Moroccan women seek their way between Islam and feminism

June 1st, 2008 - 9:52 am ICT by admin  

By Sinikka Tarvainen
Kenitra/Sale (Morocco), June 1 (DPA) A young woman passes in a sleeveless shirt and a knee-length skirt, her hair flowing down her back. Another woman of the same age follows in a loose tunic and pants, the Islamic headscarf covering every strand of her hair.

An older woman wears the traditional djellaba, a long outer robe with full sleeves, her hair in a bun. Some women wear the strictest Islamic dress, covering themselves in black from head to toe, with only the eyes visible.

The remarkable variety of female dress on Moroccan streets reflects the passionate debate raging in the north African kingdom about what it means to be a woman, what kinds of rights women should have, and how Muslim women should relate to western feminism.

Morocco’s 2004 family law reform gave women rights that led to King Mohammed VI being described as one of the women’s rights pioneers in the Muslim world.

Nearly five years after the family law, known as the Moudawana, was reformed despite initial opposition from the country’s Islamists, the special courts applying it have clearly improved the situation of women, sociologist Khadija Amiti says.

Amiti heads Chaml, one of Morocco’s hundreds of associations trying to help women claim their rights in what observers describe as a traditional and conservative society.

Having a child out of wedlock, for instance, is regarded as a source of shame, said Soumaya Belhabib, vice-president of the association, which is based in Kenitra near the capital Rabat.

Girls who have been made pregnant by now absent boyfriends, by abusive employers or by rapists often end up in poverty or even prostitution, with their children becoming social outcasts.

The new Moudawana, however, allows a judge to authorise a woman to seek a DNA test to make her child’s father recognise it and help to support it, Belhabib explained.

Women are now also allowed to initiate divorce - but the overall divorce rate appears to be going down, because men may no longer leave their wives by just repudiating them, Amiti said.

“Everyone now talks about women’s rights, even if jokingly,” the sociologist smiles.

Shortly after the female academics running Chaml had discussed women’s rights at their Kenitra office, a women’s group of al-Adl w’al Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality) was meeting in Sale, the twin town of Rabat.

Their faces framed by headscarves, the members of Morocco’s largest Islamist movement sat on mattresses in a mosque-like basement room, discussing how to develop their spirituality.

“The new Moudawana only defends the elite among Moroccan women,” fumes al-Adl w’al-Ihsane spokeswoman Nadia Yassine, who claims to be more feminist than “Westernised” Moroccan feminists, and stresses Prophet Mohammed’s early role as a champion of women’s rights.

“The Moudawana makes it easier for women to apply for passports,” Yassine snorts. “What meaning does that have for most women in a country with a 67 percent female illiteracy rate?” she asks.

Amiti and Yassine agree on the need to base Moroccan women’s rights on Islamic values and a feminist reinterpretation of the Koran, but their discourses are nevertheless markedly different.

Amiti would, for instance, like to see the already rare practice of polygamy completely abolished, while Yassine feels that would “go against the identity of a people”.

“Tenderness and sentimentalism” are part of a woman’s nature, and make it natural for her to take care of the home, Yassine said.

Morocco has women in most professions, ranging from policewomen to several cabinet ministers, and a minimum of 10 percent of female legislators, elected under a quota in the 325-member parliament.

Yet urban women’s magazines continue to focus on the institution of marriage, which remains central in women’s lives despite the social changes affecting it.

“I have not found a husband because I wear the headscarf, and men prefer modern women these days,” said Karima, a 30-year-old teacher. Other women, however, wear the headscarf to attract potential husbands.

Women are not, in any case, expected to be so modern as to lose their virginity before marriage, for which reason some young women have their broken hymens repaired by specialised doctors.

Sexual relations outside marriage remain a crime, and an average of 400 secret abortions are performed daily in Morocco, according to a figure quoted by the weekly Tel Quel.

Many of the ongoing debates are not that different from those heard in the West some decades ago, such as discussions on whether women should work outside the home or whether they make men harass them on the street by dressing in provocative clothes.

Yet such debates hardly touch remote rural areas, where women are more concerned with gaining access to electricity and running water.

“Women’s rights cannot be separated from overall development,” Yassine said.

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