One thing I was extremely curious about was the role of women in Islamic Morocco. Before going on my trip, I did my homework and read an excellent book by a well-known author and sociologist, Fatima Mernissi called “Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood”. The book is a memoir depicting in beautiful, poetic detail Fatima’s early childhood and life in a Moroccan harem during the 1940s up until the independence from France in 1956.
In those days, most Moroccan households were traditional harems or enclosed households in which extended families lived together under one roof and practiced the tradition of women’s seclusion meaning women stayed and lived in the harem and rarely left. Mernissi describes harem life in exquisite detail from her point of view as a prepubescent girl. Harem life to her and especially to her mother and the older generation is like living in a prison. A women can not leave the harem without a male’s permission and it is completely enclosed by a large wall so no one can see in or out. The harem is kept by a gate keeper who protects the women and makes sure no one gets in or out without permission. There is a strict code of behavioral conduct and practices that must be followed inside the harem. For instance, all family meals must be taken together and women must dress and behave a certain way. The men had the power, especially the older ones and there was a strong hierarchy among the women themselves based on age, importance and status. Married women were treated better than divorced women who were looked down upon. Women spent their days inside the harem splitting up the household chores and also doing various activities such as traditional embroidery and crafts. They were let out only to go to Koranic school (where they studied only the Qur’an and not other subjects) and go to the hammam once a week (a traditional Moroccan bathhouse). Some harems involved multiple wives for the men such as the harem of Fatima Mernissi’s grandmother, however, the traditional of many wives began to subside during the 1940s. The 1950s brought huge change to Morocco with its emancipation from France in 1956 and harems slowly but steadily began to die out. Today harems are a thing of the past yet they continue to have a lot of allure and mysticism for the tourists who could only imagine in their heads what such a place would have been like.
During my stay in Morocco, we were fortunate to have an hour long discussion on women’s rights and the role of women in Morocco by the CCS Home Base Manager, Khadja, a native Moroccan from Agadir (a small town south of Rabat which is famous for Argan Oil). Khadja is a thirtysomething women who encompasses both traditional and modern Morocco. She was a past Peace Corps volunteer and is fortunate to be the only women in her family to have continued her education past middle school. She is a highly educated women which is striking in a country that has only a 56% literacy rate overall and and illiteracy rate among women of 64% (much higher rate in the countryside). Thus to be from a small village and to finish her degree at a university represents an amazing accomplishment for Khadja. Obviously she is very bright as well as very lucky that her traditional parents allowed her to move away from the village and continue her education.
Morocco is one of the most complex places in the world. It represents an intricate, complicated melange of both the Western and Arab worlds that is often hard for a foreigner to understand. Being only eight miles off the coast of Spain and having centuries of invasions from the Romans, the Spanish, and the French, Morocco provides an amazing mixture of cultures from Mediterranean countries and the Arab world. Combine this past with the present day changes in the world due to technology (i.e. the Internet) and access to the good old satellite TV, and Morocco is faced with immense pressure to move forward into more western, modern culture.
Of course the traditions remain. Islam is THE most important influence in a Moroccans life and dictates more or less how a Muslim Moroccan should live and behave (for example, premarital sex is forbidden, drinking if forbidden, a man can still legally have up to four wives, etc). Yet, things are changing in Morocco, especially among the youth. and especially for the young, modern Moroccan woman.
When you walk along the street nowadays, you can find the entire gamut of attire starting from the full-fledge burka (which is very rare), to the more traditional jelaba and caftan (long robes), to the more western clothing (jeans, sweater, blouses) either with or without the hijab (veil or head scarf). Some Moroccan women, especially in Casablanca, would even wearing high-spiked heels and skinny jeans with a color-coordinated hijab. The contrasts in apparel were striking and very confusing, especially for a western woman like me. It is a known fact that the Qur’an states it is obligatory for a woman to wear a hijab. However, nowadays it is becoming more of a personal choice rather than a religious obligation. I would say that overall, most (perhaps 75%) of the women wear the hijab however it is truly beginning to change and it is not necessarily worn for religious reasons anymore. Sometimes it is worn as a fashion statement.
As you leave Rabat (the country capital) and cosmopolitan Casablanca and enter the countryside and the small villages, every woman wears the hijab and almost all wear traditional dress. As with any place, change in rural areas takes long thus the countryside is much more traditional.
