In the Maghrebi kingdom, both the secular and the Islam-based women’s rights movements are calling the country’s social and religious foundations into question. The monarchy has accepted some of their demands, but only insofar as they serve to reinforce its own stability.
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:03:04
The relationship between feminist demands, state policies and Islam offers a meaningful perspective for understanding the complex situation in the Maghrebi kingdom. Women’s rights movements, whether secular or Islam-based, are increasingly challenging the social and religious foundations of the country. The monarchy accepted some of their requests, generating, as a result, new forms of female religious authority which nonetheless served to reinforce its own stability.
Following the public protests led by the 20 February Movement in 2011, a new “top-down” Constitution was approved in Morocco, sanctioning a principle for which certain civil-society organizations (mostly feminist ones) have long fought: gender equality. A few years later, however, Morocco is still a long way off adapting its laws and social norms to this principle, which many progressive groups consider to be fundamental for the country’s “transition to democracy,” something as longed-for as it is unrealized.[i]
In the face of such a ferment, the relationship between feminist demands, gender politics and Islam or between the claims to a substantive equality between men and women, state reforms directed at guaranteeing a greater protection of the latters’ rights and the political exploitation of religion seems to be a significant field of observation for understanding the current complex situation. A situation in which “bottom-up” demands for both democratic changes to the state and socio-economic justice are clashing with an autocratic management of power by the elites close to the royal family, which uses Islam to guarantee the status quo.
A Deep-Rooted Tradition of Feminist Activism
Contrary to Orientalist visions and essentialist approaches influenced by the colonial notion that women in Muslim societies are eternal victims of patriarchy, the feminist movements in Morocco—as in the entire MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa)—have enjoyed a significant social and political role.
If, for example, we think to the wave of protest in 2011, a large part of the population demonstrated in Morocco, too. It demanded democratic changes to the state, the end of corruption in public administration and the honouring of human rights and citizenship, whilst denouncing the humiliation (hogra in Moroccan, from the Arabic word haqara, to humiliate) suffered by the more marginalized sections of the people.
It was precisely in this context of popular uprisings that female activism emerged as a new fundamental actor: women led marches, sit-ins and debates, resisting police charges and chanting the protests’ symbol slogans, including “karāma, hurriyya, ‘adāla ijtimā‘iyya” (“Dignity, freedom and social justice”), “al-shaʻb yurīd isqāt al-hukūma” (“The people wants the government to fall”) and “ʻāsh al-shaʻb” (“Long live the people!”), as opposed to the more classic “ʻāsh al-malik” (“Long live the king!”). Such a female participation cut across generations, classes and ideological and religious affiliations and should be observed in continuity with the history of the women’s movement in Morocco: a heterogeneous reality characterized by multiple discourses, strategies and political practices that are still today constantly being redefined.
Generally speaking, the international conventions on human rights, on the one hand, and Islam, on the other, constitute the two main sets of values around which women’s movements in Morocco have developed and continue to evolve today. Indeed, it is possible to distinguish the secular feminists from the female Islamists—i.e. activists from political Islam’s movements—and the Islamic feminists on the basis of adherence to these two macro-discourses.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, female mobilization began to manifest mainly in the struggles for independence and the battles for rights—to primary education, for example, expressing itself in a form of association-based activism that was mostly charitable and welfare-oriented. After independence from France was obtained in 1956, however, women’s sections sprang up in (mainly left-wing) political parties and militant trades-union and student groups. The female activists in these groups then created the feminist associations that Zakya Daoud has described as “combative,”[ii] including the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM—Association Démocratique des Femmes Marocaines) and the Union of Women’s Action (UAF—Union d’Action Féminine).
The secular feminists are militants, intellectuals and academics who support the establishment of individual freedoms in the context of a rule of law in which women’s rights can be conceived and honoured as universal human rights and in which Islam remains pertinent only to the private sphere of religious worship and not—as occurs in Morocco—to the public sphere of political power and legal and social normativity. From a theoretical point of view, the feminist ideal generally goes hand in hand with secularism, the latter being seen as the ideological framework for the individual’s liberation from an authoritarian power that, in Morocco, has simultaneously patriarchal and theological connotations.[iii]
Indeed, the close relationship between Islam and political power in Morocco constitutes the main obstacle to the establishment of egalitarian ideals. And this not just from a gender point of view, if one considers that the king is at the same time both the temporal head of the kingdom and the supreme religious leader (Commander of the Faithful, Amīr al-mu’minīn in Arabic) and that the Personal Status Code (approved in 1956 and then reformed in 1993 and again in 2004) seals off the patriarchal family structure modelled on the principles of Islam as interpreted by the Maliki school of law. For example, such code includes the rules regarding marriage, divorce, filiation and inheritance. The latter area was recently challenged by the more progressive associations, including the feminists who are calling for its alignment with the equality principle recognized in the Constitution in 2011.
