- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The thorough reform of Moroccan law bearing on the status of women announced last month by King Mohammed VI, which would recognize them as adults, is expected to put that country’s women on a par with Tunisia’s.

This would leave only Algeria among North African former colonies of France where the traditional family code continues to significantly limit women’s civil rights.

“How can society achieve progress while women, who represent half the nation, see their rights violated and suffer as a result of injustice, violence and marginalization?” asked the king in his address to the opening session of Morocco’s parliament last month.

Since the promulgation of a series of family laws in 1957 and 1958, the status of Moroccan women in civil law has been governed by the Code of Personal Status, known as the Mudawwana and based on the Malikite school of Islamic law.

Under the code, women are treated as legal minors, have no say in their marriage contracts, have very limited access to divorce and are required to obey their husbands in all matters.

“The personal status code, part of Morocco’s civil law, establishes a system of inequality based on sex and relegates women to a subordinate status in society,” said Human Rights Watch in urging the Moroccan government to change its legal code.

“Women face government-sponsored discrimination that renders them unequal before the law … and restricts women’s participation in public life,” the group said.

Some reforms of the code were adopted in 1993 after Moroccan women’s rights activists conducted a million-signature campaign. That effort resulted, for example, in the marriage contract requiring the consent and signature of the bride.

But Amina Lemrini of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women said the only positive effect of the 1993 reforms “was to make the code less sacred.” Agreeing that the reforms were “minimal,” Human Rights Watch said that “numerous provisions still discriminate against women.”

“The absence of a global vision of development and the lack of firm commitment to the equality of women has for decades contributed largely to keeping women’s status equivalent to that of minors,” Ms. Lemrini told a seminar last year organized by the International Federation for Human Rights.

When Mohammed VI ascended the throne in July 1999, hope that a new era of reforms was about to begin increased among Moroccans.

“The new king has stated on more than one occasion his support for human rights and his belief that protecting human rights is consistent with Islam, Morocco’s official religion,” Human Rights Watch said.

In March 2001, the king and Prime Minister Abderrahman el-Youssoufi met representatives of women’s organizations and announced that a commission would be formed to amend the code, after a previous committee failed to act on the issue in 2000.

Months later, the Spring of Equality collective, a coalition of women’s organizations, continued to protest the lack of progress in family-law reform.

“Women’s groups still complain of unequal treatment, particularly under the laws governing marriage, divorce and inheritance,” the U.S. State Department said in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2002.

In his speech last month, Mohammed VI said the reform of the law would “free women from the injustices they endure, in addition to protecting children’s rights and safeguarding men’s dignity.”

Among the measures is that wives would acquire joint responsibility for the family with the husband and be recognized as equal. This means they no longer would be required by law to obey their husbands.

Regarding marriage, the legal minimum age of female consent would be raised from 15 to 18, which is expected to allow more women to obtain higher education before marrying.

Wives also would be able to seek divorces in the same manner as husbands, and divorce would only be obtained by mutual consent, whereas the Mudawwana allowed men to divorce by uttering a repudiation formula, without any court intervention.

Polygamy would not be outlawed, but the husband would have to treat his second wife and her children on an equal footing with the first. Women also would have the right to impose a condition in the marriage contract whereby the husband would refrain from taking a second wife, which should reduce this practice.

“We will be able to measure the advances of Morocco toward democracy, the state of law and modernity by looking at how much is put into practice in terms of meaningful benefits for women,” Ms. Lemrini said last year.

Rajaa Naji Mekkaoui, who on Nov. 5 became the first woman to give a religious sermon in the royal presence during the holy month of Ramadan, says Mohammed VI frequently has expressed unconditional support for the aspirations of Moroccan women.

Widely welcomed in Morocco and by the international community, the reform is expected to be approved by the Moroccan parliament.

Once adopted, the new family code should bring Morocco closer to Tunisia, where polygamy and repudiation of a wife have been forbidden since 1956, the year that country gained independence from France.

Just months after independence, Tunisia broke sharply with the pre-existing Islamic law and adopted a national family law.

“The Tunisian reforms became a yardstick against which to judge changes in family law in other Middle Eastern countries,” said Mounira Charrad in the book, “States and Women’s Rights — The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.”

Under Tunisia’s laws, citizens are equal. However, in certain areas such as inheritance, where Islamic law prevails, women experience discrimination, according to a State Department report last year on human rights practices.

On the other hand, women in Algeria continue to face legal and social discrimination, according to the report.

Even if the constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex, the Algerian Family Code, adopted in 1984, limits women’s civil rights by treating them as minors under the legal guardianship of a husband or male relative.

To marry, a woman must have her father’s approval, and divorce is difficult to obtain except in cases of abandonment or if the husband is convicted of a serious crime.

As in Morocco and Tunisia, women in Algeria suffer from discrimination in inheritance claims.

In her book, Ms. Charrad asks why governments changed “Islamic family law in radical ways and promulgated laws expanding women’s rights in Tunisia, quickly adopted a conservative policy in Morocco, and became stalled between alternatives for a long period before enacting a conservative legal code in Algeria,” though all three countries have common historical and cultural characteristics.

She concluded that “the particular fate of family law was shaped by the process of state formation in each country, especially the degree of autonomy of the state from … kinship-based ties.”

In Algeria, tensions between reformist and traditionalist tendencies paralyzed family law until 1984, when a conservative family code faithful to Islamic law was promulgated, subject to political expediency, she said.

On the other hand, family law was treated as a force for change in Tunisia, while in Morocco it served as “an instrument for the maintenance of the social and political status quo,” she said.

With the Moroccan family-law reform announced by the king last month, maintenance of the status quo seems to be over. Said Saadi, a former minister of family, described the reform as “the entrance of Morocco to modernity and democracy through the main door.”

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