Islamic feminism: The Moroccan story

Morocco

A country as diverse as its people. Laying on the northwestern tip of Africa, Morocco is quite seperated from the rest of the continent. There are the Atlas mountains to the East of the country, the sea to the North and West, and the Sahara to the South. Morocco has had a couple of different groups leading the country, from the Berbers in the beginning over to the French and the Arabs. All these influences can still be traced down in different places within the country, but the largest impact has been the Islam. This can be found anywhere: Beautiful mosques, colourful medinas, and oriental patterns everywhere. But what is also more or less visible, is the dominance of men in the public. Due to Morocco’s proximity to Europe, the country has recently seen the influence of yet another wave of cultural ideas: feminism. But as we will see, it is perhaps a different type of feminism than what we know here in western Europe.

About this blogpost

A few days ago, I reached the city of Fez, Morocco, where I will be staying for the next five weeks. In my few days here, I could already observe a big diversity within the country and people’s mindsets: Liberal views meet conservate and religious views. This is especially visible in the movement of feminism – the streets are walked by women covered in djellebas, traditional Moroccan wear, just as well by women in jeans. Increasingly more Moroccan women are talking about their rights and the equality of the sexes. But on the other hand, also campaigns against this movement are bieng started. Just this month, on the 9th of July, a campaign called ‘Be a man’ was launched on social media, which is calling men to act ‘more like a man’ by forbidding their female relatives to show off skin. And this is just a small representation of the tension between conservatives and feminists. What I want to give to you guys in this post, is a quick overview on the topic of feminism in general, how this movement is tackled in Morocco – while also addressing some of the stereotypes about women in the country.

Women in different swimwear enjoying a day at the beach in Rabat, Morocco. (AFP)

First of all, let’s get this straight – What exactly is feminism?

The term feminism is about the collection of societal and political movements that try to reduce inequalities between the genders. History has seen several waves of feminism, with the earliest feminism wave starting in the 19th century. Quick recap: The first wave was all about political equality of the sexes, like the right to vote. The second wave centered more around family life and reproductive rights. And the third wave, finally, is what we’re experiencing right now – focused on many different topics like the workplace etc.

So, the three big feminism waves that are known to most people, focused on the equality of men and women in the western world. There are also other approaches to feminism, however. In islamic countries, the factor of religion is playing a different and at times bigger role. In Morocco, in order to tackle the problem of gender inequality, you have to take the Islam into consideration. So, we are talking about a different type of feminism here: Islamic feminism. What exactly that is? We’ll get into the details in a bit!

Gender inequality in Morocco – from past ’til present

Moroccan culture is strongly affected by the Islam, the major religion in the country. More than 90 percent of the population in Morocco is Muslim, and the mix of religion and culture can be seen everywhere. Like in many islamic countries, a patriarchal, misogynistic version of Islam culture is dominant in Morocco.

What does that mean?

Patriarchy, noun. A social system in which males are predominantly in power and women are legally dependent on the men.

misogynistic, adjective. Being strongly prejudiced against women.

A patriarchal, misogynistic understanding of the Islam means, in other words, an interpretation of the Islam in a way that is only or mostly in favor of men. One example for this is the topic of polygamy. People in a lot of Muslim countries believe and legally allow the man to have four or at least more than one wife, because “that’s what the Islam says”. But is that really true? If one carefully reads this particular part of the Qur’an, one would find that there’s more to it. An islamic feminist interpretation of the Qur’an would say that a man can have up to four wives, IF he can provide a fair and equal life to ALL of them and every other wife consents to it. This is a law that keeps in mind both men’s and women’s happiness, creating equality. Sadly, the full sentence of the Qur’an is ignored most of the time and men rather just see a chance to have several sexual partners, disregarding their wife’s opinion on this matter. Even if not explicitly stated in every law, Morocco and a large part of North Africa and the Middle East have such patriarchal misogynistic societies. One thing that sheds light onto this issue is the low literacy rate for women. According to statistics, the literacy average for women in Morocco is full 20% less than for men. For a lot of women, education ends after high school, and married life begins. This lack of education makes women extremely vulnerable to the injustful demands of the men above them: First of all, they are often financially and emotionally dependent on the men. Secondly, most demands are disguised as “islamic” laws:

“A woman has to stay home for the household and the children”

“A woman has to obey to everything her husband says”

“A woman has to trust her family in finding a suitable groom.”

These claims are said to be written in the Qur’an, while in reality, the actual context and spirit of the specific verse is often ignored. And, often the verses are rather an interpretation of the Qur’an in a way that is advantageous for men, as mentioned earlier.

A similarly discriminating topic is the topic of divorce: the idea of divorcing your partner is made extremely accessible and easy for men, to the extent that many women are threatened of being divorced in everyday fights. For women on the other hand, the idea of divorce is often very far away, yet another sign of women’s inferiority. Keeping women away from higher education is one of the means to keep women inferior; if they cannot read the Qur’an themselves, how can they know about their rights? That’s right, they cannot. 