At an operational level, secular feminists have for decades been putting pressure on the institutions and fostering a new social awareness through projects, petitions, awareness campaigns, debates and study-days on the different dimensions of discrimination against women: gender violence, shotgun weddings and marriages involving minors, the pre-nuptial virginity requirement, inequality under the inheritance law, the lack of protection in reproductive health, employment insecurity and illiteracy, all of which hit women, first and foremost. Secular feminism was particularly strong during the 1980s when, at an international level, the discourse about women’s rights was re-launched during the UN’s decade for women’s rights (1975-1985).
At a national level, on the other hand, the discourse about democratization, human rights and citizenship began to gain consensus amongst the strata most hit by the structural adjustment plans (1983-1994) and the repression unleashed during the so-called “years of lead.”[iv] In addition, in the context of the “state feminism” set up in the 1990s, the incorporation of certain feminists previously considered to be the regime’s opponents into the institutions, where they were valued as “experts on the gender approach,” started off a timid spread of the discourse on gender equality within the state’s structures. This was also partly thanks to the interference of financial and international co-operation institutions such as the World Bank, the European Union and the United Nations (UNDP and UN Women, in particular) in the defining of certain policies.[v]
Of the numerous protagonists in Moroccan secular feminism, Khadija Riadi stands out not only as a prominent personality in the Moroccan Association for Human Rights but also as a committed trade-unionist fighting for women’s rights and democracy and the promoter of numerous campaigns to protect individual rights and freedoms.
Equality or Complementarity?
If the secular feminists support the establishment of gender equality (Musawah), those supporting the principle of complementarity (takāmul), on the other hand, conceive of a clear, gender-based division of labour in society. According to their vision, responsibility for the family and community is based on productive work and usually attributed to men, whereas modesty in behaviour, patience and fitness for the priority task of caring and reproduction is associated with women. Generally, discourse regarding gender complementarity is conveyed by Islamist associations and parties, as well as Islamic religious figures, brotherhoods or associations, all of whom consider Islam to be the first dimension of their identity as citizens and the principle inspiring the ideal collective order.
Over the last few years, however, certain Islamist women have gained public visibility. One such woman is Bassima Hakkawi, a minister in the recent governments formed by the Justice and Development Party (Hizb al-‘adāla wa-l-tanmiya). Of the figures enjoying greatest prominence, Nadia Yassin stands out. She is the leader of the semi-clandestine association Justice and Spirituality (Al-‘adl wa al-ihsān), and the daughter of its founder. She has for years been actively promoting women’s liberation through Islamic literacy courses and advocating a political system that is closer to a republic.
The heated confrontation between the secular feminists and the female Islamist activists has not prevented them exchanging practices and languages, however, although this has mainly occurred in a context of opposition.[vi] Such confrontation has sometimes proceeded in the direction of a convergence of the egalitarian ideal with the Islamic faith; a convergence that seems to be most constructively mediated through the Islamic feminism advanced by Asma Lamrabet.[vii]
A “third way” between secular feminism and the Islamist discourse, Islamic feminism is an only apparently oxymoronic expression referring to the perspective of critical female Muslim theologians, academics and intellectuals who maintain that the women’s rights recognised by the international conventions are fully compatible with Islam. Engaged in an egalitarian reading of Islam’s sacred texts and a re-appropriation of the interpretative processes of the law’s sacred sources, such women are convinced that a female participation in the formulation and transmission of Islam, combined with a multi-disciplinary interpretation based primarily on a detailed contextualization of the message contained in the Revelation and the prophetic tradition, can constitute a first step towards a reformist Islamic vision that is more sensitive to the principle of gender equality.
Of those pioneering such an approach in Morocco, Fatima Mernissi is without doubt the person who first challenged the patriarchal interpretation of certain hadith (accounts of the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings, deeds and silences). Following in the footsteps of the well-known sociologist from Fes, Asma Lamrabet has more recently continued the battle of gender-based critical Islamic thinking both inside and outside official Islamic institutions: indeed, she was director of the Centre for Studies and Research on Women’s Issues affiliated to the Muhammadan League of Ulama in Rabat, until her opinions became too progressive in the area of inheritance law, above all.
