Monday, October 17, 2011

Moudawana: progress for Moroccan women?

In a town nestled in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, an 18 year-old girl named Fatima welcomed her guests for a traditional, Moroccan-Islamic celebration of marriage.

Per Moroccan custom, the festivities lasted for a full week. Throughout this time, the couple engaged in various wedding rituals. At the Henna Party, for example, Fatima's female family members adorned her hands and feet with artistic, intricate designs meant to ward off evil and increase fertility. The bride also wore a different gown for each day of the week-long wedding celebration--a decadence signifying the importance of this event to the rural town.

On the day of her marriage ceremony, friends, family, and community members honored Fatima and her new husband by eating, dancing, singing, and playing the drums. The party joyously danced, sang, and played music all throughout the unpaved alleys of Fatima's hometown. At the conclusion of the celebration, an optimistic Fatima looked forward to her married life ahead.

Immediately after the marriage, Fatima moved far from her hometown to live with her husband and his family. The newlyweds enjoyed several weeks together before it was time for Fatima's husband to return to his official military duties. As soon as her husband left, the hell began.

Upon her husband's departure, Fatima endured months of domestic violence from her abusive sister-in-law. At first, Fatima's sister-in-law mistreated her through verbal and mental abuse. When Fatima spoke to her family about the abuse, they encouraged her to "stick it out." She took their advice but remained vigilant.

After about a year, the abuse escalated. Fatima's sister-in-law attacked her with a shard of glass, and the injuries sent Fatima to the hospital. Without a second thought, Fatima's family picked her up from the hospital and brought her back to her hometown.

In traditional, Islamic Moroccan culture it is considered hashuma (shameful) for a woman to refuse to live with her husband's family; in fact, it is essentially prohibited. Living on her own was not a viable--or culturally acceptable--option, for she was a married, jobless, young woman. Even after moving back to her hometown, Fatima's family only allowed her to leave the house in the company of her father.

Since her husband and other in-laws failed to protect her, Fatima never wanted to return to her husband's family. Instead, she sought her own protection. Fatima requested a divorce under the Moudawana, the Moroccan family code.

The divorce proceedings lasted about six months. Before the judge, Fatima's husband and his family claimed that she failed her duty to act as a "good wife." As evidence of this failure, their claims included (false) allegations that she did not regularly attend the hammam, a public bath house, to keep herself clean. Ultimately, the court granted the divorce, and completely changed Fatima's life for the better.


A U.S. Peace Corps volunteer recently shared Fatima's story with me. Fatima's is only 22 years-old today. Thus, her story is modern; it is not a relic of the past. In many ways, Fatima's experience highlights the vulnerability of all women to domestic violence--including the vulnerability of women to each other.

Fatima's story also emphasizes the importance of legal protections for women. The judge in Fatima's case grounded the divorce decision on women's rights afforded by the Moudawana. Thus, as a law student, the story naturally drew my attention to the Moroccan family code.

First codified in 1956, the Moroccans created the Moudawana after gaining independence from France. Yet, this early version of the Moudawana looked much different than the current version. In the 1980s and early 1990s, civil society organizations (including women's organizations) and increased international attention to women's issues led to a movement for Moudawana reform. In response to this activism, the King created a 1993 Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development.

This decision sparked fierce debate amongst Moroccans due to its secular, rights-based inspirations. Recounting the events, Amina Lemrini stated that, "In our society we rarely talk about the roles of women or women's rights, but during that period, everybody had to take [a] position." (See Against All Odds: Women Partnering for Change in a Time of Crisis). Soon after the King died, his son, King Mohammed VI, created a committee to review the Moudawana. This committee included a judge, politicians, religious scholars, intellectuals, and even female representatives from women's organizations. A few years later, the King decided to replace the code entirely, and ratification of a revised Moudawana occurred in 2004. (See "Mudawana").

Celebrated by human rights advocates, the 2004 revision of the Moudawana addresses issues of "women's rights and gender equality within an Islamic legal framework." Specifically, the Moudawana created reforms ranging from age and consent of marriage to divorce and polygamy. I particularly like that the current version of the Moudawana amends the code to treat spouses as joint heads of household rather than giving that status and power solely to the man.

Although the 2004 revision of the Moudawana appears to represent a step in the right direction in terms of women's rights and gender equality, it signifies only the beginning for Moroccan gender reform. According to the Gender Gap Index 2010, Morocco's ranking fell from 107 in 2006 to 127 in 2010. The rankings--and even Fatima's story-- reveal that Moroccan women are still far from equality with Moroccan men.

Ann Eisenberg of Cornell Law School highlights the socio-cultural factors currently restricting the full application of the Moudwana in her student note entitled Law on the Books vs. Law in Action: Under-Enforcement of Morocco’s 2004 Family Law Reform, the Moudawana. Eisenberg notes that loopholes, critical judges, and fear of bringing suit resulted in only partial implementation of the celebrated reforms. Moroccans also criticize the Moroccan legislative and legal systems for issues including lengthy court proceedings and lack of resources like food stipends for divorced women who were denied spousal support. Furthermore, one must remember that the Moudawana only covers some reforms. For example, sex outside of marriage is still not recognized in Morocco.

The criticisms and flaws associated with the Moudawana indicate the necessity of further reform. So what can American feminists do to encourage and support such reforms? Are we too biased to offer productive assistance? Do American feminists understand what Moroccan women really want?

In Leti Volpp's article entitled Feminism Versus Multiculturalism, she confronts the flawed approaches of Western women toward women of developing countries. She explains that issues receiving the most attention by Western women better reflect Western women's own fears than the primary issues facing immigrant or Third World women. As an example, she states that "[t]hese concerns [of Western women] include violations that threaten the freedom of movement, freedom of dress, freedom of bodily integrity, and freedom of control over one's sexuality, rather than violations of the right to shelter or basic sustenance." Volpp continues to explain that many Western women ignore the fact that "these women are capable of emancipatory change on their own behalf." The women who recently received the Nobel Peace Prize and those women who fight for the right to drive provide ready examples of the power of women in developing countries.

Surely there's a space for an American woman like myself to lend support to my sisters in the developing world. Yet, I agree that this endeavor requires some caution. Hopefully in recognizing my biases and helping--rather than driving--native women toward their preferred reforms, a Western woman like myself can respectfully promote gender equality and women's rights across the globe.

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