Morocco Trip 2017: On Women's Rights
During the Morocco trip, one of the key areas we encouraged the students to focus on was the difference between the roles and rights of women in Morocco and in the UK. The main challenge to overcome was getting the students to appreciate the challenges within wider Moroccan and Islamic culture, rather than simply judging Moroccan men and women by their own Western, liberal (feminist) standards. We were also keen for students to appreciate the complexities and subtleties of the issue of gender in an Islamic country which is often viewed as progressive and held up as a model for improvements in human rights.
In this short exploration of the topics we discussed with students, I am going to focus on the following:
The forms of feminism
The challenges of educating girls
I will give some brief background for each issue, suggest some topics for discussion, and summarise some of the views the students held in response to their experiences in Morocco.
Schools of Feminism in Morocco
In Morocco two main schools of thought on the rights of women exist: the secular feminists who believe that equality for women is a human right and thus should be separated from issues of religion within Moroccan society; and Islamist feminists who believe that a distinctly Moroccan, and Islamic, form of feminism which is based on a re-reading of the Qur'an is required.
In discussion, all of our students felt that the ideal position is a kind of secular feminism as there is no politically relevant difference between men and women, although some of them had sympathy with the idea that progressive rights for women were more likely to be taken on board by society if they fitted into their pre-existing world-view. The main difficulties with the Islamist feminism, from the students' point of view, was that it refuses to challenge rights enshrined in Sharia law which they felt were oppressive towards women, such as the right for men to have multiple wives (polygamy) and denial of women's rights to inherit property. It was important, however, for us to convey to students that feminism is not a single doctrine, there are a multitude of different interpretations of feminist thought, and these can radically differ in important respects. This opening discussion provided a canvas on which to discuss some of the following issues in more depth.
Discussing Women's Rights on the roof terrace in Imlil.
The difference in language that we used to portray the secular form of feminism vs. the Islamist form was equality vs. justice respectively. The secular feminists are aiming for strict equality between men and women to be enshrined in law and in societal practice. On the other hand, the Islamists are seeking justice for women; better rights with are enforced and celebrated a positive interpretation on Islamic gender roles.
The social conventions of marriage in Morocco appear very strange to us; they do, however, differ from the legal rights of women listed in the Mudawanna (the Family Care Act 2004). For example, women are now entitled to sign their own marriage contract without a wali (essentially a person with moral responsibility over the bride, usually her father). This was legislated in order to prevent forced marriages. Women are also legally allowed to prepare a pre-nuptial agreement; this could limit the husband to only taking one wife, or agree how wealth would be distributed on the breakdown of the marriage. However, particularly in rural areas, women rarely take advantage of these rights.
Firstly, the presence of a wali is socially expected, and it is seen as highly suspect and dishonourable for a woman not to have an appropriate guardian to act as a wali on her behalf. This is generally justified by the idea that the wali is required to witness the marriage in case there is a breakdown of relations between husband and wife; the wali is there to check the documentation, and pass on moral responsibility for the bride which he would take back in the case of an irresponsible husband. A bride without a wali is very suspicious: why does she not have a guardian and protector? In a country where the needs of the community are seen as primary and the needs of the individual as secondary, a women without a wali would appear to have been ostracised by the community which would only happen under the most extreme of circumstances.
Secondly, a bride asking her would-be husband for a pre-nup is seen as focusing on the potential failure of the marriage on the day of the wedding, and, as such, is dishonourable. Many judges only let couples for which they believe a pre-nup would be useful know their rights, for example, if they are aware that the bride is independently wealthy. In other cases, many women are unaware of their rights. Even if they are aware, they are not heavily involved in the legal side of the marriage which operates between the husband and the wali.
The students noticed an important discrepancy in the treatment of women in the two cases above. In the first the wali is required in case of the breakdown of the marriage (the possibility of marital failure is assumed at the ceremony), and in the second the pre-nup is avoided by women as it is dishonourable to think about the possibility of the breakdown of marital relations. These sorts of discrepancies in the rights and social expectations of women are discussed in detail in Elliott's Modernizing Patriarchy shown below. I read this book during the trip as a way to prepare for the discussions with students, and I was impressed by how quickly they picked up on some of the key inconsistencies in the application of the Mudawanna in Moroccan society.
