RABAT, MOROCCO — Sabah Hiyani sits nervously outside a local divorce court in Fez. "My husband has been put in prison five times for beating me and yet he doesn't want to get divorced," she says. "I have heard that now I have the right to get divorced. That is why I have come here."
For a little more than a month now, Moroccan women like Ms. Hiyani have been putting to the test a brand new set of rights.
Following a major overhaul of the nation's Family Code of laws - amended for the first time since 1957 - Moroccan women are no longer required to live under the lifetime guardianship of male family members.
They also have the right to file for divorce, while polygamy has been rendered almost impossible. They now share household property with their husbands. And the ancient practice of repudiation without a court's consent has been outlawed.
"The day when it didn't work anymore between the wife and the husband, the husband went to court and said, 'I want to repudiate her,' " says Oum-Zouhour Kanouni, president of the Moroccan Association for the Promotion of Business Women. "She left with nothing at all. But now, there is much more security for women."
After 30 years of fighting, more than 60 women's associations, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations, and hundreds of thousands of Moroccan women watched last month, as King Mohammed VI declared before the Moroccan parliament in Rabat that "women are equal to men under the law."
"We have fought so much, so much for this change," beamed Nouzha Skalli, one of the 35 female members of parliament newly elected in 2002, under the introduction of a quota reserving 30 seats for women.
Only Tunisia has preceded Morocco in such revolutionary reforms to their Family Code and yet without addressing the question of inheritance.
"There is something new in Morocco, which is pretty strong compared to other Arab countries - human rights organizations, which greatly supported the women's movement," explains Rabéa Naciri, president of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women.
A combination of the new king's democratization process, foreign pressure, and disillusionment with Islamic extremism, led to the Family Code's reform, according to Fatima Sadiqi, professor of gender studies at the University of Fez.
It was a secretary of state, Zoulikha Nasri, now royal counselor, who first took the initiative to establish a new plan of action in the early 1990s. But it was not until Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi's socialist opposition government came to power in 1998 that the minister of family and children, Said Saadi, was able to propose specific reforms.
"Following the presentation of the reforms," says Mr. Saadi, "there was an important national debate, at times passionate."
The passion came to a head in March 2000, when some 800,000 people marched in Rabat for social justice and in support of the reforms to the Family Code, while on the same day some 2 million marched in Casablanca against the reforms, fearing that Islam was threatened.
It wasn't until the king himself, "commander of the believers" and claimed descendant of the prophet Muhammad, spoke, that religious conservatives relented.
"How could we hope to ensure the progress and prosperity of a society," asked King Mohammed VI last month, "while its women, who constitute half therein, see their rights pushed aside, and suffer injustice, violence, and marginalization in disregard of the right to dignity and equity that our sacred religion confers upon them?"
A similar stirring of women's and human right's movements is evident in other Arab countries. The president of Egypt passed a law in 2000 to allow women to file for divorce. Reforms in Bahrain gave women the right to vote and run for election in 2001. And in Djibouti, women entered the National Assembly for the first time in 2002.
However, the average number of women in parliament in the Arab world is still only 6 percent, compared with 15.2 percent at the world level, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union; 67 percent of Moroccan women are illiterate, and they only account for 10.8 percent of the parliament.
Women's associations in Morocco remain vigilant as parliament prepares to debate the details of the new Family Law.
"Parliament is not receptive to women currently, despite the presence of women," says Ms. Naciri, pacing across the 12th floor of her consulting company in Rabat. "Now, what are we going to do? We are going to follow - we will watch what the parliament will do. We will go there."