Gender Inequality in Morocco Continues, Despite Amendments to Family Law
By Aida Alami
When Zineb lost her father at the age of 15, her grief was compounded when she learned that she had to share his inheritance with an older half-brother unknown to her or her mother and sister.
"It felt unfair to split it with him," said Zineb, 29, a teacher in Rabat who asked that her full name not be used because as a political activist she is concerned about her safety. "Somebody was parachuted into your life and we didn't know him and after all, my mom worked for half of all of that money."
A decade ago, Morocco adopted a family code hailed by women's rights groups as a big step forward. Three years ago, the country passed a new constitution guaranteeing gender equality. Even so, Moroccan women say that equality is still a long way off, and much of the old order remains untouched, including the inheritance law section of the family code. That law, laid down in the Quran, states that male relatives receive double the inheritance of women.
But the pressure for change is building. "Islam allows for reinterpretation, and it is time for radical decisions to protect women," said Saida Kouzzi, a founding partner at Mobilizing for Rights Associates, a nongovernmental organization based in Morocco. "This law of inheritance was based on the fact that men were the head of the households, which is not the case anymore as many women are the ones who provide for the family or at least contribute in a significant manner."
In 2004, Morocco rewrote its code of family law, establishing the right to divorce by mutual consent, placing limits on polygamy and raising the minimum marriage age for women to 18 from 15. But no changes were made with respect to inheritance.
At the time, the Moroccan ruler, King Mohammed VI, had to arbitrate between the demands of feminist organizations, who were calling for an expansion of women's rights, and the Islamic political parties, who were strongly resistant to change. But terrorist bombings in 2003 that killed 45 people in Casablanca weakened the Islamist parties and paved the way for the adoption of the new family code. The king seized that opportunity to make it clear that he was the country's top religious authority.
"I can't in my capacity as commander of the faithful, permit what God has forbidden, nor forbid what the Almighty has allowed," the king said in an October 2003 address to Parliament about the changes to the family code. He also hinted that he would push to loosen religious rules without completely rejecting them.
Analysts said it was a clever strategy.
"It was definitely a strong marketing move," said Abdellah Tourabi, a political science researcher and the editor of the Moroccan monthly magazine Zamane. "It was the fourth year of his reign, and the move gave him the image of a modernist and a reformer. He became a sort of bulwark against conservatism and Islamism and a strategic ally for the secular elites."
Still, human rights organizations say that, in practice, the changes have not been fully carried out, mainly because some judges have been finding ways around the law or are still unfamiliar with the amendments.
Although the law now states that 18 is the minimum marriage age, judges have granted permission for the marriage of minors in about 90 percent of the cases that have appeared before them, according to 2010 data reported by the Justice Ministry.
"It takes much more time for changes in the law to be translated into practice," said Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a research associate specializing in women and Islamic law at the Centre for Islamic and Middle Eastern Law at the University of London. "Studies show that it takes about one generation or 30 years for legislation to push society in a different direction."
"Many families in rural areas are really eager to have their daughters marry much earlier," she added. "Judges have to go by the reality on the ground."
In conservative Morocco, the reality is that even women may be reluctant to challenge Islamic traditions that discriminate against them. "Women are very attached to the book and it is very clear on inheritance," said Sonia Terrab, a Moroccan novelist, referring to the Quran. "If given the choice, they will reject reform. There needs to be a strong state that imposes it until it becomes a solid gain in two or three generations."
In December, Driss Lachgar, secretary general of the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, an opposition party, demanded the repeal of laws that discriminate against women and called for a national debate on the inheritance law. Although his message stirred some controversy, no national or legislative debate ensued.
Ms. Kouzzi, the human rights worker, said the enforcement of the inheritance law had serious consequences: Many families disintegrate after the death of the father, and sometimes the survivors lose their homes.
Many Moroccans, she said, have discovered ways to work around the law, registering their properties in the name of their daughters, if they do not have a son, to guarantee that the inheritance stays within the nuclear family.
To radically change a traditional law, scholars say, it is necessary to accept that Muslim societies like Morocco are deeply conservative. Feminists and other groups seeking change must work with conservatives and avoid using alienating language.
"This issue cannot be addressed without taking into consideration what Moroccans consider to be their identity: Islam," said Souad Eddouada, a professor at the University of Kenitra in Morocco who specializes in gender studies. "This is a very tough battle to win for feminists because it touches money and property. Islam is based on the concept of justice, so a new reading of the texts can open the way to reforms even with inheritance."
Many believe that this kind of change will not be possible in Morocco unless the king provides the impetus.
But Zineb, the teacher who lost her father, said change was bound to happen despite the serious challenge it would pose to the privileges of men. Until then, she is making special provisions for her 8-year-old daughter.
"My advice to all women is to make sure they put the stuff in the kids' names," she said. "And they have to do it while they're alive so the law doesn't take away the girls' rights."