From Lalla el-Batoul to Oum Hamza: Moroccan Women’s On-going Fight for Equality and Dignity
From Lalla el-Batoul to Oum Hamza: Moroccan Women’s On-going Fight for Equality and Dignity“The man and the woman enjoy, in equality, the rights and freedoms of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental character, enounced in this Title and in the other provisions of the Constitution, as well as in the international conventions and pacts duly ratified by Morocco and this, with respect for the provisions of the Constitution, of the constants of the Kingdom and of its laws.
The State works for the realization of parity between men and women.
An Authority for parity and the struggle against all forms of discrimination is created, to this effect.”
-- July 1st, 2011 Constitution, Article 19
July 1st, 2011 will be remembered in Moroccan annals as a turning point for many reasons. It was the day on which the Moroccan electorate was called upon to vote in a referendum over controversial constitutional reforms, initiated by the King in immediate response to the tide of the Arab uprisings of which the February 20th Movement represented the Moroccan version. It was the day that dispelled the Moroccan exceptionalism and its immunity to popular tumults that swept the Arab world from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf. Additionally, July 1st will be consecrated as the day on which the first “people imposed” constitutional reform materialized ever since the establishment of modern Morocco, without meaning, however, that these reforms fulfilled the desires of the Moroccan people or insinuate that the people had full control of the mechanisms that governed the process leading to this “change”. The political outcome of such a reform, nonetheless, is palpable and its material effects are tangible in the political arena. Moroccan women’s share of these reforms is a long-awaited-for parity with their male co-citizens that crowned their century-long struggle for recognition and equality under the law. This paper contextualizes Moroccan women’s struggle for their rights and sheds a critical light on the constitutional reforms pertinent to them. Moreover, it shows the desired impact of these reforms on the situation of women in the country.
The new Constitution, despite its stemming from a somewhat hasty reform process, was hailed by many international leaders and media outlets as being democratic, advanced, a wise move and a constitutional document that was going to supposedly carry Moroccans away from the era of dictatorship, arbitrariness, cult of the individual and absence of accountability to the era of democracy, human rights, equality and an era in which responsibility and accountability go hand in hand. Others emphasized very specific requests elevated to the constitutional level, such as the institutionalization of Amazigh (Article 5) as an official language (besides Arabic), the de jure establishment of parity between men and women for the first time (Article 19), strengthening of individual liberties and outlawing of all forms of discrimination, torture and abuse of power by this foundational text (Articles 20, 21, 22, 23). These specific aspects led some commentators to dub it the constitution of human rights, due to the clear endeavor of its drafters to include as many rights as possible, and sometimes in very contradictory ways. Some commentators even dared to cast doubts on the motivation behind such a human rights heavy constitution; the explanation might be an effort to flirt with the international community by playing the card of safeguarding human rights while keeping the essence of power in the same hands. Of course, all these allegations require more probing in light of the unfolding developments in the country after the ratification of the Constitution. Only its implementation and the behavior of the monarchy, its servants and its political partners in the country remain the litmus test to confirm or undermine the veracity of these claims.
Moroccan women have definitely rejoiced and deserve to rejoice even more to have seen a new Constitution, ratified by 98.49% of the registered electoral body on July 1st, 2011, according to the government’s official statistics, granting them long-awaited-for equality with their male co-citizens. How can they not be fulfilled with a solemn legal document that supposedly “offered” them total equality with men in their traditional society? They would be unrealistic, ungrateful and even unreasonable to ever request anything else after this epoch-making achievement! The problems, which they had fought incessantly to see resolved for more than fifty years, were resolved with a stroke of a pen and it is high time they took care of their daily chores, and let society take care of the more pressing essential challenges lying ahead of it. The King and the male-dominated political class (only a far left opposition party has the only woman at the helm of a political party in Morocco and only one woman was appointed minister in the PJD-led coalition government)5 deserve to be thanked profusely for affording them the privilege of equality!
Yet, some skeptics, including the author, wonder if equality really means anything in the actual Moroccan context, where poverty, corruption, prostitution, illiteracy, injustice, disparities and conjugal abuse are prevalent, and of which the main victims are women and children. Moreover, achieving equality through a constitutional text, as stupendous of an achievement as it is, should have happened fifty years ago. Other jaded observers even wonder if pulling out the card of equality at this time is just another “maneuver” to dodge more pressing issues that Moroccan women and girls face on a daily basis, and which must be addressed effectively and expeditiously. These questions are even more critical when we look at the situation of Moroccan women within the global context of human rights and development in Morocco as a whole, which, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, leaves a lot to be desired.
