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Women and the Arab World: The Promise of Morocco?

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Sunsets and sand dunes, brewed mint tea in the High Atlas mountains, the mystique of medieval medinas, wafts of rose water permeating the night sky--Morocco easily captivates the imagination and senses.  As an exotic gateway bridging Africa, Europe and Arab World, this North African nation occupies a geographical position of strategic importance coupled with a rich blend of indigenous and Arabic influences.

And yet Morocco is more than an alluring travel destination of deserts, oases and nomadic living. Recognized as a model nation for its democratic reforms and economic progress, the Kingdom of Morocco is a constitutional monarchy of more than 32 million inhabitants, a nation brimming with economic potential. With roughly 66% of of its population under the age of 60 years and economic growth pegged at a 2 – 3% per year, the country’s youthful dynamics portend a promising future for its inhabitants.  

Under the progressive leadership of King Mohammed VI, substantial reforms have been undertaken battling poverty, strengthening women’s rights and igniting economic development. Since 2003, poverty rates have been slashed by half, women have acquired the right to divorce, to own property and to attain child support and Berber has been recognized as an official language, now taught in some schools. The country’s investment in construction, the tourism sector, logistics and solar energy has attracted direct foreign investment. Morocco now proudly boasts itself among the world’s most admired emerging economies.

The country’s optimistic outlook and concrete achievements on the economic and political planes have not gone unnoticed. When Morocco’s feminists succeeded in gathering one million signatures to push for reform in the family code, later enshrined in law, the victory was heralded as a bold example for feminists in the Islamic world.

Morocco’s achievements shine light on the heroic upheaval and reforms currently being undertaken in the Arab World at large. Public demonstrations, courageous acts of protests and grassroots mobilization have ushered unprecedented political change in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The push forward remains intimately connected to the hopes and aspirations of the region’s people for a future with democracy.

It was against this backdrop that the International Women’s Forum (IWF) recently held its 2012 World Cornerstone Conference in Rabat, Morocco. Bringing together pre-eminent women from the United States, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, the Conference explored the future of Morocco and the Arab World offering an invigorating forum for debate and information sharing.

Maysam Shebani, a young graphic designer and freedom fighter from Libya , was in attendance. The 22 year old described how she secretly recorded conversations among Qaddafi’s security officials using a UHF radio scanner and co-produced underground newsletters in support of the uprisings against Col. Qaddafi. With first-hand knowledge on the impact of information sharing, Maysam urged IWF attendees “…to see beyond the media stereotypes of what an Arab is and see who we really are. We are just like you; we share the same fears and hopes.” Maysam continues to volunteer with civil society organizations supporting women and children. When asked, “What advice would you give to young girls today?" the young freedom fighter replied with conviction, “Be open to the world, educate yourself. Don’t limit yourself and don’t let anyone tell you what you can do.”

This unshakeable confidence was echoed by Arabic women leaders who have shaped the lives of their communities and the women in them. Asma Chasbi, the first woman to be democratically elected mayor of a Moroccan city and President of IWF Morocco, spoke passionately about the advancement of women as inextricably linked to the progress of the nation as a whole. “No country can rise to greatness when it leaves its women behind” Chasbi remarked as she reminded IWF delegates that while significant progress has been made, further work in Morocco and the Arab World needs to be tackled.

Indeed progress is rarely, if not ever, a linear process: while Morocco can persuasively point to a steady and impressive array of reforms, plenty of groundbreaking work is still needed. Approximately 48% of Morocco’s women do not have access to education, only one third of the women work and only 12% of elected officials are women.  Public indignation against existing loopholes in family and criminal code also persist. While by and large, legal reforms have strengthened women’s rights, the gaps in provisions and lack of progressive judicial interpretation have left women in perilous conditions. This past spring, demonstrators took to the streets over a Court decision which upheld Clause 475 of the Criminal Code; at the time, 16 year Amina Filali killed herself as the court ordered her to marry a man who had raped her. Under Article 475 of the Moroccan Criminal Code, a "kidnapper" of a minor can marry his victim to escape prosecution. The reasoning follows that by marrying the victim, the honor of the woman’s family is preserved.  This outdated legal provision fails to rightly acknowledge the individual rights of women. Changes to family and criminal law must be made while training of the judiciary and the police force also remains essential next steps.

Larger social ills continue to plague the country; while economic growth remains impressive, poverty continues to affect mass of Morocco’s population; youth unemployment hovers at 40% and 55% of Moroccans living in rural areas struggle to meet sustenance levels.

Undoubtedly, optimism for Morocco’s future rests with the resilience of its people. The Moroccans – a nation of mixed people combining Berber and Arabic origin—are  currently exploring their Berber roots, embracing the  diversity found within their culture and demanding that the political and economic realities reflect their integrity as a people and the nation they aspire to further build. University Professor Fatima Sadiqi explained the complementary role of Berber nationalism and the strengthening of the woman right’s movement in Morocco, “A recovered Berber identity is emerging in Morocco. As we are celebrating our diversity, Morocco is strengthening its secularity, modernity and movement towards greater equality. ”

Morocco’s cultural reconciliation with its Berber past has broadened and strengthened women’s participation in community, politics and economy accelerating state attention to rural issues, where women’s influence and interests are highly prominent, expanding the parameters of Moroccan cultural identity beyond Islam and promoting openness to alternative viewpoints including feminist perspectives.

The Berber refer to themselves as the Amazigh which in their native language means “the free people”—a highly symbolic and inspiring expression that we can only hope continues to guide Morocco and its women as they set forth in building a brighter and more inclusive tomorrow.

FedEx has been a proud global sponsor of the International Women’s Forum since 2003

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