Motorbikes or veils? Women in Morocco now can choose

She was 18, Zohra recalls, when her father came to tell her the news. Her husband had divorced her. Now in her mid-40s, and after years of struggle to support her children, Zohra is finally able to realize one of her fondest hopes: a college education.

Her story typifies the experience of many women in this historic North African kingdom, where feminism has been much slower to evolve than in other Islamic countries, but where social change is pushing women out of their traditional roles and into new life styles and occupations.

Moroccan women are not subjected to the same dress codes and segregation as their sisters in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are, but neither are they as involved in public life as women in still other Arab countries. Thus, on the same city streets here are women who live in totally different worlds: Younger ones clad in tight pants sport around freely on motorbikes. Others, robes and veils hiding everything but their hands and eyes, pick their way through the traffic, tugging children along behind them.

Unlike Egypt and next-door-neighbor Algeria, there have been no street demonstrations in Morocco to press for changes in legislation regarding women's rights. Even among those who have been campaigning on behalf of women, there isn't unanimous agreement over what directions to go in or how fast to proceed.

But there is, at least, a debate on the issue. It centers on:

* The conspicuous lack of women at all levels of government, despite their presence in practically all fields of professional life.

There are no women in the Moroccan government or in parliament. Only eight women sit on municipal councils in the cities, and in the countryside none do. Until recently, there were no women representatives on the executive councils of the country's political parties.

* Proposed reforms of the Moudawana, the body of personal-status laws that determine women's rights in marriage and family life.

The current Moudawana, introduced in 1957-58, shortly after independence, was formally promulgated in 1965. Three times, proposals to reform the code were advanced by various groups - in 1961, 1965, and 1979. But they all ended up buried. A royal commission has been charged to study another recently proposed reform of the Moudawana, and so far has not given its recommendations.

Among the most controversial features of the Moudawana is the woman's legal status as a minor, even when she is an adult. Guardianship is transferred from her father to her husband. If her husband dies and she wishes to remarry, legal consent must be given by a male member of her family, even if it is her son or grandson.

Under the Moudawana, a man can legally repudiate his wife without giving a specific reason. In 1975, there were 103,002 registered marriages and 32,893 registered repudiations. The actual number of repudiations is thought to be much higher.

If a man repudiates his wife, legally he is obliged to provide her with three months' support and a lump sum in the form of ''consolation.'' In reality, however, the slow and cumbersome Moroccan court system often prevents all but the most tenacious women from collecting any form of compensation from their former husbands.

Only with great difficulty can a woman initiate a divorce. And if she succeeds, she must pay her husband a ''compensation,'' considered by the court to be the return of the dowry he paid at the time of their marriage. Moreover, in a divorce action the husband is the legal guardian of the children.

Moulay Rachid, a professor of law at the University of Rabat, recalls how his own life was affected when his mother and sister fell prey to the traditional system.

His parents lived in a small village near the Algerian border. His illiterate mother deferred to her husband in all important family decisions. But when her husband passed on, she found herself overwhelmed by the task of running a household. Then Dr. Rachid's sister was repudiated by her husband and left without any skills or means of support for herself and her children.

Dr. Rachid now supports both women.

''I saw them suffer because of the women's position in Morocco,'' he says. ''I felt I had to do something about it.'' So he wrote his doctoral thesis on the status of women in Morocco, and it has become one of the authoritative works on the subject.

Proposed reforms of the Moudawana have been allowed to languish, in part because no organized women's movement is pressuring the government. Several women's associations do exist in Morocco, but so far they have not organized sufficiently to push legislation through parliament.

But the notion of woman as a legal minor, spoken for and protected by her male relatives or guardians, is in increasing contradiction with the experience of many Moroccan women.

High unemployment, worker migration, a growing population drift toward urban centers, and other pressures are causing the traditional structure of the Moroccan family to break down. The extended family, which formerly could absorb repudiated and divorced wives and their children is now less able to do so.

By some estimates, as many as 20 percent of Moroccan women - often with little preparation - have become the sole heads of households. The number and importance of women in the work force also is increasing rapidly, although, as well-known Rabat University sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi found in a recent study, their contribution to the national economy is largely unrecognized.

Some who are pushing for women's rights have looked to the West for a model of emancipation, but others want to improve their situation in Islamic fashion.

''I am a Muslim,'' says Leila Abou Zeid, a writer on women's issues who has studied in the United States and England. ''What women here want means the application of the real law of Islam.''

Islam, she believes, is flexible enough to accommodate needed reforms. But the Islamic judges who carry out the law she calls ''old, stubborn, and traditional.''

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