Before the arrival of Islam, women lived by Aljahilia or “The Period of Ignorance”. Women had no role in society except for men’s desires or as a slave. The arrival of Islam in 622 AC, marked a drastic change for women’s lives. Women received three basic rights dictated by the Islam religion: (1) The Right to live (2) The Right to be honored and respected as a mother, and (3) The right to own a business and work. These rights enormously effected women’s lives and their treatment in society by men. Women were gradually enabled to rise their status remarkably yet of course they still weren’t and still aren’t equal.
The independence of Morocco from France in 1956 also represented a significant change for women and women’s rights. One of the biggest changes was the ability of women to go to school and receive an education. Before 1956, women were only allowed to attend Koranic schools which taught them mostly about religion and did not learn sciences, math, arts, history, politics, etc. However, still today there is lot that needs to be done in regards to women’s education as only 64% of women are literate and in the countryside nearly 90% of women are illiterate, with the biggest issue being that most girls stop their education by eleven or twelve years old.
Changes are happening in Morocco, especially since the change of power to the current king, Mohammed VI, who succeeded his father Hassan II upon his death in 1999. Hassan II was known as to rule with an iron fist and all dissent on his power was repressed. Thus deep resentment of the monarchy grew up until his death and the takeover of his son, Mohammed VI, who quickly vowed to right the wrongs of the era known as the Years of Lead. In 2004, Mohammed VI instituted the much anticipated Mudawana, a legal code that dramatically changed women’s rights by protecting and guaranteeing women crucial rights to divorce, custody, property and inheritance rights, and child support. Before this law, there was no limited marriage age (meaning women could be passed over to marry before puberty), and women needed their father’s permission to marry. Also, women had no choice whatsoever when in comes to divorce. Only a man could initiate the divorce. Since this law, the following changes have happened which dramatically improves a woman’s life in Morocco:
- The legal age for marriage starts at 18 years old.
- Women can sign their own marriage contract without their father’s approval.
- Men can still marry up to four wives, however, the law states that each wife must be provided with her own residence. Also, if a man wants to take on a second wife, then he must obtain the approval from his first wife.
- Divorce is now a choice for both a man and a woman. Now women can initiate a divorce yet she still needs her husband to sign the divorce paperwork unless it is a case of domestic abuse.
- A husband now has to pay child support and if there is a divorce, the inheritance must be split in half.
Obviously these changes has greatly enhanced a women’s life in Morocco, yet there is still quite a bit of work to be done. A woman still cannot freely go into a cafe without getting uncomfortable, negative glares by men. The cafe is a man’s world in Morocco. A woman who has a child out of wedlock, is sent to the city to have the baby where the baby is abandoned to an orphanage because premarital sex is considered a sin in Islam. Women cannot wear a swimsuit on the beach. Instead, she must wear either a jelaba into the water or the more modern ones wear a shirt and pants.
However, there is hope that change is coming. Women are more likely than men to use the Internet and Moroccan women have become the most avid Internet users in the Arab world. Also, in 2007 there were 34 women elected to the Parliament, representing 10.4% of all seats, which is just slightly behind the 12.5% of women in the US government.
As expected, the new family law (the Mudawana) has also brought about many social changes in Morocco as well. The rate of divorce has increased with leaps and bounds, and the average age of marriage has gone from early twenties to 28 or 29 years old. Only time can tell whether these changes are good or bad but overall it can only be better for women to have more choice.
Probably the biggest challenges to women and to men overall in Morocco is the high levels of unemployment (13% and growing), the high level of illiteracy, and the large population of people that are living below the poverty level (19% per the World Bank). In a country where the average salary is only a meager US$1677 per year, there are going to be some challenges going forward if things do not get better. Even the highly educated Moroccans are not able to find a job so there is a general sense of restlessness in the air.