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Human rights, political representation, theology

· ​In Morocco ·

You spoke of a marvellous world that would come because we want it. In this world, you said, children will no longer know wretchedness, mothers will no longer abandon their babies and women will no longer be beaten, despised or debased. We are still ever marching on like lunatics and the condemned, when we arrived I was already dreaming. (Saida Menhebi, 1952-1977).

A seemingly marginal phenomenon, the political role played by women in Morocco is a long-standing reality that runs through the 20th century, from its early years to this day, animating the nationalist anti-colonial struggle and the nascent women’s organizations, passing through the traditionally male political structures, challenging the censorship and repression of Hasan ii’s regime (1961-1999). From the 1940s women have mobilized themselves to obtain better recognition in terms of rights, while from the 1970s, among female groups too, the articulation between Islamist and secular structures is taking shape. However this polarization is proving to be less marked in the new century, when theological elaboration and the movementist practices are opening to the so-called “third way” which aims to harmonize the positions between a recognition of human rights and full adherence to Islam.

Nationalist women and anti-colonial mobilization

The first important female figure in contemporary Moroccan history is Malika al-Fasi (1919-2007). She was a nationalist who came from a well-to-do family in Fez. Her cousin and husband, Muhammad al-Fasi, was Rector of the al-Qarawiyyin, a prestigious university institution that is among the oldest in the world – founded in 859 by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri – while another cousin of Malika’s, Allal al-Fasi, was the leader of the Istiqlal (Independence) Party and fought in the front line to liberate Morocco from the French Protectorate established in 1912 by the Treaty of Fez. From her childhood Malika received a solid education and very soon developed an anti-colonial awareness which drove her to rank herself against the French occupation, becoming in 1944 the only woman among the 66 signatories of the Manifesto for Independence. At the age of 15 she published her first article in the newspaper al-Maghreb under a pseudonym. In it she stressed the importance of women’s education and, when Princess Lalla Aicha received a diploma in Primary Education, Malika acknowledged the symbolic value of this event in an article entitled The rebirth of Moroccan women, noting at the same time that girls were still barred from secondary education. With other women she then committed herself to passing on donations so that the al-Qarawiyyin would admit girls, an objective which in the end was achieved.

The establishment of the first Moroccan women’s association was recorded in the 1940s. It gathered together women of the bourgeoisie of Fez close to the Istiqlal Party. The Sisters of Purity became promoters of the first official document which demanded the abolition of polygamy, the maternal custody of children in the case of divorce and equality in the legal value given to men and women in the context of legal testimony. In the 1950s, as well as the mobilization of representatives of the bourgeoisie, there was a certain adherence of women to the armed combat against the French occupation. The subsequent issuing of 300 cards to women war veterans is a testimony of women’s participation in the achievement of Morocco’s independence, although it is estimated that the contribution made concerned a far larger number of women.

Between repression and the defence of human rights

Following independence and the formation of the new Kingdom of Morocco in 1956, while women belonging to the elite were given positions in charitable associations for minors and the needy, more radical movementist groups were formed in the face of the substantial removal of women’s issues from party agendas and the approval of a “personal status code” (the Mudawana, 1957), which minimized women’s civil rights, and a rise of women in the political arena thus occurred. During the Moroccan “Years of Lead” (1962-1999) a multi-faceted female protagonism emerged: in unions, among students, in associations and in politics in the strict sense. Parties of progressive orientation opened the door to internal female representation, while the first Congress of the Union progressiste des femmes marocaines, the female section of the Union marocaine du travail, took place in 1962 in Casablanca. The king responded by starting the so-called “state feminism”, which provided for several initiatives for women, firmly managed from above, with the help of the Union nationale des femmes marocaines, founded in 1969, of which Princess Lalla Fatima was President.

