Morocco Update: Women’s Rights and the New Government

Posted on: October 3, 2012, by :

moroccanflagSeveral months after Moroccans elected an Islamist majority into parliament for the first time in its history—the Justice and Development Party (PJD), which won 40 percent or the majority of seats in Morocco’s legislative body—the situation in Morocco, just like in much of the region, remains unclear for women and youth. 

When the spirit of the Arab Spring spread to and incited in Morocco in early 2011, men and women took to the streets to protest the Moroccan political system, demanding action from King Mohammed VI, who took the thrown in 1999. In a move seen as distinct from other leaders in the region and by comparison, commendable, he responded to the people’s dissatisfaction with pledges to setup new guidelines for the Moroccan government and revise the 1996 constitution. On June 17th, his televised speech showed support for a constitutional draft, enhancing the separation of powers in the government and for gender equality. In early July, this draft was passed into law. 

The new constitution offers protection of individual rights and recognizes women’s rights. In particular, Article 19 titled “Honor for Moroccan Women,” makes men and women equal citizens under the law. Specifically, it grants men and women equal social, economic, political and environmental rights, and equal civil rights. It also created the Authority for Equality and the Fight Against All Forms of Discrimination, charged with the function of putting into practice the constitutional recognition of equal rights. 

The June 2011 constitution also addresses the supremacy of international gender laws over national ones, potentially paving the way for full implementation of women’s rights as proscribed in CEDAW. 

However, theory and practice have become two separate elements in Morocco, as in many other areas of the region, where it is unclear how the proposed changes will be implemented or who will be responsible for enforcing and upholding them. In January 2012, PJD party leader and current Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benikrane announced a cabinet that included only one female minister, former MP and member of the PJD party Bassima al-Hakkaoui. And while 67 women or just under 17 percent of women were elected to the 395-seat parliament—18 of who are members of the PJD party—this still fell short of the 30 percent quota for which women’s rights activists have lobbied. 

Beyond the minimal representation of women in Morocco’s new government, there is the issue of how those who are in office regard the progress won by women in Morocco’s past and how they intend to promote or deny women’s advancement in the future. Female cabinet member Ms. Al-Hakkaoui was appointed to serve as the Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family, and Social Development, which has been historically weak in influence due to a small budget, limited political clout, and a formidable charge of providing support to children, women, the elderly, the disabled, and the poor.

While she spoke out about her unease at being the only woman in the new government and advocated for more inclusiveness of women in Moroccan decision-making structures, she also appeared to criticize parties outside of the PJD for not putting forth more viable candidates. 

For his part, Prime Minister Benkirane responded to accusations regarding the limited female participation by claiming “there was no intention to exclude women from this government.” He added: “What we need more than anything are competent people. Parties have tried (to find women politicians) but it’s not easy.” In that way, the burden fell back to party leaders to support, train, and field viable female politicians and to women politicians themselves to carve out space for their inclusion. Of course, it is a tremendous challenge and task to break through challenges and barriers perpetuated by social and cultural frameworks limiting women’s position and influence, and one that must be supported by government leaders for initiatives to get implemented and promoted, and reforms to be enforced. 

Despite Al-Hakkaoui speaking up to advocate for increased women’s political participation, it is not clear that she will be an ally in protecting hard-won existing laws for women in Morocco. Already, there is discussion of the PJD-led government threatening recent reforms of the family code, which made the family the joint responsibility of husbands and wives, increased the legal age of marriage for both men and women to eighteen, restricted polygamy, and gave women more legal grounds for divorce. 

Ms. Al-Hakkaoui specifically has questioned the announcement that Morocco has formally withdrawn its reservations against CEDAW, and specifically targeted Article 16 granting parity to men and women as incongruous with tenets of Islam.

But PJD members have also been careful to emphasize moderation. Prime Minister Benikrane promised that they would not impose the veil saying “We will not interfere in people’s choices.” However, actions, such as his attempt to require state TV channels to announce prayer times and cut programming in favor of Arabic content, demonstrate a more conservative agenda. 

Beyond the PJD’s agenda, another question remains regarding how much of a role King Mohammed VI will play in the new Moroccan leadership. The new constitution requires a balance between the two entities, however, King Mohammed VI has yet to yield to any real authority under the new constitution. 

Last week, King Mohammed VI marked thirteen years on the throne with a speech calling for continuation of reforms that were accelerated a year ago when Morocco adopted a new constitution and subsequently, a new government. Still, Morocco has more than its social fabric at stake in the issues of equality, access, and advancement, as youth unemployment and education, along with broader economic concerns, continue to loom. 

As Morocco pushes forward into its next phase, as with Tunisia and Egypt, the question of what Islamist politics means and how it will impact the prosperity of women, youth, and the nation as a whole remain unanswered, left to the test of time.