Despite her much-discussed resignation from this official Islamic body in 2018, this scholar remains the most important voice in the debate on gender and Islam at a national level and, thanks to her active participation in transnational networks (such as the Musawah movement and the Summer School in Islamic Critical Thought in Granada), she is one of the main figures of reference in the global-scale “gender jihad.”
Women’s Civil, Political and Religious Rights
In the face of such a dynamic social scene, the state has adopted gender policies that appear to have been inspired by the logic of reconciling conflicting interests. A logic directed at balancing the need to preserve the status quo with the demands for democracy and equality coming from a social fabric that is highly politically active, in a situation where the majority of the population is young and increasingly aware of its rights, partly thanks to higher levels of education, the support of international organizations and the use of the new technologies.
This logic of compromise has taken the form of a process of resignification of the rules guaranteeing the stability of political power. This has resulted in a mediation that is attentive to safeguarding the homogeneity of the official Islamic discourse serving to legitimate power, on the one hand, and to the imperatives of modernity, with all its implications (including in terms of protecting human rights and women), on the other. Amongst the most recent reforms, the one incorporating women into a body of female preachers and experts in sharia is a significant example of this trend.
The regime opened itself to gender politics in 1993, when King Hassan II first reformed the Personal Status Code after the main secular feminist associations had gathered one million signatures. Although it did not substantively alter the Code’s discriminatory framework, the reform had the merit of desacralizing the country’s family law by drawing a distinction that was key for any reform of Islamic law (often considered unchangeable because of its “divine” origin). Indeed, according to the theologian Aisha al-Ajjami from the Cadi Ayyad University in Marrakech, “that reform put an end to the confusion between sharia (law inspired by the Qur’an) and fiqh (Islamic law) which, insofar as it is the product of human jurisprudence, can be amended.”[viii]
Muhammad VI came to the throne in 1999. In 2002, women saw recognition of their right to be elected to Parliament and to the local councils, in a proportion equal to 10% of the seats. In 2004, Parliament unanimously passed the second reform of the Family Code, which had been devised by a commission appointed by the king. Amongst its various measures, the Code abolished a wife’s duty to obey her husband and placed the family under the responsibility of both spouses. It also raised the minimum age for contracting marriage to eighteen (without totally abolishing the marriage of minors, however) and it recognised the right of women to begin divorce proceedings.
Although Morocco is considered one of the most advanced countries in the region as far as women’s empowerment in social, political and economic fields is concerned, it should be noted that such reforms are not being properly applied. They still do not seem to have resolved the persisting gender discriminations rooted in the cultural substrate of a good part of the population, which is still marked by illiteracy and economic marginalization.
The important reform proposed by the Ministry of Awqāf (lit. mortmain property) and Islamic Affairs was also passed in 2004. This established the profession of female preacher (murshida, plur. murshidāt) in the official public space of the mosque and in other educational and welfare structures in the country. Such reform has also encouraged the presence of female theologians and Islamic-law experts (‘ālimāt, sing. ‘ālima) within the country’s religious institutions, the centres responsible for both training and the formulation of state Islamic knowledge and the councils of ulama.
From a symbolic point of view, this constitutes an innovative break with the traditional marginalization or exclusion of women from the places where the official Islam is formulated and transmitted. In his capacity as supreme leader of both the nation and the community of the faithful, the king of Morocco is also the head of the Supreme Council of Knowledge (the body composed of the most important ulama in the country). This has the task of watching over the laws, social behaviour and the observance of Maliki Islam. To this must be added an extensive network of local councils of ulama, the national training school for ulama in Rabat (the Dār al-hadīth al-Hasaniyya) and the study centres under the League of Ulama in Rabat: a whole system legitimising state Islam that is supervised by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which manages the “Moroccan religious field.”[ix]
In the context of the wider policy of professionalizing the country’s female religious guides, women’s access to this complex bureaucratic apparatus has doubtlessly constituted an innovation from multiple points of view. Men and women can access a public competitive selection process for imams and female preachers. In order to prepare for this, men must learn the whole of the Qur’an by heart, whereas women (who cannot become imams) have to memorize at least half. Having got through the selection process (which gives access to one year of training in Islamic and social sciences), the murshidāt are called to exercise the profession of preacher just to the women in the mosques and in schools, hospitals and other welfare structures, as well.
