Sunday, November 16, 2008

Controversial Media: The Issue of Heritage

** This is a long one... Sorry!**

Morocco has a well-developed tradition of printed media. One can find a newsstand on nearly every street corner, and each of these sells dozens of newspapers, weekly journals, and monthly glossies – all in one’s choice of either French or Arabic. And this is not counting the international publications that are also available. Among this rich selection are at least five or six different Moroccan magazines aimed especially at women.

I particularly like a Francophone magazine called “Femmes Du Maroc.” I buy it primarily as a good and entertaining way to practice my French, but it actually publishes a lot of interesting articles. It features the same range of topics that other magazines discuss, but seems to ask intelligent and tough questions that others ignore. For example: this month, FDM published an article about the growing trend of looking for love by placing personal ads online or in the paper. The same topic was featured in the Ramadan-issue of Femina, a newer magazine. A Femina contributor tried out this new trend by placing an ad of her own, and then wrote an article reporting on her experiences – her transition from skepticism to (temporary) addiction, her conclusion that this ‘new trend may work for certain people, but it’s not for me’, and final disclosure that she had met her own soul mate through more conventional ways. In Morocco as in the Western world, the practice of meeting people through personal ads is growing in response to changing lifestyles and increasing individualism, but not quite accepted as fully legitimate as of yet. With that last sentence, the Femina reporter ultimately ascribed completely to the public’s skepticism and fear of new things, without ever questioning or even addressing any part of it. Femmes Du Maroc, on the other hand, published a 10-page feature on this new practice. It included a reporter’s experiences with an ad of her own, placed specifically for the purpose of this experiment (lacking any strategically mentioned feelings of skepticism), but also an in-depth analysis of the language used in these ads and a theorizing, through that analysis, of what these ads say about Moroccan society and the changes it is going through. Their conclusion: placing personal ads seems like a sign of modernization. Not only is it a sign of greater individualization, but it also suggests that people are taking fate into their own hands, no longer relying on parents or other traditional ways of finding a spouse. But a deeper investigation of the actual ads shows that those who place the ad present themselves as well what they’re looking for in such a way that it only perpetuates idealization of the traditional rules of male-female interaction. Modernity on the surface, but not in practice! Traditions simply jazzed up by a coat of modernity – and a confirmation, through this very untraditional medium, that Morocco is not yet ready to let go of its conservatism.

Of course, I am only comparing two magazines here, and am only looking at a single issue of each. But I get the sense that, where Femina leaves any social issue completely unquestioned, FDM boldly exposes Morocco’s cultural and social complexes.

Because this month, FDM also discusses another issue that I believe is quite controversial: that of “héritage” – inheritance. In fact, nearly a quarter of this month’s content is devoted to this topic; it includes background articles explaining the issue, testimonies from Islamic scholars, sociologists, first-hand accounts of readers who have dealt with the issue, and activist pieces calling for change.

Trying my best to be succinct, the issue of héritage is this. When the Family Code of law was drastically reformed in 2004, laws on inheritance were one of very few things left unchanged. Whereas most of the family code is now based on civil law, inheritance rules remain founded upon the shari‘a, or Islamic law. They were left untouched because inheritance is one of the few issues for which the Qur’an itself outlines explicit rules; and anything mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an cannot be interpreted loosely because it is believed to be God’s literal word.* Taken directly from the Qur’an, this, then, is the basic law on inheritance: a woman always inherits half of what a man does. Upon a father’s death, his male children will inherit a proportion of his wealth that equals twice that inherited by his daughters. Also, a woman cannot inherit on her own: if a man had no sons, his money does not automatically go to his daughters. In these cases, male kin must first be found. Once a male heir has been established, no matter how far removed on the family tree, his daughters (and wife) may inherit – but again, an amount always half of that inherited by the male heir(s).

Contesting these rules is very controversial – because contesting anything stated in the Qur’an is controversial. Nevertheless, some groups do call for inheritance laws to be changed, and FDM is apparently one of them. The entire span of its discussion about this issue unanimously argued in favor of reforming héritage. It was not only interesting that they did so in such a direct and forceful way (the issue being as controversial as it is), but it was also interesting how they did it.

