Women’s NGOs and the rise of political Islam in Morocco

kuvituskuva, naisia yhdessä


Morocco experienced the Arab Spring relatively peacefully and without major violence. Large demonstrations began in February 2011 after the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, but as the king declared in early March that constitutional reform would begin already that same month, attendance at weekly demonstrations fell. The revolutionary February 20 Movement (M20), named after the date it began, was sustained by only a small group of socialists, zeitgeist followers and Islamists. During the spring the constitutional committee appointed by the king wrote a long if somewhat vague document, whose preparation included consultation of civil society, encompassing both religious and secular interests. Women’s NGOs, which make up perhaps the best-organised and most politically influential factor of Moroccan civil society, have stated that nearly all their demands were incorporated into the new constitution.

Although the largest Islamist organisation in Morocco, Al Adl wal Ihsa (Justice and Spirituality),[1] boycotted the constitutional referendum, the official turnout was over 70 per cent and the result almost 100 per cent in favour of the new constitution. Moroccan media reported soon after the referendum that some voters were threatened and bribed, in particular illiterate women in more remote areas. The new constitution made universal human rights directly applicable but left unclear the responsibility for applying them, and changed the electoral law so that the prime minister is now for the first time selected directly from the party that wins a majority in the election. The king’s powers were curbed only slightly.

The general election was held in November and the new constitution tested for the first time. The turnout was higher than anticipated, and Morocco’s only legal Islamist political party, the Justice and Development Party, gained a predictable majority. Although the Arab Spring in Morocco did not follow the revolutionary model of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, as the king led democratisation and political reform, the results of the elections followed political developments in those countries.

The first women’s NGOs were founded in Morocco in the 1980s from the women’s sections of the political parties. NGOs’ networking across party lines began in the 1990s, when they started a nationwide campaign to change the country’s family law. The law was eventually reformed by King Mohammed VI in 2003. He proclaimed women’s rights as one of the basic pillars of modernisation and democracy already at his accession in 1999. Political Islam started to gain popularity around the same time, and until 2003 the Islamists were able to secure greater support for their anti-reform campaign than the women’s groups for their campaign to change the family law. Only the Casablanca terrorist attack in 2003 brought about unpopularity for the Islamists, enabling the reform of the Sharia-based family law. In spring 2011 the constitutional reform process was also met with a terrorist attack in Marrakech but, as in 2003, most Moroccans condemned the attack and it had no effect on the reform.

Although women’s NGOs still reflect differing ideologies and political backgrounds, the experience of over 10 years of campaigning has created effective models of networking and cooperation on single issues. In the case of the constitutional reform, for instance, the secular women’s NGOs were successful because they were able to recruit many organisations to defend their manifesto. On a personal level and in terms of smaller legal reforms, competition between organisations is sometimes fierce, but many NGOs have been able to unite in a single front when necessary.

Secular women’s NGOs have in recent years been challenged by Islamist women’s groups. Both the Justice and Spirituality movement and the Justice and Development Party have women’s sections and local women’s associations across Morocco. Local associations are closely involved in social work, such as training in literacy and crafts. Secular organisations are also involved in similar social work on a local level. Religion is closely linked to the social work of Islamist organisations, but the political ideology of the organisation also becomes apparent in discussion groups. Although few Islamist organisations are true advocates of gender equality as such, most of them encourage women to take on more responsibility in the public sphere, also in politics. Secular and Islamist organisations never cooperate or discuss their points of view, not even when they share goals.

Similarly to the politics of the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, in Morocco too the king has been an important defender and advancer of women’s rights. While both Tunisian and Egyptian value politics were significantly influenced by foreign democratisation and modernisation pressure, and were thus largely symbolic, it nevertheless brought about important changes that also helped women’s social position in practice. Morocco’s young king has demonstrated real interest in gender equality since his accession, in both words and actions. Reforms, such as those of family law and the nationality law, have advanced equality for all Moroccan citizens. Despite this, women’s NGOs are in a precarious position amid the Arab Spring, as the achieved rights and the important position of the NGOs in the political system still depend on the king.

In the 1980s the members of the leftist parties and the trade unions opposed the political power of the previous king, Hassan II, which was largely based on his descent from the Prophet and thus his role as a religious leader. At present even the most Marxist of those activists do not call for an end to monarchy and a transition to direct democracy – at least for now. Mohammed VI was able to reform family law partly due to his religious authority. Now secular women’s NGOs are trying to find a balance between two ideological models: Muslim identity, according to which the king as a religious leader can help in the battle for gender equality, and the modernist image, which opposes religious politics and violence and supports a secular state.

While even the most socialist parties have rarely stood behind real gender equality, other than to please the king, many NGOs still hold both personal and political links to the parties. For this reason, women’s NGOs, especially those stemming from the political parties, were already subject to public criticism before November’s election. Many NGO activists have for years been recruited into the government, royal committees and public-sector posts. These appointments have drawn the NGOs nearer to decision makers, while reducing their credibility and their perceived independence from the government. The public believes corruption spreads easily from parties and the government to the civil society organisations that are deemed too close to the political machinery. Islamist organisations as the loudest critics of widespread corruption have also gained popularity among voters disenchanted by other parties’ perceived clannish and corrupt tendencies.

After the results of the November general election were announced, over 20 women’s NGOs took part in an emergency meeting to discuss the effects of the new Islamist government’s policies on gender equality in Morocco. At the time the NGOs declared that the old line of not engaging with the Islamists would hold. As in Tunisia, the new government in Morocco promised that no rights achieved to date would be withdrawn and that the new constitution would be upheld and respected. As a result of the meeting, the NGOs drafted an open letter to the government, asking for these very promises to be kept. This request seems rather futile, as the government is bound by the constitution; a more acute issue is to ensure its application and consistent interpretation in the courts.

In addition to asking for equality legislation to be upheld, the letter demanded guarantees on human rights and equality itself as the basic pillars of democracy. When it comes to this demand, the NGOs can expect criticism from the Islamists and the remaining M20 movement. Women’s NGOs have been prime beneficiaries of the earlier policies of royal appointments and legislative initiatives. The very increase in democratic governance has brought about a threat from political Islam for the activities of these NGOs, if not for gender equality itself. Of 32 current government ministers, only one is a woman. The secular women’s NGOs have positioned themselves in the opposition for the duration of the current government. This may help them regain public credibility if they succeed in creating an open critical debate with the government. Although the secular women’s NGOs in their open letter declared themselves the official representatives of gender equality against the Islamist threat, the true effects on gender equality of an Islamist rise in North African governance will be seen only in the next few months.

The writer is a PhD student at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

[1] Justice and Spirituality is the organisation’s own translation of the Arabic name. The name in Arabic could also be translated as Justice and Charity.