We have had a series of horror stories reminding us of atrocious treatment of girls and women in a great number of Muslim countries. Whether it is Yemen or Turkey or Saudi Arabia, the picture of brutality is grim, indeed. But there is an exception in the region, one that gets little attention.
I had the opportunity to meet today with two Moroccan female legislators (yes, that’s noteworthy enough). Morocco suffers what might be considered the fate of pro-Western, modernizing countries of the Middle East — it is ignored rather than held up as an example and an alternative to the oppression and repression of Muslim fundamentalism and to the institutionalization of misogyny one finds in so much of what Obama lumps into the “Muslim World.” Zahra Chagaf is the elected representative from Tarfaya in southern Morocco, which is the focus of the dispute over the fate of the Western Sahara (and the dangerous exploitation by the Polisario Front and Algeria. More about all that in a later post.) She is fluent in multiple languages, and on the topic of women, she speaks in French. (My rusty high school French is assisted by an able translator.) She explains that twelve years ago, a huge legal and political change occurred in Morocco. ” There were only two female legislators in parliament in 2000,” she explains. “Now there are 40 of us. On the municipal level [the equivalent of our state level], 0.5 percent were women in 2000. Now there are 12 percent, about 4,000 people.” She emphasizes that this was accompanied by a new family code that afforded women new rights, and by the outlawing of sexual harassment and discrimination. Five government ministers are women, and there are 15 female ambassadors.
How did this come about, I ask — why is Morocco so different? She explains that it came from “civil society.” The groundswell came both from “women in the country and men with an open outlook.” She emphasizes that in the south, her own region, women have always been involved in the “social, political, cultural” life of the country, and unlike in other Muslim countries, within the home, Moroccan women also exercise power and influence. She stresses: “It is the women who raise the children… Education is more important than any legal change.”
Mbarka Bouaida is another member of parliament, elected to represent TanTan, also in southern Morocco. She could be any New York investment banker or associate in a large law firm, smartly dressed in a gray pantsuit, sporting shoulder length hair. She also speaks multiple language and converses with me in fluent English. What’s different about Morocco? She smiles. “It is a matriarchal society,” she begins. She also emphasizes the role of women in southern Moroccan society but adds that Morocco is also a Mediterranean country, culturally distinct from much of the rest of the Middle East. In southern Morocco, she notes: “Women were much more active in society before the legal environment changed. Women have been active in business. Most of the business people in the south are women. Women have always acted very freely in deciding matrimonial aspects and who they marry.” (The contrast to other Muslim countries is plain.) Even in the naiton’s resistance to French and Spanish rule, women were active, she continues, and also recalls that in the 1950s, the princess was among the first Muslim women to give a speech in public without the veil.
The challenge to Morocco, the women explain, is to expand the role of women and hold back the threat of Muslim fundamentalism that would reverse the nation’s progress. Mbaraka explains: “We need to have more [freedom for women] and protect against extremism. We see extremists interpreting the Koran… We need to continue to communicate and provide education.” And what of the women in the rest of the Middle East? Well, Zahra explains that they do meet with women from Yemen, Syria, and Saudi Arabia — where she emphasizes, “The women have no rights!” The effort of other Muslim countries to repress and brutalize their own women is made more difficult in the modern era. As she explains, “You can see what is going on [in other countries], and you don’t have to put up with it.”
The Morocco example leaves one with mixed emotions. On one hand, it is a shining example of reform and modernization, one we hope is emulated by its neighbors. But as the women made so very clear, Morocco is different than many of his Muslim neighbors. And in emphasizing the differences, one comes back to the bleak condition of women in those other Muslim countries in which the cultural and social predicate for the advancement of women is sorely lacking. As another commentator observed with regard to Afghan women, the challenge for America (and one could say for enlightened nations like Morocco as well) is great, namely to help women:
“…unravel themselves from centuries of complicity in their own oppression and see themselves not as defiled, unclean, perpetually wanton creatures to be hidden away as if they were carriers of plague, but rather as noble members of the human race endowed with greatness and blessings: the giving of life, the tending to it mercifully and lovingly, and, most important, the imparting of lessons in real virtue—self-acceptance to their daughters and just plain acceptance to their sons—that would be gaining hearts and minds indeed.”
We and our Moroccan allies have our work cut out for us.
UPDATE: An informed reader emails to add that the King of Morocco deserves a share of the credit for this societal transformation — “for siding with these women against the more reactionary forces in society. In a poll last year that found him very popular, the one area where there was a lot of criticism was… women’s rights! Lots of men thought he was going too fast.” (More on the poll and on the family code can be found here.) If only other Muslim nations were fortunate enough to have such leadership.