Backlash against attempt to liberate

Backlash against attempt to liberate

Morocco's women


By Rupert Cornwell, in Rabat



The Independent (UK)- February 06, 2000-Hakima Lebbar, a 41-year-old psychologist from Fez and living emblem of emancipated Moroccan womanhood, has no doubts about the challenge diehard Islamism poses to her dream of hauling her sex, and with it her country, into the modern age. "This is a very serious threat. It is destabilizing everything. The government doesn't dare take a clear position against it. And it's not just Islam we're talking about but traditionalists and reactionaries of every hue, in all the parties."


Since last summer, when the 36-year-old Mohammed VI ascended the Moroccan throne on the death of his father Hassan II, a semi-feudal kingdom on the far western edge of  the Arab world has been living an extraordinary political spring. The press bubbles with freedom, dissidents are welcomed home with open arms, even the family of the opposition leader. Mehdi Ben Barka, abducted by Hassan's agents on the streets of Paris in 1965 never to reappear, has seen fit to return.


Under the new monarch, political pluralism blossoms, and a veil is being lifted on two decades of human rights abuses. Best of all, Driss Basri, the former king's feared interior minister, who commanded a state within the state, has been sacked. Like his contemporary King Abdullah in Jordan, "M-6" is looked to by his people as harbinger of desperately needed change – not just in his own country, but throughout the region.


But suddenly the euphoria of Ms Lebbar and thousands like her is vanishing. Not out of fear that the King has lost his nerve, but because of growing religious and conservative opposition to a government plan to remove the mediaeval shackles on the status of the country's women.


The mooted reforms are centuries overdue. Finally, Moroccan women will have the equal right to divorce. The legal age of marriage will rise from 15 to 18 and no longer will a husband be entitled to cast off a wife like a chattel as he pursues his right to polygamy. But for growing numbers of preachers in the mosques, for the Islamists who proselytise on university campuses and disrupt reformist rallies with the tacit connivance of some in government, this is the devil's work, instigated by Zionists and leading directly to hell.


Morocco is not another Algerian tragedy in the making. "The religious traditionalists are only a minority. But they are committed," says another woman activist. The conflict moreover sits astride Morocco's central fault-line – the divide between a small, urbanised and affluent élite whose gaze is fixed on Europe, and an ancient, desperately primitive rural culture, unreached by the 20th century.


"In terms of women's education, we are among the most underdeveloped countries in the world," says Raben Naciri, a lecturer at Rabat University. More than 40 per cent of Moroccan girls aged seven will never attend school at all and fewer than one in five will make it as far as high school. The crisis is above all in the countryside, where 80 per cent of the overall population – and 90 per cent of its women – are illiterate.


The result is a vicious circle of backwardness. Why bother to send girls to school, the reasoning runs, when they'll leave early anyway, and when Islam's family code, the moudawana, condemns them to eternal subservience? No civil laws protect against domestic violence; for thousands upon thousands of Moroccan women, the government plan declares, "home is a place of terror".


Can things ever change? Yes says Abraham Serfaty, the Jewish dissident brought home by "M-6" after a quarter of a century spent in Hassan's unsalubrious jails and in exile. "But we have to fight their arguments head-on." Something the government, so far, has not been ready to do.