The current situation

Today, the role of the woman has changed. Increasingly more Moroccan women study further than high school, pursue a job, and choose their life partner themselves. The idea of equality between men and women has been picking up steam at a fast rate. A lot of laws about inheritance are hotly debated at the moment, with various organisations trying to change these laws. Books are being published on the topic, talk shows talk about the topic. And in january of this year, one of the first steps towards equality was taken: Morocco has legally allowed women to become notaries, traditionally called adouls. A notary is allowed to witness marriages, divorces and, importantly, inheritance matters. Why this is important? Because most of the time, the male parts of the family inherit a much larger part than the females. So, the new law is a very big step: By being a notary, women are now allowed to accompany and read important religious matters – they are allowed to be involved. As mentioned earlier, a lot of decisions that are taken in favor of men are taken by male scholars – it is their interpretation of the Islam that decides. An involvement of women can open the debate about these interpretations and go towards decisions that are in favor of both genders.

But, a difference has to be made here. In Morocco and other North African and Middle Eastern countries, there is a huge difference between rural areas and urban areas. Life in the village cannot be put on one level with life in the city. Most of the time, village life is much more conservative than in the city. The reasons are logical: cities develop faster, are flooded by social media and thus, by millions of voices and opinions. There is a much bigger diversity and family structures are less important than in the village. (Doesn’t mean family is not important in the city, just less than in the village).

In villages on the other hand, there is very often a fixed system of norms and values on how the community should act. Men form the head of the family, are in charge of the money, and women take care of the house and the children. This view of women being a housewife, keeps women from pursuing a career and being independent. Because of this difference between city and village, feministic ideas are developing much faster in the cities.

So is this the feminism we know – or is this something else?

Morocco and other Muslim countries will surely not mirror Western feminism. Moroccan leaders and scholars are defending their misogynistic laws in the name of the Islam – so anyone shouting “Women need to have more rights!” is likely to get shut up with something like “The Islam has given women certain rights, and they cannot be changed!”. Therefore, a different type of feminism has to be at work here: the so-called Islamic Feminism.

Wait, feminism and Islam? Does that even work together?

A lot of people, non-Muslims just as well as Muslims, think the Islam and feminism are two very opposing forces. But yes, they actually can work together. The Islam does not suppress the woman, it’s the men’s interpretation of the Islam that is suppressing the woman. For centuries, men have predominantly been the ones to read and interpret verses of the Qur’an, and have put it into laws. Firstly, most of these laws were made in a way that empowers men. Secondly, these laws may have been fitting into the times back then when women were indeed more involved in household than anything else. But times have changed, and according to islamic feminists, so should the laws. Islamic femininsm is therefore about studying the Qur’an and trying to re-evaluate the interpretations of it – to make them equal and in a way that is more fitting into today’s world.

One example for this is the case of Miss Asma Lamrabet, scholar and a leading force in the movement of islamic feminism. She calls this type of feminism the ‘third way feminism’ as it is so different from what we know. According to her, inheritance for example used to be in favor of men because men were supposed to financially come up for their wife after marriage – the woman, thus, didn’t need to have as much money as  man. Today, however, the situation has changed, and many women financially contribute to their households just like men. Therefore, more and more women argue that the law should get updated as well, and offer men and women equal shares in inheritance.

Asma Lamrabet, scholar and islamic feminist.

Another thing that people often forget, is that it’s not per se the Islam or islamic countries that have issues with gender equality. Also countries like Italy and Spain, where the Catholic Church is more prominant, have had gender inequality issues that last until the present time. Moreover, even in countries where religion is playing a very small role, like in the Netherlands, women are still lagging behind the men in terms of equality in the workplace and sexual harrassment.

So what’s the bottomline of all this?

There is a lot happening regarding feminist movements in islamic countries like Morocco. Still, there is a different type of feminism at work here, one that is different from the one that we know. In Morocco, the Islam has to be taken into the equation, which is leading Muslim women to a different type of feminism; the islamic feminism. But it’s important to know, that it’s not the Islam that is making the woman inferior to the man. It’s a certain interpretation of the Islam that causes gender inequality. It will probably be a long way until gender equality is achieved in Morocco, but the first steps are certainly being laid.

 

What’s coming up?

In the next few weeks of my stay in Morocco, I will be travelling around to meet with Moroccon people as well as organisations to talk to them about the position of women in Morocco. In the coming weeks, there will be several blogposts based on interviews with different kinds of people from Morocco’s society. Hopefully, we will get a better understanding of the diverse opinions on women in this country.

xx Saira

 

Disclaimer

All content provided in this blog is the result of research and personal experiences and does not intend to hurt anyone. I make no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. I am not talking about the religion or culture as a whole but rather about this very specific topic, partly based on my personal experiences inside and outside of Morocco.

2 thoughts on “Islamic feminism: The Moroccan story

  1. This is AMAZING and very accurate. I’m glad that people and especially inspiring ones like you are getting more and more interested in feminism in Morocco and in gender equality in general. I love your blog and I look forward to reading more. Thank you xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey avvemarya, thank you so much for your comment! I feel like this is such an important topic that deserves much more attention than it has up to date! I am very happy that I could write something that can be inspiring to you. Thank you for your love xx Saira

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