Because not once did anyone question the holiness of the Qur’an, and not once was the concept of Islamic law rejected wholesale. What they did instead (and this is why they featured testimonies by experts on Islamic law) was appeal to established algorithms of Islamic legal logic, call attention to the existing traditions and methods of Qur’anic interpretation (“ijtihad”, pronounced ‘ij-ti-HAD’),** and remind the reader directly of other issues that prove the Qur’an need not always be taken on its literal word.***

The basic gist of the argument made by FDM is that the law on inheritance no longer serves the purpose it was designed for – and that it is not only accepted practice within the tradition of ijtihad to interpret Qur’anic verses according to the logic behind them rather than their literal content, but that it is also accepted practice in Islamic law to always question the rationale of certain rules, and to change them if that rationale is no longer relevant. FDM claims that Qur’anic rules of inheritance were originally meant to protect women financially, in a time when they did not contribute to society economically and depended fully on their male kin. Men were given more of the inheritance, but also expected to use that money to care for their female dependents. The fact that women were given anything in the first place was a major improvement – at the time, women commonly didn’t inherit anything (and apparently, women still don’t inherit according to Jewish inheritance laws?). It makes sense, FDM claims, to divide the inheritance according to individuals’ economic responsibilities. This was the basis for the distinction between men and women’s parts; it has nothing to do with gender per se. In other words: women received half not because they were women, but because they had no economic responsibilities.

Needless to say, this context has completely changed. Not only do women contribute as much to their household’s economy as men do, but Moroccan women often have even more financial responsibilities toward the family than their male relatives. By continuing to apply Qur’anic rules of inheritance in this very different economic context, their effect has become the complete opposite of its original intent: rather than financially protected, women are now discriminated against and put at disproportionate risk of impoverishment. Taking the Qur’an too literally, one expert suggests, can sometimes mean that its fundamental principles of equality and justice are ultimately completely negated.

To me, someone who was not raised with the sense of holiness that the Qur’an exudes for most Muslims, this argument seems to make perfect sense. And apart from the bold statements here and there about uneven power dynamics in Islam and men’s desire to subjugate women, it seems to me a very respectful, logical, and convincing way of making an argument. How could anyone disagree?

But I know there are people who do. And unfortunately, FDM’s long feature does not include a single oppositional voice. I am so curious to hear how FDM’s arguments would be countered by someone in favor of maintaining inheritance laws as they are. What are their arguments, what is their rationale? And where, for that matter, does public opinion lie? How do Moroccans feel about this, and how does this differ between educated and non-educated, women and men, rural and urban populations, young and old, rich and poor? How much is this talked about in family- and social circles? Can I ask my host family how they feel about this issue, or is it too controversial for that?

I tried to get a sense of this by leaving my copy of the magazine lingering around in the living room and noting the kinds of reactions it got. Alma noticed it first and asked me if she could take a look. Sure, I said, do you know this magazine? Alma shook her head. She’d never seen it before, she said. Interesting, I thought, because I see it everywhere. In any case, the large-lettered announcement of the topic on the cover (“héritage: ça peut changer?”) got no reaction. Instead, Alma pointed to the model on the cover and asked me who she was. “I don’t know,” I responded. “Just a model, I think.” Alma then opened the magazine, looked for the fashion section, identified the same model in those pictures, gave them another glance, and returned the magazine to me. A complete anti-climax: she simply did not react at all to the issue I was curious about.

Next was Amma. She, too, didn’t respond to the words on the cover. She did, however, ask me why I had bought this magazine in particular. And the way in which she asked me this made me think she already had her own opinion about it – a negative one.**** I decided to give her a neutral reason, to leave her the option of expressing either approval or disapproval. It’s to practice my French, I told her. She nodded, but didn’t say anything else. She leafed through the issue as Alma had, and then gave it back to me without another word. Another anti-climax. I asked her if she preferred any particular magazines, and she mentioned an Arabic-language one.

Finally I tried it out on Manal, who did have an actual evaluative reaction – though again, nothing to do with the magazine’s articles. I know she knows this magazine because she has stacks and stacks of its issues lying around in her Caftan shop. FDM has a yearly Caftan issue, after all, with hundreds of pictures showing the latest fashions. Oh yes, she exclaimed, I love this magazine. “It has lots of interesting things, look,” she said, and pointed to the sections on fashion and beauty. Nothing, once again, about the issues announced on the cover.

I was left, in other words, without an answer to my question. Not even an acknowledgement of the fact that these things were being discussed in this magazine. Was that a deliberate ignoring, and does their silence mean I should not bring it up – or does it mean there is simply no interest in the topic?

