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A descendant of the Prophet Muhammed, King Hassan II has been Morocco's ultimate secular authority as well as its spiritual leader since 1961. Despite a constitutional amendment in September 1996 which provides for direct election of the House of Representatives, the King still has the authority to dissolve parliament and rule by decree. The centralisation of power, as well as its ancient system of patronage, has prevented Morocco from evolving a modern state administration, and has earned it a notorious human rights record. There is considerable opposition to the monarchy, from the legal opposition as well as from fundamentalist groups that have been banned from politics. Dissatisfaction also is growing among the poor and unemployed in Morocco's urban slums.

Among the educated classes, many feel that the King has obstructed the establishment of a true constitutional monarchy and the rule of law. Paradoxically, however, his reign is also viewed as a necessity, a safeguard against far worse abuses of power. Fear of the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism, as happened in neighbouring Algeria, is an essential element in the delicate and complex equation of Moroccan politics.

The absence of a clear state power structure that will outlive the king is thought to be the biggest risk facing the country.1 The King's advancing age and his ill health have placed Morocco in a precarious position, particularly since the King's son and heir is not highly regarded. State officials are aware that if economic conditions in Morocco do not improve, the Islamists have a strong base of support for challenging the regime, particularly among urban youth. Militant Islamism has been growing in popularity among university graduates, a group whose rate of unemployment is estimated to exceed thirty percent. To limit growing unrest within the country, the King is attempting gradual democratic reforms, although his efforts thus far have met with some suspicion and have not galvanised support within the country. They have, however, helped to change his image abroad and helped to consolidate European economic support.

The West sees Morocco as an important source of stability and pro-Western influence in the Islamic world. After nearly two years of negotiations, Morocco and the European Union concluded a bilateral agreement, following Tunisia, Israel and Turkey, at the end of February 1996 to form a Global Euro-Mediterranean Partnership which will eventually establish a free trade area between Europe and twelve countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Analysts say that the agreement challenges Morocco to modernise swiftly, though it brings questionable concrete benefits for the foreseeable future. The tough terms of the agreement reflect in part Morocco's desperation to find solutions for its worsening economic conditions.

The worst drought in the century cut grain production by eighty percent in 1995 and stimulated rural migration into large urban slums, where unemployment is endemic.2 The drought has drawn attention to the country's overdependence on agriculture, and to the fact that the economy has not sufficiently diversified to sustain Morocco's rapidly growing population. In little more than a decade, from 1982 to 1994, unemployment has doubled, bringing it, by independent estimates, close to twenty percent.3 Another concern is the country's ineffective and extremely expensive public service. After debt servicing, sixty-five percent of government expenditure goes to pay government salaries.4

The majority of the population is under twenty years of age and facing a severe lack of educational and employment opportunities. Unemployment among the young is the norm, and from Tangiers, illegal migrants continue to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to Europe. Moroccan authorities, already under fire from European governments for the ever-increasing flow of kif or hashish into Europe, have increased naval patrols to intercept people attempting to cross the Straits by boat. In recognition that illegal migration will not stop before economic conditions have improved, the authorities have made it easier for Moroccans to obtain passports to look outside the country for work. Worker remittances are already the largest legal source of foreign exchange - surpassed only by the illegal trade in kif. European countries, responding to internal pressures of their own, have reacted to the illegal flow of drugs and migrants by imposing strict visa regulations. As this barrier rises, Moroccans turn increasingly toward the Arab world for inspiration."5

The Moroccan Women's Movement

The political and social tensions within Morocco are nowhere better illustrated than in the situation of women's organisations, which find themselves in the contradictory position of criticising the King for human rights abuses, for the slow pace of democratisation, and specifically for dragging his heels on the issue of women's equality, but also regarding themselves as ultimately dependent upon him for their continued existence. The King supports, at least rhetorically, a very gradual process of improving women's status. His self-proclaimed role as 'protector' of women's rights, from a secular perspective, has been a way to keep the issue of women's rights squarely within the context of Islam and the shari'a. As Protector of the Faithful, the King asserted his historical and religious prerogative by championing the cause of Moroccan women. Whether this is political wisdom or equivocation, the King's support for women's rights helps to consolidate middle and upper class support for his regime. One source stated that, like it or not, women are pawns in the political manoeuvring of the King, vis a vis the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

Some feminists in Morocco wish to approach women's rights issues by calling attention to the need for a more modern interpretation of Islamic law. They are attempting to heighten awareness that Islamic law has been re-interpreted and modernised in other areas, most notably business practices, and that shari'a law also needs to evolve. One of their main concerns is that this very important interpretative activity not be monopolised by interests that disguise paternalism in the cloak of religion. Other feminists maintain a secular approach to women's equality, arguing simply that women's status should be compatible with international and human rights laws.6


