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MOROCCO: New Law, But the Same Old Men

Daan Bauwens

RABAT, Jul 30 2009 (IPS) - The new Moroccan family law was designed to give women equal rights in the family. But five years after its introduction, Moroccan women leaders say opposition to the law from politicians and within the judicial system persists, and the new law has not been able to change Moroccan mentality.

King Mohammed VI adopted the law, the Mudawana, in January 2004. Under the new law, a woman can ask for divorce without her husband's approval. And where men could earlier repudiate their wife arbitrarily, divorce is now made conditional on a decision by the court.

The law changed the rules of polygamy: a man can only have a second, third or fourth wife if he can prove it is necessary for procreation, or if he can guarantee the same quality of life to every one of his wives, as written in the Quran. Also, the legal age for marriage for girls was raised from 15 to 18.

As president and co-founder of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM), Rabia Naciri was a part of the democratic movement that for more than 20 years put pressure on the government to adopt the new law. In 1993 the movement celebrated its first success, when former King Hassan II decided to amend the rules of polygamy: from then on, a woman had to be informed of her husband's decision to marry again.

Naciri says the most difficult stage of the process has been to change society's perception of Islamic laws. "People used to think Islamic law was sacred, while it is only an interpretation of the Quran," she tells IPS. "We needed years and years, working together with more than 200 democratic movements to mobilise, teach, and raise awareness to prepare society for the change we wanted."

On Women's Day Mar. 8, 2000, their efforts culminated in the "march on Casablanca", when more than a million people took to the streets to urge the government to demand reform of the Mudawana.

Islamists then organised an even larger counter-demonstration. Nadia Yassine, leader of the women's branch of the Islamist movement Justice and Charity, denounced the plan as an assault on Islam and Islamic values. She called it a Western conspiracy to halt demographic evolution in the Arab world.

Naciri says that more than anything else, it was this public debate that changed the position of women in Moroccan society. "For years, 1998 to 2004, the Mudawana was in Moroccan headlines, it was constantly discussed on radio and television. It made women realise they were part of society, that they were recognised.

"Women now have the tendency to demand their rights, they will go to court more easily because they realise they could win their case. But unfortunately, that is not always the case."

In spite of the reform, inequality in the family context persists. Moroccan women face persisting domestic violence. A report earlier this month from the Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) denounced the "perseverance of segregation and violence against women."

The AMDH says continuing violence is a "real obstacle" to gender equality. "The different initiatives and plans announced by the government after the approval of the new Mudawana remain a question mark."

"Violence persists, the injustice continues", says Soumia Idman, social assistant at the NGO Feminine Solidarity in Casablanca. Feminine Solidarity offers legal support, housing and training to unwed mothers. "In the new Mudawana violence was not adequately addressed," Idman tells IPS, "resulting in widespread impunity."

The new text of the Mudawana is not applied strictly by family court judges. Recent figures show that marriage to minor girls is on the rise – according to the ministry of justice, family court judges received 30,312 requests for marriages to minors in 2006.

In 2007 the number of applications went up to 39,000, of which 68 percent were approved. One in ten marriages in 2007 involved underage girls. The numbers for 2008 have not yet been published.

"Judges have the tendency to take decisions according to their own moral standards, as if they were on a moral mission to save the values of the patriarchal family," says Rabia Naciri. "Other than that, there are politicians that dare to state the Mudawana is not applied because society is not ready for it."

Soumia Idman says the Mudawana is not applied because of "lack of evaluation and monitoring: there is no commission to evaluate the reform on the field."

A large part of the law was designed to address the problem of single mothers and the resulting abandonment of children, but it has not been able to change Moroccan mentality on these issues.

At Feminine Solidarity in Casablanca, 65 percent of the incoming women are pregnant girls who were abandoned when they told their partner about their pregnancy. Other than that, the NGO receives victims of rape, group rape and incest. The women are lodged at the NGO from their seventh month of pregnancy. They are later given professional training to help earn a living.

"Despite the reform of the family code, being a single mother remains a very big taboo in Morocco," Soumia Idman tells IPS. "In the Moroccan mind, all relationships outside of marriage are considered acts of prostitution, so the girls we receive are automatically considered to be prostitutes. They are still not protected enough by the law, cannot go back to their families, and are condemned by society."

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