In the last few months, the ministry of justice in conjunction with the ministry of social development, family, and solidarity have been conducting consultations with the civil society to introduce new legislation and amend the current Family Code in order to advance the rights of women when it comes to marriage, divorce, and child custody.
These talks are happening in private and little about them is known by the public, yet a finalized project should be unveiled in front of the parliament after the summer when lawmakers return in session. In conversations with ministry officials, feminist organizations are advocating for the complete abolition of child marriage, as well as fairer custody laws, where guardianship is equal in marriage and divorce; for instance, a child cannot get a passport without their male guardian signing off on it according to the current code’s Article 238. Furthermore, women’s rights organizations have also advocated for outlawing polygamy and getting equal inheritance, although they continue to remain seemingly unachievable goals.
Women’s rights organizations have for years highlighted the urgency for reform and are hoping for a swift discussion in the parliament and for a new code to be voted into law before the end of this year
Women’s rights organizations have for years highlighted the urgency for reform and are hoping for a swift discussion in the parliament and for a new code to be voted into law before the end of this year. And while Morocco was once hailed for its advances on this front a couple of decades ago, now, feminists are strongly advocating for the urgency for sweeping amendments to meet current international norms for gender equity.
And Morocco’s king agrees.
In July 2022, during a speech celebrating throne day, King Mohammed VI made the issue central to his address to the nation by asking his government to work on promulgating new laws.
“In today’s Morocco, it is no longer possible that she be deprived of [gender equality],” he said. “Initially, the Family Code represented a real leap forward but now it is no longer sufficient. The experience has in fact highlighted certain obstacles which prevent the reform initiated from being perfected and the expected objectives from being achieved.”
As Commander of the Faithful, the king is the country’s religious leader and can therefore ultimately decide the interpretation of religious texts.
In 2022, a Moroccan delegation to the United Nations indicated that some new reforms were soon to be introduced, allowing for instance women married to foreigners to grant their nationality to their children. Moreover, the delegation stated that the state had passed laws to fight human trafficking and all forms of discrimination as well as put forth initiatives to fight women’s illiteracy and facilitate women’s access to legal resources.
While waiting for laws to be changed, advocates for gender equality are trying to navigate challenges laid by very conservative views and the difficulties with solidifying the rule of law
While waiting for laws to be changed, advocates for gender equality are trying to navigate challenges laid by very conservative views and the difficulties with solidifying the rule of law. This is not the first time that the king has arbitrated a debate between different factions of society. He had a similar speech in 2003, and the following year, a new family code was subsequently legislated into law.
“[These reforms] encapsulate the tolerant principles of Islam in advocating human dignity, enhancing justice, equality, and good amicable social relations, and with the cohesiveness of the Malekite School as well as ijtihad (legal reasoning), which makes Islam valid for any time and place to implement a modern Moudawana (family law in Arabic), consistent with the spirit of our glorious religion,” the king said.
At the time, following decades of pressure by feminist movements, and despite resistance from more conservative factions in the country, the kingdom overhauled laws that had been barely touched since 1958, shortly post-independence from the French Protectorate in 1956. It was a move that reinforced Morocco’s modern image internationally. It was also consistently reported in the years that followed that implementing the law came with a great set of challenges due to the country’s lack of democratic institutions and because robust efforts to change mentalities fell short.
The Moudawana’s preamble affirms its commitment to “doing justice to women, protecting children’s rights and preserving men’s dignity. Legislators raised the minimum age for marriage from 15 to 18 for all genders, abolished matrimonial guardianship, and restricted polygamy. It also granted more protections in marriage dissolutions, and women could keep custody despite getting remarried if children are under the age of seven.
According to observers, the country’s criminalization of sex outside of marriage as well as abortion are some of the many factors undermining the implementation of the law
But it also had many limits. Child marriage, for example, continued to be endemic. The Moudawana states that family affairs judges can authorize minors to get married “with the assistance of medical expertise or after having conducted a social enquiry.” According to governmental statistics, between 2007 and 2013, judges granted permissions in 80 to 90 percent of cases. In 2020, the figure dropped to 70 percent. According to observers, the country’s criminalization of sex outside of marriage as well as abortion are some of the many factors undermining the implementation of the law. Often, however, families make the request because their daughters are already pregnant or they cite economic difficulties. The vague wording of various parts of the law has allowed for broad interpretations and while women now have much more rights when it comes to separation, alimony, and custody, many are simply unaware of their legal rights.
The laws did not, however, remain completely untouched since 2004. In 2014, two years after teenager Amina Filali died by suicide after being forced to marry her alleged rapist, Article 475 on statutory rape was amended. In the past, the law was routinely used to absolve rapists from prison time by allowing them to get married; today, while the reform has been welcomed, women’s rights watchdogs have reported that judges still use this interpretation routinely.
In 2018, a law focused on violence against women was passed. It answered years of demands by rights groups, and when it finally passed, it had one glaring shortcoming: it did not criminalize marital rape.
“The new law criminalizes some forms of domestic violence, establishes prevention measures, and provides new protections for survivors,” Human Rights Watch stated. “But it requires survivors to file for criminal prosecution to obtain protection, which few can do. Nor does it set out duties of police, prosecutors, and investigative judges in domestic violence cases, or fund women’s shelters.”
That same year a law protecting house workers was implemented. It introduced a minimal age of 18 for such labor, and obligations for employers.
“Morocco’s new domestic workers law finally provides hundreds of thousands of domestic workers with minimal protections after years of exclusion from the country’s labor law,” said Rothna Begum, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But to make these rights a reality, the authorities need to put effective systems in place to ensure compliance with the law.”
It is clear that no matter the advances, there will not be a complete overhaul of the current system. In that same parliamentary speech in October 2003, the king added: “I can’t in my capacity as Commander of the Faithful, permit what God has forbidden, nor forbid what the Almighty has allowed.” This legislation included many limitations: it did not ban polygamy and did not set a framework to reform inheritance, where a woman inherits half of what her brother inherits—and only a fifth of Moroccans, according to several surveys, support gender equality in inheritance. In doing so, the speech effectively set a roadmap for advances but also once and for all limited once and for all the scope of possibilities.
Aida Alami is a Moroccan reporter currently leading a project funded by the International Women Media Foundation, supporting journalists covering Muslim culture’s role in the United States.