Here is a brief history of Women in Morocco:
Before the arrival of Islam, women lived by Aljahilia or “The Period of Ignorance”. Women had no role in society except for men’s desires or as a slave. The arrival of Islam in 622 AC, marked a drastic change for women’s lives. Women received three basic rights dictated by the Islam religion: (1) The Right to live (2) The Right to be honored and respected as a mother, and (3) The right to own a business and work. These rights enormously effected women’s lives and their treatment in society by men. Women were gradually enabled to rise their status remarkably yet of course they still weren’t and still aren’t equal.
The independence of Morocco from France in 1956 also represented a significant change for women and women’s rights. One of the biggest changes was the ability of women to go to school and receive an education. Before 1956, women were only allowed to attend Koranic schools which taught them mostly about religion and did not learn sciences, math, arts, history, politics, etc. However, still today there is lot that needs to be done in regards to women’s education as only 64% of women are literate and in the countryside nearly 90% of women are illiterate, with the biggest issue being that most girls stop their education by eleven or twelve years old.
Changes are happening in Morocco, especially since the change of power to the current king, Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father Hassan II upon his death in 1999. Hassan II was known as to rule with an iron fist and all dissent on his power was repressed. Thus deep resentment of the monarchy grew up until his death and the takeover of his son, Mohammed VI, who quickly vowed to right the wrongs of the era known as the Years of Lead. In 2004, Mohammed VI instituted the much anticipated Mudawana, a legal code that dramatically changed women’s rights by protecting and guaranteeing women crucial rights to divorce, custody, property and inheritance rights, and child support. Before this law, there was no limited marriage age (meaning women could be passed over to marry before puberty), and women needed their father’s permission to marry. Also, women had no choice whatsoever when in comes to divorce. Only a man could initiate the divorce. Since this law, the following changes have happened which dramatically improves a woman’s life in Morocco:
1. The legal age for marriage starts at 18 years old.
2. Women can sign their own marriage contract without their father’s approval.
3. Men can still marry up to four wives, however, the law states that each wife must be provided with her own residence. Also, if a man wants to take on a second wife, then he must obtain the approval from his first wife.
4. Divorce is now a choice for both a man and a woman. Now women can initiate a divorce yet she still needs her husband to sign the divorce paperwork unless it is a case of domestic abuse.
5. A husband now has to pay child support and if there is a divorce, the inheritance must be split in half.
Obviously these changes has greatly enhanced a women’s life in Morocco, yet there is still quite a bit of work to be done. A woman still cannot freely go into a cafe without getting uncomfortable, negative glares by men. The cafe is a man’s world in Morocco. A woman who has a child out of wedlock, is sent to the city to have the baby where the baby is abandoned to an orphanage because premarital sex is considered a sin in Islam. Women cannot wear a swimsuit on the beach. Instead, she must wear either a jelaba into the water or the more modern ones wear a shirt and pants.
However, there is hope that change is coming. Women are more likely than men to use the Internet and Moroccan women have become the most avid Internet users in the Arab world. Also, in 2007 there were 34 women elected to the Parliament, representing 10.4% of all seats, which is just slightly behind the 12.5% of women in the US government.
As expected, the new family law (the Mudawana) has also brought about many social changes in Morocco as well. The rate of divorce has increased with leaps and bounds, and the average age of marriage has gone from early twenties to 28 or 29 years old. Only time can tell whether these changes are good or bad but overall it can only be better for women to have more choice.
Probably the biggest challenges to women and to men overall in Morocco is the high levels of unemployment (13% and growing), the high level of illiteracy, and the large population of people that are living below the poverty level (19% per the World Bank). In a country where the average salary is only a meager US$1677 per year, there are going to be some challenges going forward if things do not get better. Even the highly educated Moroccans are not able to find a job so there is a general sense of restlessness in the air.
However, Morocco is unlike its fellow Arab countries and the people have great respect and admiration for their King. Most demonstrations and protests have been extremely peaceful and well-organized, and are a daily occurrence in Morocco. Whether the masses gets fed up and demands change, only time can tell. At least the King seems to be on top of things and is doing what he can to please the crowd. It will be interesting to see what the next decade brings to Morocco. Who knows, maybe the hijab will be a distant memory of the past in 2020 or then again, in Morocco, where tradition, culture and religion are the center point of life, maybe the hijab will remain a crucial part of a woman’s wardrobe.