Morocco's Moudawana reform puts women's rights in ballot box

7 min read
28 March, 2024

For many Moroccans, Saïd Saadi embodies the struggle for women's rights. Now a researcher in political economy and a retired professor, Saadi looks back on his upbringing as the spark for his career, one filled with fighting social injustice and misogyny. He recalls his earliest years when he was surrounded by his politically active family, including his sisters.  

Saadi soon became involved in the Progress and Socialism Party (PPS) and years later, joined Abdrerrahman Youssoufi's leftist government as Secretary of State for Social Protection, Family and Childhood in 1998.

In office, Saadi pushed for a reform that empowered women and ensured their full contribution to Morocco's economic development.

The reactions were heated. Saadi faced staunch opposition and personal attacks, mainly from conservatives and Islamists.

"This isn't an opportunity to be missed. It comes at a time in Morocco where public debate is possible and political Islam is at its weakest point in years after the PJD heavily lost elections in 2021 after two terms in government"

The first reform of the Moudawana in Morocco

In March 2000, demonstrations for and against women's rights whipped the Moroccan media into a frenzy and diverted much-needed debate on gender equality. Supporters gathered in Rabat, Morocco's capital, while Islamists drew counter-protestors in Casablanca.
Eventually, Saadi’s plan paved the way for the groundbreaking reform which took place three years later. After King Mohammed VI's arbitration, a new Moudawana - Morocco’s Personal Status Law - was ultimately passed.

The reform came into effect during a tense period in Morocco, following terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003. As a result, the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) — which opposed the law — ended up adopting a low profile. 

The new legislation voted in Morocco's parliament in 2004 gave women the right to ask for divorce and allowed them to marry without a tutor. It restricted polygamy and raised the minimum legal age of marriage to 18. However, it also kept a provision for judges to grant special authorisations.

Child marriage remains a problem in Morocco. In 2021,  there were 19,000 cases of child marriage, according to Moroccan Justice Minister Abdellatif Ouahbi.

Twenty years later, with Morocco set to embark on a new reform of the Moudawana, Saadi tells The New Arab that he is "cautiously optimistic," adding "the context is more favourable than that of the 2000s for a thorough reform."

After being voted out after two terms in office, the Islamist PJD is at its weakest point. According to activists, now is the time to push through gender reforms [EPA Images]
The Islamist PJD is at its lowest ebb after being comprehensively defeated in 2021. According to activists, now is the time to push through gender reforms [EPA Images]

Can Morocco evolve?

King Mohammed VI, the highest religious authority in Morocco, pointed to the limits of the first reform in his throne speech in 2022. "The Family Law was a major step forward. However, it is no longer sufficient. Experience has shown that there are many hurdles which stand in the way of completing this process and achieving our objectives," Mohammed VI declared.
It remains to be seen how progressive the next bill will be and if it will tackle the most controversial subject in Morocco, inheritance equality. In Morocco, a woman inherits half of a man's share.

On March 26, an instance in charge of the Moudawana revision led by the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Judicial Council and the Public Prosecutor Office, submitted its propositions and began the process of turning King Mohammed VI's 2022 speech into law. Morocco now awaits the next steps. 

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Moroccan activists and civil society organisations demand that the new Moudawana keeps in tune with the country's societal evolution, with women playing an ever-increasing role.

After pro-democracy protests shook the country in 2011, a new Constitution was voted in, granting equal rights to men and women in Article 19. Activists therefore argue that the 2004 Moudawana is in contradiction with the Constitution and must now evolve.

"I will continue to fight so that full equality between men and women is respected and effective in our laws and practices"

Like Saadi, Mohammed* has been a human rights campaigner and defender since his youth, under the late King Hassan II. Mohammed also fervently believed in the February 20 Movement, a Moroccan protest movement born out of the Arab Spring. 
"I'm in favour of reforming the Moudawana because it will be a recognition that our current law isn't equitable for women. Reform will open up more possibilities for change in the legislation to ensure true equality between men and women. In Morocco, we've inherited several laws that flout the fundamental principles of equality between humans," Mohammed told The New Arab.

"I have three daughters and I don't have any sons. My brothers hardly know my daughters. They've only seen them a few times in their lives," Mohammed adds, alluding to the taasib. It states that the daughters of a deceased father who have no brother must share their inheritance with the father’s relatives and therefore entitles distant family members to a portion of the inheritance.

Mohammed's fears are shared with many men in Morocco. Gender inequality affects not only women but their relatives and loved ones as well. However, unlike Mohammed, most don't publicly call for the end of the taasib, which is a major taboo and a red line for the conservative section of Morocco's society. The stories of exclusion and dispossession resulting from inheritance inequality are endless. 

"In my family, a father died leaving a wife, three daughters and two sisters. One of his sisters kicked his wife and daughter out of their house. This has been going on for over ten years now," says Mustapha*, a human rights activist. "It's necessary to impose gender equality as men and women have the same responsibilities today, especially when it comes to finances."

Saddik Kabbouri, a member of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights, explains the story of a close, late friend. "Members of his family, who never visited him, attended the funeral. After three days, the male members of the family demanded their share of the inheritance. Fortunately, he knew that this would happen and sold what he owned before his death and had a notary document it."

For Kabbouri, the current legislation is an "insult to women". 

To circumvent predatory family members, an increasing number of Moroccan fathers, usually educated and well off, have gone around the current law by making sure that their daughters' inheritance is secured through donations and passing over their inheritance throughout their lives. 

"I will not let the Moudawana, other laws, or obscurantists decide the fate of my daughter," Mohammed told The New Arab. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that their rights are preserved, even if it means going around these laws through donations or sales. I will continue to fight so that full equality between men and women is respected and effective in our laws and practices." 

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'An opportunity not to be missed'

Over the last few years, there has been a growing debate in Morocco about inheritance rights. In a bold move, the National Council for Human Rights called for reform in 2015, drawing heavy criticism from Islamists. And in March 2018, a hundred Moroccan personalities signed a petition to repeal the taasib. 

This time, activists are optimistic that repealing the taasib could be a major step forward for the country and would prevent a considerable number of family disputes. Because the taasib is not explicitly stated in the Quran, they are hopeful for reform.

They believe this isn't an opportunity to be missed. It comes at a time in Morocco where public debate is possible and political Islam is at its weakest point in years after the PJD heavily lost elections in 2021 after two terms in government. 

"I'm convinced that the reform will move forward in the right direction this time. Like all reforms in Morocco, it will be gradual, but it will open up a breach for the emancipation of Moroccan women," concludes Mustapha.

*Name has been changed for anonymity

Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance journalist focusing on protest movements and human rights issues, mainly in North Africa

Follow her on Twitter: @RachidiIlhem