The work is not simply a matter of educating women in Islam (which includes explaining family law and some of the Qur’an’s suras) but also one of acting as a socio-religious guide, with a role similar to that of a social worker: offering a point of reference for solving daily problems in the family, with one’s husband or neighbours, in the most “Islamically” correct manner.
The difference between ‘ālimāt and murshidāt lies in the fact that the former possess both the knowledge (‘ilm, in Arabic, hence ‘ālimāt) and the official religious authority to formulate interpretations of Islam’s sources, whereas the murshidāt have the sole task of carrying out irshād, i.e. preaching of the state Islamic message. It must be emphasised that, in Morocco, neither the female preachers nor the ‘ālimāt can become imams, as this qualification is bestowed solely upon their male colleagues. According to the Maliki School of law, the most a woman can do is lead private prayer and this only if the congregation is exclusively female and if she stands in the same line as her sisters.
Although they are part of a hierarchical bureaucratic structure in which their room for manoeuvre does not allow them to stray too far from the dominating discourse (which is, moreover, inspired by gender complementarity rather than gender equality), the official female preachers and theologians are vested with a significant religious authority which undoubtedly has a symbolic value. Such authority is linked both to social respect for their office and to the role of “good (female) Muslim citizens” that they epitomize. Their authority is further based on what the scholar Saba Mahmood has called “the pedagogy of persuasion”[x]—i.e. a power considered typically feminine and one that is important for penetrating a part of the social fabric that male imams and ulama have difficulty reaching. This is a fundamental resource for a regime that partly bases its stability on an internal religious homogeneity.
Consequences of the reform include the declared will to restructure the religious system through standardization of a national Islamic discourse characterized by tolerance, moderation and modernity. Two further considerations are no less important. One concerns domestic policy and the other foreign policy. As far as domestic policy is concerned, the professionalization of male and female preachers falls within a new policy of closeness regarding Moroccan Islam. One that is directed at controlling and containing discourses other than the official one existing on the national territory, particularly after the terrorist attacks in Casablanca in 2003.
On the foreign policy level, the monarchy is proposing itself as the leader of a new “religious diplomacy” that could make Morocco a special partner for many African countries looking to Rabat as their guide to a pan-African modernization. And the vast system of scholarships for African students coming to the country to become ulama and imams is linked to that.
Serving the Democratic Ideal
In Morocco, the expression “the personal is political” can be translated as “the theological is political,” since Islam permeates, on different levels, not just believers’ faith, rituals and forms of behaviour but also the vision that all citizens have of the world, both in public and in private.[xi] In such a context, recognition of gender equality challenges the real and imagined boundaries set by the patriarchy. Nevertheless, whilst the state Islamic structures are using religion as a truth serving to maintain the national patriarchal order, the secular feminist movement and Islamic feminist discourse are contributing to the formulation of a democratic ideal founded on individual rights and freedoms. This by declaring the impossibility of putting democracy into practice in the political spaces without a real, substantive equality that goes beyond mere statements of principles.
The multiple and diversified political proposals coming from activists in the secular feminist, Islamic feminist and female Islamist movements are a sign of the extraordinary dynamism in the discourses and practices being deployed in pursuit of emancipatory goals linked to separate values-based, ideological and religious camps. Marked by reciprocal influences and points of divergence, this diversity is reflected in the tension between the principles of gender equality and those of gender complementarity, around which the present and future of women’s rights are being defined. Recently, the social and cultural ferment following the protests in 2011 have led to certain significant changes, in legal terms.
These include the abolition of forced marriages following the suicide of the young Amina Filali, who was made to marry her rapist.[xii] The feminist egalitarian ideal has contributed to a process of political transformation that is seeing the new generations particularly at the forefront, intent as they are on putting an end to the power, gender and generational hierarchies and adapting the rules system to fit a project for society in which individual freedoms are recognized. The present does not hold out much hope but the processes of historic change have long timeframes.
This article constitutes a synopsis of the matters already tackled in the book Femminismi e Islam in Marocco: attiviste laiche, teologhe, predicatrici. Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 2017.
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation
To cite this article
Sara Borrillo, “Between Gender Equality and Islam: Feminisms in Morocco”, Oasis, year XV, n. 30, December 2019, pp. 69-78.
Sara Borrillo, “Between Gender Equality and Islam: Feminisms in Morocco”, Oasis [online], published on 30th November 2020, URL: /en/between-gender-equality-and-islam-feminisms-in-morocco