In the 1970s, in the framework of the developing secular movementism, women were mobilized in associations in defence of human rights, such as the Association marocaine des droits humains, founded in 1979. In this context, following the increasingly ferocious repression by Hasan ii’s regime of any form of dissidence, numerous opponents, including women, were subjected to abduction and arbitrary detention. Saida Menebhi’s case is famous. A former leader of the student movement, Menebhi was a young teacher enrolled in the Union marocaine du travail and a militant member of the Movement Ila Al Amam (“forward”). She was arrested in 1977 for her membership in the so-called “New Left”, and was subjected to torture. In prison she wrote heart-rending poetical compositions on her condition as a prisoner and died at the age of 25 after a 34-day hunger strike for prisoners’ rights.

Like her, at the end of the 1970s Rabea Ftouh, Fatima Oukacha, Fatna El Bouih and Latifa Jbabdi, took part in the student movement and were also placed under arrest, but later succeeded in surviving the regime’s tortures. El Bouih also wrote her memoirs in prison (Hadith al-’Atamah, Narratives from Obscurity). After their release on 23 March, El Bouih and Jbabdi, both connected with the Marxist 23 March movement, resumed their political and activist activities. Jbabdi (born in 1955) is one of the women who founded the Union de l’Action Féminine, to which El Bouih also belonged. After the changes in 1999 following the death of King Hasan ii and Morocco’s definitive emergence from the Years of Lead, Jbabdi became a founder member of the Observatoire marocain des prisons and of the Forum pour la vérité et la justice. Profiting from the recently introduced quotas of women, she was a Member of Parliament from 2007 to 2011 and was involved in the commission set up in 2004 to offer reparation to the victims of the Years of Lead and to their families. Former founder and editor-in-chief – from 1983 to 1994 – of the [Arabic] paper 8 Mars, she is active in numerous human rights associations in Morocco and was also a founder member of the Moroccan Association démocratique des femmes du Maroc.

Once again in the context of parliamentary representation, in 1993 Badia Sqalli was the first woman to cross the threshold of the Moroccan Parliament, together with Latifa Bennani-Smires of the Istiqlal, while Nouzha Squalli, also active in the defence of human rights, was the first Moroccan woman to be appointed a minister in 2007. With regard to labour representation, Khadija Rhamiri (born in 1950) was a remarkable figure. A veteran trades unionist, Rhamiri fought for the acceptance of female representation in unions, with special reference to the not very unionized farming sector. Moreover in 1987 she founded the women’s union section in the Union marocaine du travail, which today has an increasing female presence even in executive positions, such as that held recently by Amal El Amri, who in the first decade of the 21st century became a Member of Parliament in the Parti du progrès et du socialisme.

Lay women and Islamist women towards convergence

As has been seen, adherence to associations and to the fight for human rights served for many women as a trampoline to launch them into political participation and seats in parliament. In Morocco, the movementism of the past, assisted by the associations, has two fundamental faces: the secular, just described, and the Islamic which, with regard to the female question, maintains that “Islam has already liberated women”. Among the Islamists emerges the charismatic figure of Nadia Yassine, the leading spokesperson of the Justice and Spirituality group which, moving from the Sufi tradition, opposed both the Alawite regime of Hasan ii and the secular political orientation which led Morocco to sign international conventions for human rights such as CEDAW, for the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, to which Morocco subscribed with some reservations.

Yet today there is talk of a third way between secularism and Islamism, taken by those who, like Asma’ Lamrabet, theologian and former director of the Centre for Studies and Research on Women in Islam located in Rabat, aim to reconcile the recognition of human rights with full adherence to Islam through a reinterpretation of the sacred texts. Furthermore Lamrabet reaps the intellectual heritage of Fatima Mernissi (1940-2015), the famous Moroccan sociologist who, starting from secular positions, intended in her last work to recover the Islamic roots of equality and freedom thanks to a reinterpretation of the tradition of the Sunna, namely, the sayings and doings of the Prophet. In Morocco the theologian is also a politician, as Sara Borillo emphasizes, author of Femminismi e Islam in Marocco. Attiviste laiche, teologhe e predicatrici (Esi, 2017) [feminisms and Islam in Morocco. Lay women activists, theologians and preachers]. This theological challenge is significant, for it aims to make known the political and religious authority of a female voice and promises a real improvement in the living conditions of Muslim women who do not want to give up the fullness of life under the banner of faith.

Martina Biondi




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 23, 2020