Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Moudawana, Five Years Later

The New York Times published an article today about the status of women in Morocco, five years after the radical reforms of the Moudawana (the Family Code of Law) came into effect. This article is the latest in a small collection of others published about the same issue, and largely presents the same conclusion: while great headway has been made toward elevating the status of women in Morocco, much remains to be desired.

The articles’ authors note a discrepancy between imposed law and applied reality, and mention that the legal changes made are not far-reaching enough: women still inherit only half of what men do, for instance, and single mothers still have no legal rights. More reforms are needed, they therefore argue.

As much as it is true that the new body of Family laws leaves certain issues unchanged, I agree with those who think that the disparity between the law and its real-life application is a more pressing issue that needs to be dealt with, before we start talking about further reforms. Five years after the new laws came into effect, issues continue to plague their mise en pratique. Because the new code of law was not accompanied by sufficient efforts to re-train Morocco’s legislative body, judges and courts were mostly left to figure out how to apply the new procedures on their own. Divorce procedures, marriage contracts, applications for citizenship, and custody battles therefore continue to be plagued by legal inconsistency and uncertainty.*

Likewise, efforts to educate the public remained insufficient. Of course, the means to create awareness are limited, among a public with a high rate of illiteracy. But the result is that many – both men and women – have little sense of what the new laws really entail. And in that sense, the failure of the Moudawana to unambiguously live up to its promise of radical change points to deeper issues that plague Moroccan society.

First of all, the insufficient efforts at public education reveal (and probably reinforce) another dimension of the big divide between center and margin in Morocco. The new law was passed by the parliament in Rabat. Its written form, as well as those publications that discuss it, are accessible to and read by the educated citizens of Morocco’s larger cities. Francophone women’s magazines make an effort to answer readers’ questions about what has legally changed. But very little of it all penetrates the margins – by which I mean both those geographical areas far removed from the epicenter of government, as well as those communities far removed from any sense of power, through lack of money and lack of education. The result? Those women who stand to gain the most from these new laws – impoverished, uneducated, illiterate women in rural regions – are the least aware of their new rights, and continue their lives much as they used to. And how can you effect real, applied, change, when it impacts only a small proportion of the population? There is very little point in enforcing change from the top, if it is not accompanied by an effort to reach down toward the public, to help it understand the new legislation and facilitate its real-life implementation.

(This cartoon appeared in TelQuel, the francophone Moroccan version of Time or Newsweek. The dialogue translates into "Informing myself about the Moudawana reform? That's a bad idea, I might no longer be against it!")

In a more general sense, I think that the lack of education and awareness also makes that the general public (urban as well as rural) does not know what to make or think of the reformed Moudawana. With only a vague sense of what the new laws really stipulate, many see the new code mostly as a dangerous threat to traditional values and social order.** Originally pushed for by feminist movements and other liberal progressive groups, the new laws are seen as representing the victory of modernizing and secularizing tendencies in Morocco. The entire issue of Family Code reform thereby remains stuck in (and representative of) the deadlocked debate-turned-struggle between ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, and inspires fear and hostility in those who perceive it as a threat to their conservatism.

The new Moudawana is both cause and result of a shift in the foundations of Moroccan society. Government efforts at socio-economic development, modernization, and globalization have occasioned an intensive and sometimes highly emotional debate about the relative value of tradition and modernity. Within that debate, these two concepts, or better said, ideologies, are often starkly opposed to one another. Each has its adherents, and each of these two camps is so worried about the dire impact of the other’s dominance, that neither is prepared to make any compromises on its ideals. The result is a deadlocked debate in which ‘tradition’ is portrayed as the polar opposite of ‘modernity’, and open communication seems to get a bit lost. As much as the King attempted to involve representatives of all ideologies and sympathies in the drafting of a new law, the reforms of the Moudawana are mostly seen as the triumph of modernity and secularism – and many conservatives and Islamists felt (and feel) disenfranchised, overruled, or ignored.

As much as, again, I agree that additional changes must be made, I also think that radical reform simply may not always be the most effective way to push for change. Not if it creates hostility and thus throws up barriers that hinder effective communication and collaboration. People don’t like change, even if it’s inevitable. Sometimes, it is much more efficient to be patient, take it slow, make an effort not to completely do away with the past, and ease into a new status quo. It makes those resistant to change feel validated in their concerns. Pushing too hard, too fast, only incites greater conflict and protest.

Yes, there is a ways yet to go toward equalizing women’s status. But right now, I think that what is holding it back has less to do with legal rights than it does with public opinion. Radical legal reform is not necessarily effective if it gets too far ahead of the public mind.*** There is no point in adding new laws to ensure women’s equal share of inheritance, if women in rural areas have not even become able to claim their right to divorce. This does not mean that we should give up on change. But it does mean a greater openness to conservatives’ sentiments, individuals’ fears, a greater effort to find a middle ground between different ideological desires, attempts to ease into change at a pace that is comfortable for everyone – and a willingness to make other social changes that make the implementation of new family laws a bit easier (combating illiteracy and corruption, perhaps?). An effort, simply, not to make a large proportion of society feel disenfranchised and brushed aside. Do this, and perhaps you’ll find much more goodwill and openness to real, meaningful dialogue about the future of society and the place of women in it.

In order for this dialogue to take place, greater openness is needed, as well as a greater and more systemic effort at public education about what these new laws really imply: how they relate to Islam (how they may coexist peacefully with religious values), what their impact will be on the structure of the family, and how it affects the status of men. Fears and concerns must be openly and respectfully addressed. Only then can the population begin to process the changes that have been made – and only once that has been done, is it going to be useful to begin discussing additional reforms.

* add to that the persistent and widespread problem of corruption…
** Yes, of course, the new Moudawana does make a lot of changes to the traditional status quo. But I think that there may be more room for a continuation of traditional values within the new legal situation than many people assume.
*** I do not think this is always true, in every situation. There are times and places when radical reform is necessary. But within the context of a deadlocked societal debate between two camps with equal power, it simply doesn’t serve anyone to make half the population feel disenfranchised. No matter how wrong you may think that other half is.


Liz said...

Hey Charlotte,

Yup, it's me! Funny how small this world is.

I live in Agadir now, but I'll be passing through Rabat at the end of September to take the LSATs. I'd love to grab coffee or something.

And... this is getting shuyyah awkward. But send me an email at, and perhaps our paths will cross again.

Anonymous said...


My name is Juli and I am also a female (American) expat living in Rabat. I will be here for the next two years and I was wondering if you'd be interested in meeting up for coffee. I work on human rights and women's rights here in Morocco and I'd love to just get your take.

I'm a little squeamish about leaving info on the net - but my email is at gmail dot com.