The achievements of July 1st were not a gift to women in the Sherifian monarchy. For Moroccan women to get where they are today, they had to make tremendous sacrifices and face insurmountable obstacles, which cost them their freedom many times and their lives in many other instances. The new constitutional rights are rather the fruit of their continued struggle for over a hundred years, exactly since 1910 when the first known female political prisoner in the history of modern Morocco, Lalla el-Batoul Benaïssa, was jailed and tortured by King Abdelhafid in person for political reasons. Thanks to archival work carried out recently by Maati Monjib, the renowned Moroccan historian, we discovered that Moroccan women have a female political symbol who refused to surrender to the will of the Makhzen (political regime in Morocco) and faced the consequences of her refusal valiantly. After Abdelhafid (1908-1912) overthrew his brother King Abdelaziz (1894-1908), he launched a witch-hunt campaign against the aides of his brother among whom was El-Bacha Benaïssa, the husband of El-Batoul Benaïssa. Both Benaïssa and his wife were arrested and tortured. Batoul was crucified and an iron bar was used to poke her breasts as she was hanging naked from the wall of a cell inside the monarch’s palace in Fez. Worse, Batoul was tortured in the presence of the Sultan. Batoul was not only the wife of a powerful political personality, but she combined intelligence, beauty, culture and great taste for life and international relations. According to the diplomatic documents unearthed by Monjib in the French archives, this Fassi aristocratic woman was highly educated and she spoke foreign languages in a time when Moroccan women were not even allowed to run their own errands. Moreover, everything about her friendships and life style contradicted the spirit of the Makhzen at the time. I believe that her torture and ultimate jail in the harem of the Sultan was equally the result of her modernity, which annoyed the powers that be at the time, as it was the result of her husband’s affiliation with King Abdelaziz. Although we have no concrete evidence of any known political agenda for Batoul, her story does illustrate the high toll Moroccan women paid since the turn of the century to achieve equality with men and shows, all the more so since the Makhzen has always used the same techniques to smother dissidence and stifle serious opponents. Batoul can, thus, be considered the pioneer Moroccan feminist who paid dearly for her untimely independence, modernity and resistance to authoritarianism.
Moroccan women’s’ struggle for genuine equality, freedom, partnership and real representation in the political and social institutions in the country took shape under French colonization and continued throughout the struggle for and during independence until now. In addition to engaging in covert action against the French presence in the country, Moroccan women addressed requests to the nationalist political leadership to eradicate polygamy and wield the right to seek divorce through the courts (divorce judiciaire). They additionally raised many questions about Islamic jurisprudence regarding women’s equality with men. However, when Le Code du Statut Personnel was written in 1957, the 100% male committee who drafted the law deprived women of their basic rights and turned them into everlasting minors under the law. For many years, Moroccan women were not able to get married without a wali (a guardian), could not seek divorce, or if they did, the procedures were very long and exhausting, and they were not able to transfer citizenship to their children. Moreover, until the new mudawwana (family code) was passed in 2004, husbands had the upper hand in family management and child custody. Alimony was not sufficient to support the children after the breakdown of marriage, and in most cases Moroccan women had to join their parental households to seek refuge in the event of divorce, because the laws did not force the husbands to provide their divorcees and offspring with shelter. The prevalence of corruption among the family judges (qudat al-usra) and its quasi-male nature made divorce all the more detrimental to women and their rights.
It should be said, however, that even as late as 2013, Human Rights Watch still talks of, “discriminatory provisions in regards to inheritance and the right of husbands to unilaterally divorce their wives” in the new family code. Still, reversing this situation even to this point took a long struggle, in which women’s groups used various strategies, ranging from peaceful activism to radical action to overthrow the regime, to attract attention to their non-citizen status. The radical female activists of Ila al-Amam (Forward!) are of the utmost importance in launching this process, given their contribution to changing gender roles in society and shifting the boundaries of spaces where women were allowed to be.
