Assia Chergui – and her fight for the vulnerable ones

Today marked the day of meeting a very inspirational and strong woman with a passion that touched my heart. Meet Assia, president of three self-made NGOs, fighter for the rights of the vulnerable in Morocco.

ME: Hello Assia, it’s a pleasure to meet you! Can you tell me something about yourself and your work?

ASSIA: Yes of course! I work as the president of three NGOs which I have set up myself – one advocates for the rights of disabled people here in Morocco – that was the first one that I started back in 1991. I am disabled myself, I suffer from a walking disability, so I experienced firsthandedly how difficult it can be as a disabled person in Morocco. The roads for example are not made for us: You don’t find wheelchair friendly places you can go to, so it can be quite difficult. Also the work opportunities are quite scarce, the education system for handicapped people is not very far developed and the same goes for jobs. 

ME: It is very impressive that you started this on your own! Was your disability not an obstacle in doing so?

ASSIA: No, my disability has been with me since I was a baby, so I learned how to cope with it from a very young age. Today, I don’t feel like it is holding me back in life – I even am a champion in swimming! Sports is very important, also for handicapped people, and my organisation encourages disabled people to participate in sports. 

ME: And can you tell me something about the two other NGOs that you have set up?

ASSIA: My other two organisations I set up in 1995. One of them is concerned with the protection of both men and women from domestic violence, and the other one seeks to protect divorced or widowed women in Morocco.

ME: And how does that work? How can you help the people coming to you and with what kinds of problems do they come?

ASSIA: Well, most people that come to me are women who are facing some kind of problem with a male person. I get to hear stories of divorced women who after their divorce STILL have to fear abuse by their ex-husbands, because some men still see their ex-wives as some kind of possession that they have a right over. 

I hear stories about housemaids that have to endure harrassment by the man of the house they are working at. These women are so dependent on their job in order to support their family, that they can’t even speak up about the horrible things that they have to suffer. Quite often, the man of the house forces them to sex in exchange for their job. And even if the maid would go public and tell others about what is happening to her, she is likely to not get any help – but rather victim-blaming. Still, I try to encourage them to go public, because abuse of this kind does get punished by law. But the women argue, that even if the rapist gets sentenced, they themselves get punished as well: The society and even their own husbands very often think it’s at least partly the woman’s fault. 

And I hear stories of women whose husbands deny any responsibility for them. Especially on the countryside, this happens to women: quite often, they get married without any legal papers, but only through islamic marriage. They are considered as a married woman then, but if the husband wants to deny the fatherhood for his children or if he doesn’t want to pay for financial matters regarding his wife, the woman can’t do anything against him because she cannot legally prove her marriage. This makes her very vulnerable. Though, there is some movement happening in this area. There used to be the law 4110, a law that is supposed to protect women’s rights, but it was never really implemented into practice. Since 2016, this has changed, and the law is actually being practiced now. Also, a law was introduced that now allows the children of a woman to testify their parent’s wedding. A proof for the wedding is especially important in the case the husband of the woman dies – it can happen that the woman’s in-laws want to get rid of her and don’t let her be part of her husband’s last will and properties. So a wedding-proof can act as a life savior for some women. And as you can see, slowly but surely, little steps are being taken.

ME: And how exactly can you help such cases of women?

ASSIA: Usually, when I work on a case, one social worker, one psychologist and two volunteers of my organisation are present. So we basically offer legal and psychological help to the people coming to us.

ME: So as you mentioned, for women that work as housemaids it can be very difficult to seek for justice if something happens to them. But other clients, do they take a step against their abuser often?

ASSIA: No. Also women that seek justice against an abusive husband don’t just go to court. If they would do so, they would have to fear even more abuse after their husband returns. And in the case that a woman does go to court, she most of the time does not want her husband to go to jail: She rather wants him to get publicly humiliated. And that is enough. If her husband would get sentenced to jail time, she runs the risk of serious abuse afterwards. So public humiliation is the worst punishment a husband gets here.

ME: And what do you think is the source of these problems that women are facing here in Morocco?

ASSIA: In my opinion, the main problem is a misinterpretation of the Qur’an. Most of the people interpreting the holy book have been male, and women’s rights often are forgotten then. Since some time, there has been some effort going on to change this situation – women are now also allowed to be adouls. (Check out my blogpost about islamic feminism to know more about adouls)

ME: Do you consider this a big step towards the right direction in gender equality?

ASSIA: Actually, to be honest, I don’t really like this change. Women always think with their heart, they can’t take rational decisions. So enabling them to take decisions regarding religious matters, is not a smart idea in my opinion. I’m not saying that the men do it any better, no – they mostly think about themselves while taking a decision.

ME: But if you don’t really like either men or women deciding – what do you then consider the solution to the problem?

ASSIA: I think the best way to solve the problem, is first of all changes in the educaional system: students should receive sex education at the right time, when they are old enough, so I would say at the age of 18. And, very important: To put all the important events like weddings and divorce on proper legal papers. That will put women in a much better position. 

What an inspiring woman. To set up an organisation for women or disabled people in Western countries is something completely different than to do it here. Here, you stand much more alone in your fight. Assia tells me about one of the struggles she had to face in the beginning.

ASSIA: When I first started my NGO against domestic violence, I did that with the thought in the back of my mind, that men can just as well be a victim of domestic violence as women. So, my NGO was dedicated to protecting both genders. But apparently, some men here in Fez found that thought outrageous. Some time after I opened up my NGO, a group of men started a protest in front of my door. They were compaining about how did I dare to say ‘A man can be a victim, too‘? They were saying, ‘We are the abusers, not the abused ones’. It is really really sad that men here have that kind of mindset. They are even openly saying that they are abusers, as if it was a good thing! People here were just not open to a different kind of mindset. Later however, it turned out that men from exactly that protest group, came to my organisation for help against domestic violence. So it does happen to them as well. Therefore in the end, I am happy that I have set up my NGOs, as they are very much needed. 

To know more about Miss Assia Chergui, check out her facebook page!

Pictures by Marlieke van den Tillaar.