My family’s reaction to the magazine itself also bring me back to the question of how Femmes Du Maroc compares to other women’s magazines. Manal knows this publication, but for professional reasons. Amma knows it, but apparently prefers other magazines. Alma had no idea it existed. Who, then, actually reads Femmes Du Maroc? Who doesn’t, and why? How does that compare to other Francophone magazines? And how does it compare to Arabic glossies? Who reads those? What kinds of issues do those magazines discuss? Would they bring up an issue such as that of inheritance?*****

Do women read magazines at all? Because in fact, I never see anyone in my household reading anything other than the Qur’an. Contrary to what the many newsstands and bookstores in Rabat would suggest, I get the sense that most Moroccans are not habitual readers. I have actually never seen more in the way of books than a few copies of the Qur’an in any the Moroccan households I have visited. There is never a bookshelf, never even a stack of newspapers or magazines on the coffee table. Newspapers are read, but I think that is something that belongs in the coffee house (and thus belongs to men). Children have books, but those are for school. Children also do not seem to be raised with the concept of reading for pleasure. I talked to Mustafa about Harry Potter once, and he was very enthusiastic. Of course he knew Harry Potter, he said, he’d seen all the movies. He had never, however, heard that there were Harry Potter books, as well. And when I offered to give him my French copy of the first novel, he politely declined, telling me he preferred watching it on TV.

Maybe the lack of written media is an economic issue. Most households do not have much money to spare, and a book, as I have discovered, costs anywhere between 50 and 150 Dirhams – which approaches an average day’s pay. Being Francophone and costing 20 DH an issue, I expect that Femmes Du Maroc is not very widely read among any groups other than the upper layer of society. And in that sense its discussions are probably not the best indication of general public opinion. Still though: how contrary to public opinion is it, exactly? And how much weight does it carry among those upper layers, who, in all truth, not only have the money to buy these magazines but also have the power to actually affect Moroccan politics?

* Something thing I have a hard time understanding is how a less literal interpretation of the Qur’an negates its holiness. Why does interpreting its verses in a more abstract way necessarily mean one rejects the idea that the Qur’an is the direct word of God? Taking God’s words for its abstract rather than concrete meaning would not seem to me to make them any less true. Wouldn’t you in fact get at a much deeper ‘truth’ if you looked for the meaning behind the words, rather than stop at their literal meaning?
** There is a very rich tradition of Qur’anic interpretation. However, severe limits were placed on the Muslim community’s freedom to engage in ijtihad in the Middle Ages, as five (4 Sunni, 1 Shi‘a) major schools of Islamic legal thought (fiqh) established themselves as authorities on interpretation. Morocco continues to adhere quite explicitly to the Maliki school of fiqh.
*** A famous example here, for instance, is what the Qur’an says about alcohol. The Qur’an actually abrogates its own rules about drinking. The earliest verses merely forbid Muslims to be drunk during prayer. Later verses then change these rules, becoming increasingly stringent. If the Qur’an can correct itself in this way, this suggests that there is a certain element of rationalization that must be involved in translating any Qu’ranic prescription to reality – a process of deliberating about what the point is of certain rules and how best to realize their intended effect within a given context.
**** Perhaps I had this impression because she had already made somewhat suggestive comments a while ago about my predilection for Telquel, the francophone Moroccan equivalent of Time. “You always buy the magazines that talk about politics,” she observed. I wasn’t sure how to react – is it a good thing to be interested in Moroccan politics? Somehow, I don’t think so.
***** It is so unfortunate that those publications are so much less accessible to me. They are written in Fusha, which I do not read.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Hi there, since I took a first look at your blog a few days ago, I am now reading it more or less like a book. My compliments for your well written and thoughtful posts. What got me hooked, I suppose, is that I recognise so many issues from my own experiences with my family-in-law (they live in the Kasbah des Oudayas, probably a milieu very similar to that of your host family), e.g. wondering about the marital relationship of my partents-in-law, having to eat all the time (got better, my mother-in-law now even understands that I don't like meat a lot) etc., or now the issue of French language women magazines. I mainly read Citadine and Femmes du Maroc, magazines my sisters-in-law know but usually don't read themselves. On the one hand, these magazines cover similar issues like European or American magazines, but on the other hand, the specific problems are often quite Morrocan and would probably not feature in a Western magazine. I think that I learned quite some interetsing stuff about Moroccan society from these magazines, of course keeping in mind that they are catering for a limited target group of well-off city-dwellers and are therefore definitely not representative. Looking forward to your future posts. Groet, Barbara