It is often assumed that modern feminism has no place, and thus can make little headway, in societies undergoing a religious revival, particularly in the Islamic world. But the real progress made in recent years on women’s rights in Morocco suggests otherwise: a unique combination of activism by secular and religious women, the calculations of political parties, and a significant role for the King has led to real progress.
Pioneering Moroccan feminists began their work soon after independence in 1956. By and large representative of a liberal perspective, they nonetheless recognized the importance of Islam throughout Moroccan society. As a result, they took care to frame their demands in ways that provided a measure of Islamic identity.
This first generation of Moroccan feminists was guided by a key insight: the interactions of men and women were not dictated by religion, but by social practices that had often used religion as a means of reinforcement. For example, women and their sexual purity were linked with the honor of men and their families – a connection that was defended by grounding it in Islam. For these activists, such linkages were intended to maintain control over women, and were part of Moroccan society, not Islam.
By the 1990’s, Morocco was feeling the impact of the Iranian Revolution and America’s post-Cold War emergence as the sole global superpower. Like many Muslim countries in this new era, Morocco began to experience a revitalization of political Islam. This threatened the authority of the King, who had overseen the religious establishment, as well as feminists’ efforts to moderate Morocco’s Family Law, which had been based on a rigid view of religious teachings.
But the same de-centralization of authority that had empowered Islamist movements also empowered Moroccan women. Better educated and more in touch with global currents through the media or their own travel, women began participating in Moroccan political debates. They challenged the disparities in legal treatment of women, broached new ideas concerning the role of women in Moroccan society, and questioned practices that had long been understood as Islamic.
Their strategy shifted as well, focusing on the growing importance of religious values in shaping societies and global relations. As a result, the veil became a mechanism for making their presence felt publicly and gaining credibility within religious debates. Over the past decade, the number of Moroccan women taking an active role in Islamist associations or political parties increased dramatically.
The growing significance of the veil also highlighted important differences between men and women in Morocco. For many men, Islamist or not, the veil remains a sign of Islamic affiliation and traditional piety. For many women, however, the veil is a token of liberation – an indication that they have engaged with the Moroccan public in ways that reflect their own sense of religious practice.
Liberal Moroccan feminists understand this use of the veil by many Moroccan women, and they have encouraged a dialogue with veiled activists from the Islamist camp. The signs of cooperation have been clear: increasing use of Arabic, rather than French, discussions that incorporate real knowledge of Islamic scripture, and recognition that Islam remains distinct from traditional practices.
At the same time, liberal feminists began to invest more effort in civic associations, rather than political parties. This broadened their focus to Moroccan society as a whole and questions of how people could be empowered to improve their lives. As a result, liberal feminists have increased their influence among both decision makers and religious women.
All of this comes at a time of greater political openness and democratization: the first ever socialist government in 1998, a younger and more open King – described by democrats of both sexes of Morocco’s “first feminist” – who took the throne in 1999, and a quota system that brought 35 women into the Parliament in 2002. This Parliament enacted a new Family Law in 2004 that mandates full equality between men and women as “head of household,” full authority for state courts in matters of divorce, creation of special family courts, and the possibility of maternal custody in the event of divorce.
Thus, in Morocco, it is difficult to speak of separate “secular” and “Islamic” feminisms. Women are increasingly making the argument that they have been deliberately excluded from a full role in society not because Islam prescribes it, but because Islam was revealed in a deeply patriarchal social context. Feminist interpretations of religious texts – encouraged by increasing numbers of women in prominent religious positions – continue to challenge traditionalists of all stripes.
The women’s movement in Morocco – which now bridges secular and religious communities – is setting an example of the power of social thought in a traditional society. Re-visiting traditional interpretations of Scripture is not the end of the story. Out of this ferment, Morocco has not only revised its Family Law, but also fundamental laws governing nationality, media ownership, and political organizations.
Women’s advocacy has also shaped a new approach to poverty alleviation in Morocco, in the form of the National Initiative for Human Development, which integrates efforts to improve education with better sanitation and housing. It is no exaggeration to say that the Moroccan women’s movement has become the cutting edge of reform, engaging Islamization, modernization, democratization, and feminism.