The reform of the mudawwana in 2004 and the incorporation of male-female equality into the 2011 Constitution are therefore milestone events in modern Moroccan history that would not have happened without the work and sacrifices of inspirational and visionary feminist activists. Three emblematic figures come to mind when one thinks of historicizing radical feminist activism in Morocco; Said el-Menebhi, Fatna el-Bouih and Latifa Jbabdi. Saida el-Menebhi was probably the most known of the three because she passed away in the aftermath of a long hunger strike in 1977 at the age of 25. Saida epitomized the staunch feminist who denounced the marginalization of Moroccan women, lacerated the structure of dictatorship and advocated for the self-determination of Sahrawi people in Western Sahara. By emphasizing the inalienable right of self-determination, Saida was behaving in accordance with her beliefs that only a revolution could change the fate of Moroccan people. Self-determination of nations is but a bigger aspect of the self-determination that needed to happen at the individual level. Needless to say that her torture by the dictatorial regime only added more fuel to this willful and determined feminist’s desire to fight for women’s and men’s rights in Morocco. Saida’s determination did not falter by one iota in Derb Moulay Cherif, the secret detention center, as this poem illustrates:
This woman is not alone
She is like many others
The victim of exploitation
Of the power by the lackeys
When I saw her
Her face was calm
A livid mask
He accused her of adultery
To take her children away
So strongly, does
Iron dig in her heart
That she threw up blood
She is there,
Lying in suffering
Demanding justice to a thousand Gods
But the killers are intent to terminate her
For she is one of the people,
Who, tomorrow, will carry the weapons
To liberate her.
Saida’s poem cannot be clearer about her denunciation of the injustices burdening the Moroccan women since independence. However, Saida’s ideological family had bigger dreams: Liberating the entire Moroccan people by resorting to subversive action to end Hassan II’s dictatorship. Ila al-Amam, this incredible incubator of leftist activists was established by Abraham Serfaty, a Moroccan Jewish political and intellectual figure, represents one of the most beautiful aspects of political engagement across social, economic and intellectual spectra in a country that was fighting hard against a ferocious dictatorship. Said El Menebhi joined the organization and fought for its values until she succumbed to the effects of a 34-day hunger strike.
The issue of women’s rights and political liberation in Morocco did not die or slow down with Saida’s passing away. After Saida, it was the turn of Fatna el-Bouih and her colleagues to taste torture in heroic steadfastness against the heavy-handed security apparatus in 1970s. It could be said without exaggeration that Saida, Fatna el-Bouih, Latifa Jbabdi and others conquered public space and broadened the scope of the arenas where Moroccan women were allowed to be. They are the generation who started the Moroccan liberal feminist movement in the literal sense of the word. Even prison was not a place where women were allowed to be for political reasons. Only a certain type of female criminals was jailed (prostitutes, killers, drug addicts…) and they were easy to deal with owing to the stigmas they carry in society. However, the new brand of women prisoners, represented by Bouih and consorts, was feisty, educated, and probably even more educated than all the prison personnel, and they, hence, represented a threat to the incarcerating state and its security apparatus. Fatna el-Bouih reports in her memoir, Talk of Darkness, how policemen nicknamed her Rachid. This discursive de-feminization and masculinization of the female detainees served two purposes; first, it put these women on par with males in the police corps and thus justified their brutal torture. Second, it is the whole notion of what being a woman meant in the minds of these males that was being redefined; a woman ceases being a woman as soon as she acts and behaves outside the prescribed limits (mental and physical) determined to her by the male institutions and, therefore, deserves whatever happens to her because she represents a threat. Fatna, the Moroccan woman, thus, became Rachid, the tough guy, due to her courage to transgress and encroach on the men-only turf: Politics. What their torturer did not foresee, however, was the limitation of their repression in front of a determined cluster of willful women who will move from winning one battle to another, especially in 2002, 2004 and 2011, that changed the face of Moroccan institutional paysage regarding women’s rights: “One day, I was surprised when they put a gun on my temporal bone. I was being interrogated at gunpoint. Fear did not infiltrate me at all. I rather felt that I had the upper hand despite the appearances. I felt an internal sublimation in front of them; because of my huge stubbornness during challenging moments, my unflinching determination, my exceptional ability to persevere since my childhood, and my belief in my choices and convictions that were only even more entrenched by torture. Death was easier than falling, not only because I am an activist who embraces a cause but also because I am a woman, and I did not have the right to be weak, to betray womanhood…”
Latifa Jbabdi, the woman who wrote these words about her political detention experience, founded l’Union de l’Action Féminine in 1983 after her liberation, to abolish all forms of discrimination against women in all fields (social, juridical, economic, cultural), advocate for the integration of women in decision-making circles, fight violence against women and uproot illiteracy among women in particular,all in order to achieve full citizenship for women. The strong involvement of a grassroots feminist organization was very conducive to pressuring the state to initiative a substantive reform to the mudawwana on October 4th, 2004. While the constraints of space do not allow us to detail all the reforms brought forth by the new family law, it is important to signal that henceforth Moroccan women acquired the following rights: To marry whom they want without the approval of a guardian, co-responsibility for the household, the minimum age for marriage is set at 18, polygamy is restricted and made difficult, civil marriages are recognized under the Moroccan law, husbands can’t divorce their wives at will, and finally Moroccan women have the right to seek divorce and the procedures are simplified.