The 1992 Constitution

The 1992 Constitution, like its predecessor, does not contain a provision unequivocally barring discrimination against women. While it states that all Moroccans are equal before the law (Article 5), the value of such a provision as a principle of non-discrimination is highly dependent on how it is construed and applied in a particular context. Article 8 of the 1992 constitution states that men and women shall enjoy equal political rights, but there are no other specific references to women's equality in other spheres. By omission, the inference is that, where women's rights are concerned, the guarantee of non-discrimination in Article 5 is restricted. Thus, the Moroccan ulama, or religious leaders, assert that the personal status laws do not violate the constitutional guarantee of equality, because the constitution indirectly allows for the unequal treatment of women in the sphere of personal status.7


Morocco ratified the CEDAW Convention in 1993 with reservations, stating that the provisions of Article 2 would apply to the extent that they would not conflict with the shari'a, and that Article 16 regarding marriage and its dissolution was also considered to be incompatible with shari'a law.

The Mudawwana

One of the major grievances of Moroccan feminists has been the Mudawwana, or personal status code. Morocco and Tunisia share the legacy of Islamic jurisprudence of the Maliki school and the French legal system. The Tunisian Code of Personal Status, enacted soon after independence in 1956, introduced dramatic reforms that were more advanced than the laws of many contemporary Western countries. The Moroccan Mudawwana, on the other hand, which came into force two years after independence from France in 1958, reinstated many principles of Islamic law and reinforced the traditional Moroccan patriarchal order.8

For some time Morocco's women's organisations have pressed for reforms to the Mudawwana which would bring it into conformity with international human rights.9 In 1992 a campaign was launched by the organisation Union de l'action féminin (UAF) in which a million signatures were collected on a petition demanding reforms of the personal status laws. These demands were given impetus by the arrest, sensational trial and execution by firing squad in 1993 of Mohamed Mustafa Tabet, the police chief of Casablanca. Tabet had engaged in rape and sexual violence for many years against women he picked up in the streets. The case added outrage to the political pressures for reforming the personal status laws. The King asserted, however, that as Protector and Commander of the Faithful, it was his job to interpret Islamic law and to resolve the problems raised by the defects in the Mudawwana.10 Sources say that most activists were very disappointed with the way their efforts were hijacked. While the King invited women to participate, the reform commission he set up included only men, including religious scholars.

The reforms of 1993 have modernised the personal status laws to some degree, but critics say that they do not amount to much more than window dressing. Not only do the fundamental inequities in marriage and family law remain, but the reforms in themselves are said to have questionable practical consequence. Particularly in the rural areas, where the literacy rate is very low, it would take considerable political will to make these legal changes known and enforced. In both urban and rural areas, the court system is overwhelmed, and the adouls who hear most cases related to the family code are functionaries who are not trained in the law or in jurisprudence. Even if the adouls are aware of changes in the law, they can and do easily ignore them. [see section on Article 16 for further discussion of the changes to marriage and family laws. ]

Feminists contend that Moroccan women are in an incongruous situation. One source explained it in the following way: if a woman has a decent and fair-minded husband or father, she can pursue her ambitions outside the home and enjoy an equitable family life. However, if she has the misfortune to marry a petty tyrant, then she has very little recourse in law to counter his authority. Since traditional Islamic laws on business, finance, crime and other matters have been modernised, Moroccan feminists argue that there is no reason for the personal and family laws not to evolve also.11 They argue that a number of existing provisions of the Mudawwana , which may have accorded with traditional society, have become outmoded as the Moroccan family has increasingly been transformed by urbanisation and by radically altered economic and social conditions.12 In purely practical terms it is increasingly important for a woman to have the unconditional right to work outside the home. Theoretically, Article 726 of the revised Code of Contracts and Obligations gives them this right, but in practice, and in terms of the Mudawwana, the husband retains the right to demand obedience from his wife. With high rates of male unemployment, and male migration for work, women have taken on increasing economic responsibilities. There is practical need, independent of the appeal to international human rights norms, to equip girls, both legally and in terms of education and training, to survive in modern industrialised society. 13

VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN - Articles 3, 5, 6, 12, 15 and 16

Established in April 1995, Le Centre d'Écoute et d'orientation is one of the first Moroccan organisations to offer free legal and psychological support to female victims of abuse (it has a 24 hour hot line) and to provide education about women's legal rights.14 Despite the fact that several women's groups have been struggling for some time to raise public awareness, the problem of violence against women is only beginning to be brought before the public. Gender based violence and sexual harassment cut across all classes of society and stem from women's subordinate position within the family and from the institutionalisation of this subordination in the personal status laws.


