Women after the Arab Spring

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Today’s International Women’s Day happens to fall almost exactly one year from a revision to Morocco’s Constitution following the Feb. 20 protests there.  The new laws give special recognition to women’s rights and Berber rights, marking the realization of 20 years of activism among women in Morocco.

Morocco’s women’s rights movement began to gain momentum in 1992 with the reform of family law, eventually allowing women more freedom to choose who they marry, granting women the right to divorce, prohibiting polygamy except in rare cases and with the first wife’s consent, and combatting violence against women.  The Moroccan women’s movement has been successful by engaging religious and secular women in cooperation, understanding that treatment of women is rooted very much in Islamic traditions.  However, after the parliamentary elections last November, an Islamist faction won the majority of seats in the government.  Under the new Party, only one woman has been appointed to the Cabinet, down from seven in the 30-person decision making body, and far from the women’s movement goal of a 30% quota.  Ms Bassima al-Hakkaoui, the Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development, is the first hijab-wearing Islamist political figure to serve in the Moroccan government, and is in disagreement with many of the policy reforms on the status of women.

While it is too soon to tell what will happen to the status of women under the new Parliament, one thing is certain – with the high illiteracy rate of women in rural areas of Morocco, the biggest challenge remains integrating any reform in these areas.  I’ve witnessed this in the villages in Morocco, where the existing laws protecting women are sometimes ignored simply because the mostly illiterate women who live in the countryside don’t know their rights. Grass roots initiatives, such as Kahina’s, to provide education and economic sustainability are key to women taking advantage of laws already in place.

While Morocco has always seemed relatively stable during the Arab Spring, it doesn’t differ dramatically in its approach to women’s rights from other areas in the region as other autocracies that have supported women’s rights give way to Islamic Parties in power.  I had the extreme pleasure of attending a presentation on the state of women’s rights after the Arab Spring.The speaker was Aline Matta, the Senior Regional Advisor for the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, Middle East and North Africa division.Comparing women’s rights and representation in the government and judiciary in Tunisia and Egypt, Ms. Matta argues that while representation of women in government is an important step toward change, there is no simple legal solution.Real progress in women’s rights is made from the ground up with a true understanding of women’s needs in rural areas as well as the cities, and a sensitivity to cultural and religious attitudes.

In honor of Women’s History Month, please help these women to achieve (and keep) their hard won social gains by making a donation to an organization that supports women’s rights and/or works to ensure economic justice for women.  The following is are a few suggested organizations:

Women For Women International

The Global Fund for Women

Kiva

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