In the wake of the Arab uprisings, a new generation of Moroccan women (and male) activists have appropriated the legacy of their forerunners and took it even deeper into these sections of society where feminist liberal activism did not manage to entrench its presence in the past. One could argue that the generation of Saida Menebhi was able to establish the institutional conditions that were an indispensible condition for the legal protection of Moroccan women. Moreover, their activism, in conjunction with the political openness in Morocco on the cusp of the fall of Berlin wall and the passing of Hassan II, blazed the path for women from the legal obstacles that had fettled their full participation in society. However, with the iconic Oum Hamza, a normal mother of three boys living in a popular neighborhood in Casablanca, a new brand of feminism was born; it is safe to talk of “deep Morocco feminism” that intellectuals have rarely succeeded in gaining for their societal project. When the iconoclastic Oum Hamza and her like adopt highly charged discursive elements such as “citizenship”, “humiliation”, “rights” and “long live the people”, “activism” and “dignity” for their brand of activism, one feels that the struggle of their predecessors was not futile. The manifesto of Oum Hamza is very simple, clear and pragmatic: “It is my right to be treated for free and with dignity. It is my right that the police respect my dignity. It is our right to benefit from the riches of our country regularly. It is our resources that you use to build (your houses) and invite Shakira and Nany to the Mawazin festival for which you pay billions. This money belongs to our children, to our people. The police and the regime need to know that we are the ones who are paying their salaries… we are fighting and we will continue our struggle to build a better future for our grandchildren.” Deep Morocco feminism is more practical, more directly connected to the urgent needs of women and girls and it is engaged in the spheres that suffer the most from social inequalities. When one listens to Oum Hamza’s improvised speech, you feel that you are listening to a pleading for a de facto, expeditious social justice. Humiliation pushed Fedoua el-Aroui to self-immolate in front of a public administration; Amina el-Filali committed suicide in the aftermath of a legal failure to protect her rights as an underage victim of rape; and many other Moroccan women are standing against authorities in various acts of resistance. From the poor quality of education afforded to their children to the protest against the expropriation of their ancestral lands, “deep Morocco feminism” is spearheading a bottom-up movement in which women are winning major battles against the authorities.
Oum Hamza’s brand of feminism indicates two things: First, the existence of a swirling movement among women in the long forgotten, impoverished and less-talked-about marginalized sections of society. This movement means that the recipe of intimidation failed in containing the popular anger against marginalization among this section of Moroccan women. Second, this presages the urgent need of a more practical social policy to address the staggering social issues faced by the majority of Moroccan women. Lack of public housing, poverty, illiteracy, street violence, rape, lack of opportunities and entrenched corruption are all aspects of the Morocco that Oum Hamza is fighting against. This type of grievance cannot be resolved by legislation only or by paying lip service to women’s rights in the most solemn of ways. The resolution of these issues requires realpolitik and practical results. Indeed, this evolution is natural in the course of Moroccan women’s activism: A bottom-up movement is appropriating the discourse of the top-down feminism that has long been at the helm of the achievements of Moroccan women. Now that the institutional aspect of women’s rights is fortified, it is high time that all forms of exclusion were terminated.
Moroccan women’s battle for their rights has been an uphill one. Yet, they fought it with valor, steadfastness and self-abnegation. The milestone achievement of constitutional equality in the aftermath of July 1st reforms is but another step in the long struggle for the liberation of women and men in a country that has many beautifully constitutionalized ideals, but many of which remain lettre morte due to their non-implementation. For constitutional equality to acquire its full meaning, it should be accompanied by efficient and serious policies to eradicate illiteracy (40%), domestic violence (68%), psychological abuse (48%), poverty, isolation and economic disparities.Education and cultural change should be the cornerstone of a serious effort to curb the prevalent social perceptions about women. A liberating educational system in which people are seen as equal, productive, intelligent and independent, regardless of their sex or gender is an urgent necessity. Over all, an emancipatory societal project is necessary to liberate Moroccan people, women and men, from political and economic subjugation. Only through “the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it” can Morocco witness a true liberation.
As long as a genuine and transparent, institutional and functional democracy is not established – where critical thinking is fostered and an awareness of the oppressive reality of society is gained – Moroccans, and women and children in particular, will continue to suffer, even if they have the best-written Constitution on Earth.