As mentioned previously, Article 8 of the 1992 Moroccan Constitution explicitly provides that men and women shall enjoy equal political rights, and that men and women are entitled to vote on the same basis. However, according to one Moroccan law professor, this may be the only area where Moroccan law is actually ahead of the society, because in practice, women have made few inroads into the male-dominated political order.15


As the first Moroccan Government report indicates, a wife of Moroccan nationality may not confer her nationality on a foreign-born husband. (CEDAW/C/MOR/1, Para 96). Also, it is through the husband that the wife and children obtain civil status. According to the United States Department of State Human Rights Reports for 1995, men are normally registered at local government offices; their wives and unmarried children are included in this registration, which confers civil status. Civil status is necessary to obtain a birth certificate, passport, or marriage license. If a father does not register his child, the child is without civil status and the benefits of citizenship. It is possible for an individual to self-register, but the process is long and cumbersome.16

Orphans of both sexes lack civil status, a situation which can result in dire circumstances, including adoptive servitude, which is particularly common for young orphan girls. [see Article 15 for further discussion of civil status regarding orphans and the children of unwed mothers.]

The practice described above should be of particular concern to the CEDAW Committee, as the Government report mentions the expanded use of the national identity card.

EMPLOYMENT - Article 11

Moroccan women have one of the highest levels of employment in the Arab world. Male migration to urban areas and to EC countries for waged jobs, and the worsening economic situation have increased women's reliance upon cash incomes. The percentage of female workers is greatest in agriculture, manufacturing and domestic service. Agriculture, which contributes only about twenty percent of overall production, continues to be the largest source of employment, accounting for nearly half the active population.17 [see Article 14 for a discussion of rural women and agriculture.]

As the Government report states (paragraph 278), half the active women in the urban areas work in the industrial sector, mainly in the textile industry. The report also confirms that the majority of women who work in the industrial sector do contract work at home. Reliance on an export-oriented development strategy has increased the demand in industry for home-based work, which is typically low-paid and lacks social or labour protections.18

Women workers in the textile industry

A recent article in a Moroccan daily newspaper publicised the results of the first study on women in the clothing industry - referred to ironically as "le grand 'miracle' du textile marocain" (the great "miracle" of the Moroccan textile industry) - undertaken by the Democratic League for the Rights of Women (la Ligue démocratique pour les droits de la femme ) in April and May 1996. In general, women workers in this industry do not belong to a labour union, they are young, from about thirty-two to as little as twelve years of age, and unmarried. The study, which included about sixty clothing factories in Casablanca, revealed that many workers are earning less than the minimum wage, and most have no social security, pension or other benefits. Half of these workers receive the same salary for day or night work. Over sixty-four percent have no worker accident insurance. Over thirty percent of the women interviewed complained of insulting treatment from their supervisors, and at least seven percent said they had received physical abuse of some kind. The article emphasised that this study was exclusively concerned with registered, formal sector enterprises, and that it confirmed the impression of the general public that infractions of the labour code in industry have become more the practice than the exception.19

Child labour

Sources repeatedly mentioned the problem of child labour, particularly in regard to girl children. Girls are put to work for wealthy families as domestics, mainly due to lack of opportunities in the rural areas and increasing economic difficulties for poor families. Promised education and a better life, they are often subject to horrible working conditions and live in a state of indentured servitude.20

Orphan girls in particular are subject to 'adoptive servitude,' in which they are adopted by a family for the express purpose of providing labour. There are reports of widespread physical abuse of these girls. The government, as well as non-governmental human rights groups, do little to monitor or regulate this practice, because it is considered a better alternative than keeping the girls in orphanages. According to one source, most people feel that unwanted and abandoned children are better off with families that can at least give them some protection, because they do not have civil or social status.

RURAL WOMEN - Article 14

"Moroccan identity is difficult to fix, changing according to one's geo-political and linguistic vantage point. Although Arabic is the national language, there is a large Berber population, speaking three different regional dialects: Tamezight, Tachilhit, and Taraffit. The recent Moroccan link with the western Sahara makes the Saharan presence and dialect an important one to reckon with as well. Extra-cultural influences are also varied; there are two Spanish enclaves in the north - Melilla and Ceuta - and emigration to both Spain and France continues to have a significant impact on the Moroccan culture and economy. Urbanisation scrambles these points of identity, but doesn't erase them; rather, urban areas provide a striking example of the coexistence of peoples and languages as they exchange both goods and social identities."21

To speak generally of the problems of rural women in Morocco is very difficult, if not useless, since there are such dramatic differences among different areas of the country and even between villages. However, it may be possible to make one generalisation - that rural women are being left behind, both literally and in terms of their development needs. Their men are going overseas, or migrating to do non-agricultural work, so rural women are in critical need of the legal and practical tools that will help them to survive where they are.