Marriages of Underage Girls
In the Mudawanna, the legal age of marriage for both men and women is eighteen. However, marriages to minors can take place if a judge rules it as a special circumstance. The special circumstances that a judge may use to influence his decision to offer a marriage licence include:
Is the bride pregnant?
Is the bride likely to have extra-marital sex with the husband?
Does the bride have a difficult home life?
Is the husband financially able to provide well for the bride?
The rate of marriages for underage girls has been creeping up in Morocco in recent years. In 2010 9.7% of marriages were to minors, in 2014 this had risen to 12.0%. In order to help the students get to grip with this statistic, we calculated that 12.0% of the forty girls in their year at Bedales would mean that approximately five girls in their year group would be married by the end of next academic year (some would likely already have been brides). This was a real shock to the boys and the girls in the group, and one of the statistics that stuck with them throughout the trip (we had a quiz on the final evening). The key point I really wanted students to grasp was that legislation is rarely enough; despite the legal age of marriage increasing for women in 2004, the percentage of child marriages has been increasing. The students agreed that education for women and communities (as well as a changing of the guard in the legal system: the judges) would be required for the rates of marriages to minors to exhibit a decline.
Education for All
With this in mind, we visited a girls' boarding house in Asni on our way back to Marrakesh. Thirty six girls are housed in the accommodation across the road from the local school. This allows girls who do not live close enough to a high school to continue their education. The existence of such projects makes sense in many ways: firstly, every year on average that a girl is educated, there is a 0.8% rise in national GDP, so educating girls appears to be beneficial to everybody; secondly, the boarding house works with the local school in a symbiotic relationship, it is not a competing school and, consequently, does not remove high achieving girls from the classrooms of public schools.
The girls' boarding house in Asni run by Education for All.
One of the discussions we had with our students before visiting the boarding house was asking them to reflect on the challenges posed by this sort of project. One was suggested by Latifa, the woman running the boarding house; many girls come back each week having had to fight with their parents who felt that their daughters should stay home and help out with the housework. Other challenges include the patriarchial idea that girls do not need a post-primary education in order to carry out their roles as wives and mothers.
In Modernizing Patriarchy, Elliott suggests that many educated women are treated with suspicion in traditional Moroccan society, particularly in rural areas. Universities are seen a hotbeds of depravity in many local communities and in a society in which virginity of women before marriage is very highly prized, such that in some villages the marital bedsheets are still paraded around the following morning to bring honour to the bride and her family, many families are resistant to the idea of allowing their daughters to go to university. Furthermore, when the university graduates return home after their studies they are often approaching their final years at a marriageable age, and their purity is called into question by eligible suitors. Many educated women end up as spinsters. This is clearly not the aim of an educational program for women, as if women who prize education do not pass this on to their children and families, the pervading patriarchal view will not change. This is not to say that no educated women become wives and mothers, but they are disproportionately unmarried women. All of this further emphasises the idea that the education being offered should truly be 'for all', including established members of local communities who can shape the discourse about empowerment and education of women and girls in their own towns and villages. It will take a generation (or two).
One of the aspects of the trip which I found fascinating was witnessing students' perspectives change as they grew in awareness of the cultural practices of the country. Morocco is a cultural shock for students who have either never really travelled, or stayed in tourist resorts wherever they have visited. Towards the end, we asked students to read some articles on gender studies and discuss the issues they presented and assimilate them into their own experience of Moroccan society. One was 'Teenage rape victim dies after setting herself on fire in Morocco' and another was 'Moroccan judge acquits girls accused of homosexuality'. Having reflected openly on some of the issues facing women and the changing rights and roles of women in Moroccan society over the course of the week, the students were able to reflect critically on these pieces and appreciate the different perspectives of and challenges to the various people in each article. I am confident that the students are more reflective in their views on gender and egalitarianism because of this trip.
One thing that I have been reminded of is that the fight for the rights of women is multi-faceted, and highly complex: but we are still living in a society which has highly patriarchal practices (who traditionally gives speeches as a wedding?) and it is imperative for each of us to reflect on where we stand on issues of gender and equality, and stand up for what we believe in. Visiting a country with very different customary practices can be an excellent catalyst for forcing this reflective process.