A short review of the feminist movement in Morocco It has become very fashionable all over the world to speak about movements with different causes and ideologies. And Morocco makes no exception to this fashion. Actually, the democratic boom and the attempt to recover the undemocratic deeds of the past in Morocco has given birth to several activists with causes, and liberated movements among which is the Moroccan feminist movement. The recent uproar about the position of women in the political arena has induced me to investigate the history of this movement and evaluate some of their achievements.
The feminist movement in Morocco came out of the nationalist movement formed to struggle against the French occupation. The members of this political movement were campaigning for a higher status for women as part of extensive fight for Morocco independence. Women’s rights advocates came from the educated and aristocratic elite. Priority was given to the achievement of the country’s independence. Upon the fulfillment of this goal, namely Moroccan autonomy, the feminist movement continued to be associated with the political parties that were formed from the nationalist movement.
Future political developments ultimately determined the direction of the feminist movement. However, as an authoritarian regime took hold and Nationalists became marginalized from the government, Moroccans quickly became disillusioned with the hope of a genuine independent Morocco with democratic institutions. Besides, Communist and Socialist movements and organizations emerged as the political opposition and drew much support from within universities and labor unions. The revolutionary ideal included the promise of freedom for Moroccan men and women.
These leftist movements were the only actors pushing for a democratic transition in Morocco and advocating for reforms. They became the hosts of the feminist movement. Since its creation, the feminist movement became politicized and associated with the leftist political opposition in Morocco. Women’s rights continued to be just a chapter in the political agenda of these parties rather than an important end in itself. This connection to a political movement formulated the ideology underlying the conception of women’s rights.
Indeed, the movement borrowed causes from its nationalist leadership such as the support for Moroccan Arab identity and the dream of independence and reform. Eventually, supported by the leftists, the feminist movement became secular, focusing on promoting equality and achieving a clear separation between religion, tradition, and culture. At the same time, an official version of feminism appeared with the creation of governmental associations which had the role of spreading activities throughout society that empowered women. These activities were not rooted in ideology and helped to fuse the feminist movement into the existing system.
From the independence of Morocco until the early 1980s, the women’s rights movement was elitist in that it was directly connected to politics. The debate was ideological rather than pragmatic, and, therefore, there was no strong or direct connection between these elites and ordinary Moroccans, especially rural and illiterate who were a majority. The end of the so-called “years of lead,” (from the 1960s to the 1980s) referring to the period of extreme political repression in Morocco, triggered a new feminist movement in Morocco.
During this period, many newly-formed associations targeted uneducated, rural, and vulnerable women, offering them basic assistance and guidance. In this way, the movement drew closer to its target population, becoming part of a familiar landscape. The most revealing example during this time period was a campaign for one million signatures, launched in 1992 by the UAF (Union de l’Action Feminine), to denounce the unfairness of the Family Code. The campaign was successful and influenced the 1993 amendments to the Family Code.
Furthermore, the feminist associations gained autonomy and distanced themselves from official politics, even though they remained sympathetic and loyal to past alliances. This distance was a key factor in the qualitative transformation of the movement. Indeed, women’s rights activists became less susceptible to their political affiliations and became more focused on reforms. The proliferation of feminist NGOs increased the popularity of the feminist movement and helped advocates to develop their knowledge and skills.
But more importantly, the proximity to the target population perpetuated an accurate view of the real problems and obstacles encountered by women in the private and public sphere. Another qualitative change of the movement was a new pragmatism towards the different elements of their cause. The feminist movement combined the universal value of equality as well as a progressive interpretation of Islam. In other words, the secularism which had characterized this movement for decades was abandoned in favor of the active promotion of a feminist Islam.
This pragmatism reinforced the popularity of the movement among average citizens and created the possibility for broader appeal. In 1998, for the first time in the history of Morocco, a previously exiled political opposition member became prime minister and formed a government dominated by political opposition parties. The coronation of King Mohammed VI in 1998 and his speeches on the need to promote women’s rights gave hope to the feminist movement in Morocco. The empowerment of the political parties which had hosted the movement for decades was also a reason to be hopeful.
Therefore, a “Plan for the Integration of Women in Development” was issued by the Ex-Minister Said Saadi and submitted by the Prime the Ex-Minister Abdurrahman El Youssoufi to the World Bank. This progressive plan sought to realize gender equality within Moroccan society. The secular aspects of the plan were controversial, sparking public debate. Indeed, a demonstration of solidarity was organized in Rabat on March 12, 2000, consisting of more than 100,000 women’s rights activists, human rights activists, political party members, and six ministers.
A few weeks later, a larger Islamist demonstration was organized in Casablanca to denounce the anti-Islamic and pro-Western values of the plan. The debate became public and the plan was finally withdrawn. In sum, Women’s rights advocates have promoted a progressive interpretation of Islam that has effectively defied the extremist movements. They have crafted a platform which includes universal values and standards of equality as religious values.