Most importantly, rural women do not have control over money. Legally, they can have title over land, but they are rarely in a position to do so, or to use that land as collateral to obtain credit. Women are in dire need of alternative ways to access credit. A viable system of credit and credit programmes is needed that would enable women to capitalise small enterprises. Women in credit programmes also need technology and business assistance, however, to succeed.

Traditional agriculture

The majority of rural women live in small, subsistence households where some combination of livestock, wheat and barley provides the main sustenance and income. Wherever sheep can be kept, women traditionally have made extra income by weaving rugs, cushions and blankets. Often women textile producers belong to co-operatives, but the degree of autonomy women have in producing, selling and controlling the cash they earn depends considerably on where they live. There is a distinct difference between the households on the coastal side of the country, where women are freer in their activities and in their ability to dispense with their own incomes than they are further east, where women's individual freedom decreases. One source said that in the east of the country there are areas where women never venture outside their villages.

The farm sector in general is undergoing dramatic changes. Divided households are no longer uncommon. There are many families without a male head of household, because he has gone to another area, usually urban, or as far away as Europe, to work in non-agricultural labour. Often these migrant workers send home remittances. Many are involved in smuggling of various kinds.

The overwhelming majority of rural women are illiterate. Rural schools are overcrowded, and there is a lack of qualified teachers, as there is in urban slums. In some areas, particularly in the eastern parts of the country, it is absolutely necessary to build more schools so that girls, who cannot venture outside their villages, will be able to attend school.

As a result of state restructuring throughout the past decade, rural health services, which were never highly developed in Morocco, have stagnated. The focus now is on community-based health care. A system of mobile health services for rural areas has been developed, but it is unknown how far-reaching these services are, or what percentage of rural families can afford them. Sources say that rural clinics are few, and medicines are very expensive.

The agricultural export sector

The agricultural export sector includes horticultural products such as tomatoes, melons, roses, gladiolas and citrus. These areas of production, although not terribly large in terms of land or labour, constitute one of the country's main sources of foreign exchange. Because citrus growing has been going on for a long time, there is improved efficiency in production, and therefore improved conditions of work and even wages. (The workers in this sector are thought to be earning minimum wage.) In the newer export sectors, where flowers and certain vegetables are grown for European markets, conditions are worse.

Eighty-two percent of agricultural export labour is female. This includes an overwhelming majority of females in packing and other jobs related to food sorting, packaging and preparations for transport - where women have traditionally worked - but there is now a growing majority of women on the farm or production side as well. Greenhouse agriculture, as export agriculture is called, has been very good for the educated women who are trained as agricultural technicians and who are getting good jobs on farms. In some respects, for the itinerant female agricultural workers, greenhouse agriculture has been an advantage also, in that they now can work about 200 days a year, which is more than they can work with traditional food crops. However, the wages are very low.

The average female worker in this sector is similar to the female workers one finds elsewhere in the world working in export agriculture. They are mainly single women, many of whom still live with their families. In a few areas, such as Agadir, women come from all over the country, and these are often older, mainly divorced women. They sleep in crowded workers quarters, on pallets on the floor, and travel from one packing house to another, always doing casual labour, usually for less than minimum wage.


Civil status

Civil status for women and children is conferred through the husband/father. As the Moroccan government report clearly states, natural filiation through the father does not exist. A 'natural' child can never be attached to his/her father, by either the father's voluntary or forced acknowledgement. "Natural affiliation takes effect only between the child and the mother" (Article 83 of the mudawwana). An unmarried mother may give her name to her child only if she obtains the written authorisation of her father or her brothers.

Abandonment of children may be the only alternative for unmarried women and girls who engage in or are forced into sexual relations. The Feminine Solidarity Association in Morocco, created in 1985, works for single mothers who are rejected by both family and society. According to the law, single mothers can be arrested and put in jail because the law forbids adultery and to have children outside of marriage.22 However, this law is seldom applied. Nonetheless, the social predicament of abandoned children in Morocco is very serious.



