as a religious text. Many against the Moudawana reformation believed the UAF’s campaign to be against the Islamic values traditionally held in Morocco. The opposition took many steps to curb the power of the UAF; the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs encouraged imams to preach against the reforms.
Jbabdi worked to engage her opponents in debate by incorporating a religious foundation to her arguments. Though personally committed to secularism, Jbabdi studied the Koran and the Hadith in order to incorporate religious justifications into her message, realizing that most Moroccans were reluctant to take a completely secular approach to the law. Armed with the canons of Islam, Jbabdi could engage with opponents who said that the reforms contradicted Islam, successfully arguing that some interpretations of the religious texts supported equality for women. While retaining presidency of the UAF, Jbabdi was elected to the Moroccan Parliament in 2007.
The Moroccan regime has always been repressive, intimidating and disempowering political opposition members since gaining independence in 1956. King Hassan II, who ruled from 1961 until his death in 1999, arrested, kidnapped, and tortured thousands of political opponents, especially during the failed coup attempts of 1971 and 1972.
However, King Mohamed VI, who took the throne in 1999 and continues to rule the country today, has showed hints of being less repressive than his father. While King Mohamed VI has taken steps to expand Moroccans’ political freedoms, like reforming the Moudawana and establishing the Equity and Reconciliation Commission in 2004 to address past government abuses, Morocco’s political system remains generally corrupt.
Despite having open parliamentary elections in 2002 in which more than 12 political parties participated, Morocco cannot be considered an electoral democracy. The King still holds the majority of political power; with the title of «Commander of the Faithful,» he also has the ability to dissolve Parliament, rule by decree, dismiss cabinet members, command the armed forces, exercise religious authority, and preside over the judicial system.
Opposition parties rarely have the opportunity to assert themselves; any groups who criticize the monarchical system are harassed by government officials. Furthermore, journalists who report on government issues also face heavy restrictions; the government has enacted restrictive press laws and employs an array of economic mechanisms to punish independent and opposition journalists.
Message and Audience
Over the course of the reform movement, the UAF had to modify their message and activity to respond to Morocco’s changing political climate. Initially, the UAF and its reformist allies adopted a strictly secular agenda. They argued that the Moudawana was a political document, not a religious one, and that it should therefore be handled by the Parliament, a secular institution, rather than the King, who was both a secular political leader and the «Commander of the Faithful.» This was partly due to the reformists’ beliefs and ideals, and partly due to the political reality at the time; King Hassan II was not sympathetic to the reforms, and so the UAF addressed their petition to the Prime Minister.
The UAF was able to organize high-profile demonstrations to prove to the government that a large number of Moroccans supported the reforms. In 1992, they launched the One Million Signatures campaign, which aimed to gather a million signatures on a petition to reform the Moudawana. The campaign was highly successful and the UAF exceeded their target by collecting more than a million signatures, a considerable achievement given Morocco’s total population of only 25 million.
After the watered-down reforms passed by King Hassan II in 1993, it became clear that the reformists would need to adopt a different approach if they were to succeed. One of the clearest indications came on March 12, 2000, when the reformists organized a march to take place in Rabat in recognition of International Women’s Day. The march was intended to raise awareness of a range of issues relating to women’s rights. However, on the same day, an alliance of opponents to the movement organized a march in Casablanca, where the women, all veiled, marched in separate lines from the men. The alliance was organized by Islamists, including the Islamist parliamentary party Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD), who rejected the UAF’s secular approach because they believed it to be contrary to Islamic family values. The Rabat march was quite successful, but it was eclipsed by the Casablanca march, which attracted a greater number of activists.
While this incident served as a major roadblock for the UAF, King Mohammed VI’s arrival onto the political scene was a blessing in disguise. King Mohammed VI, whose reign began in 1999 after the death of his father, was much more sympathetic to their cause than King Hassan II had been; in fact, when he ascended the throne, King Mohammad VI promised in a nationally televised speech that he would work to improve Morocco’s human rights record. In response, the reformists called on him to change the Moudawana. The King responded with a series of actions that would ease the path to reform, including a royal decree that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women be given legal force. Additionally, the King created a Ministry in Charge of the Condition of Women, Protection of the Family, Childhood and the Disabled to advance gender equality, he consulted with women’s rights activists, and he appointed a commission to revise the Moudawana.
The public mood also shifted in the reformists’ direction after the terrorist attacks by Salafia Jihadia suicide bombers in Casablanca in 2003. The bombings shocked the Moroccan people, making religious fundamentalism unpopular and enabling reformists to take advantage of this change in Morocco’s political climate to spread their message. A few months later in October 2003, King Mohammed announced his decision to reform the Moudawana. The new code was submitted for approval and passed into law by the Parliament in 2004, drastically changing the landscape of family law in Morocco and beyond.
The UAF reached out to and worked with many other organizations and groups of people to achieve the reforms; alliances with other women’s rights NGOs, political parties, independent politicians, social workers, and academics enabled the UAF to succeed in its mission. To gain support from the NGO community, the UAF organized media seminars and conferences for a variety of national and international women’s and human rights organizations. After the group decided in 1990 that their primary aim should be to reform the Moudawana, it took almost two years to gain the support of other women’s rights organizations, who feared that the Moudawana could interfere with other women’s rights issues being pursued. However, the UAF held debates with these organizations to convince them that the Moudawana reforms were worth fighting for.
To raise support from the general public, the movement organized educational seminars and established women’s shelters. An important medium for disseminating their message was the ‘women’s press,’ consisting of newspapers such as 8 Mars and Kalima, which discussed taboo topics like domestic violence, single motherhood, and homosexuality. However, since more than half of the female population was illiterate at the time when these newspapers developed, there was a need for other forms of outreach, ones with a more widespread impact for building support across the country. To this end, the UAF held seminars for women in rural areas to raise awareness that the Moudawana was the source of «widespread poverty, illiteracy, and even domestic violence.» Through its outreach efforts, the UAF broadened their base of supporters.
The Moroccan Moudawana is a pioneering law in the Arab world, and has set an example in the region. Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia have started discussions on modifying their family laws in similar directions. In the words of Latifa Jbabdi, the reform achieved «a peaceful revolution for women.»