As the Government report states, the 1993 reform is intended to ensure the consent of the woman to a marriage. In actuality, the reform applies only to one specific situation: an adult woman, who has no father, is free to contract her own marriage. However, even in this limited case, the social norm would discourage most women from doing so. Also, because the legal system is very disorganised, in practice the adoul , or functionary, may choose to ignore the new law and refuse to legally register the marriage unless the woman brings a male relative. Also, although the law says that the wali or guardian shall, in no case, have the power to compel marriage, there are many subtle forms of social and family constraints that can subvert the intended protection of the law.


There are still three kinds of divorce in the reformed Moroccan family code. Repudiation, which is the prerogative of men only, remains in place, but with some new restrictions. A practical problem that limits the importance of the reform concerning repudiation is that the courts are terribly overcrowded, and even the most competent magistrates must make very quick decisions. The other forms are judicial divorce, which a woman can obtain under very limited circumstances, and a third form of divorce which is called 'khol'e' and which effectively involves a woman 'buying' her freedom. Khol'e , repudiation by compensation, is regarded by women as a measure of last resort. It is obviously not available anyway to the majority of Moroccan women.

A woman can obtain a judicial divorce on the grounds of brutality, although the burden of proof is upon her, and it is very difficult to establish a clear case that the husband inflicted specific injuries upon her. Abandonment is another ground for divorce, but a clause remains in the family code that allows a husband to reappear within a one year period to show sufficient proof that he is committed to the marriage.

Sources note that the reforms mentioned in the Government report are, upon close observation, modest and easily circumvented. Repudiation is still legal and remains a male prerogative. Women don't have the right to object to repudiation. The difference is that now the wife must be summoned, the repudiation must take place in the presence of a Qadi or magistrate, and repudiation, in principle, should be compensated. Critics say that in practice, the reforms are easy to ignore. For example, a husband can pay off the summoner so that the wife fails to appear before the Qadi.


The reform concerning polygamy has to do with notification, though this still does not give the wife any real right to object. The intention of the reform is apparently to protect women from unknowingly marrying men who intend to maintain 'hidden families.' Sources say that the instances of men keeping separate households are not uncommon. Polygamy, while statistically said to be only about five percent of marriages, is probably much higher.




1 David White and Roula Khalaf, "Survey of Morocco (1): Challenges loom as barrier come down-The agreement with the European Union, initialled last month, is a crucial milestone in the country's economic and political development," The Financial Times, 19 December, 1995. back

2 "Drought Drives Moroccans From Farms to Cities," Associated Press Service, quoted in Tulsa World, 28 December, 1995. back

3 "Drought Drives Moroccans From Farms to Cities" back

4 David White and Roula Khalaf back

5 Huband, Mark, "Port Lures Africans Longing for Europe Stuck in Tangier, as Morocco cracks down on smuggling across strait," Christian Science Monitor, 3 November, 1995. back

6 IWRAW wishes to thank the Women's Rights Project at Human Rights Watch for providing information concerning women's organisations and changes in the personal status laws in Morocco. back

7 Ann Mayer, "Moroccans - Citizens or Subjects? A People At the Crossroads," New York University Journal of International Law and Politics, Fall, 1993. back

8 Mayer, Ann "Reform of Personal Status Laws in North Africa: A Problem of Islamic or Mediterranean Laws?" Middle East Journal, Volume 49, No. 3, Summer 1995. back

9 "Reform of Personal Status Laws in North Africa" back

10 " Moroccans - Citizens or Subjects?" back

11 Borst, Barbara, "Major Move Being Made to Gain Full Equality," Inter Press Service, Global Information Network, 24 May, 1995. back

12 Ann Mayer back

13 "Reform of Personal Status Laws" back

14 Zineb El Ouardighi, "Première forme de soutien aux femmes agressées," Le Matin [du Sahara et du Maghreb], 19 April, 1995. back

15 "Moroccans - Citizens or Subjects?" footnote number 135. back

16 United States Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995, (Washington: Department of State). back

17 Khalaf, Roula "Survey of Morocco (2): A more coherent strategy is needed - Rapid changes are now underway and reliance on the private sector is growing," The Financial Times, 19 December, 1995. back

18 Simai, Mihaly, Moghadam, V. and A. Kuddo (eds.) Global Employment: An International Investigation into the Future of Work, (Zed Books: London) 1995 vol.1 126-127 back

19 Mokhtar Ghailani, "Le grand 'miracle' du textile marocain," Libération, 29/30 June, 1996. back

20 US State Department back

21 Deborah A. Kapchan, Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p 7. back

22 Oyog, Angeline, "Projects for Women Get Recognition and Cash From France," Inter Press Service , Global Information Network, December 20, 1995. back


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