After struggle, new equality for Moroccan women

For Amina Lamrini, Morocco's new women's-rights law is the reward for more than 20 years of relentless combat. Since cofounding the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) in 1985, Ms. Lamrini, a geography professor, has given most of her time to fighting discrimination against women.

"This reform ... brought me back my dignity as a woman," she says with a smile. "It's like a slave who frees himself."

King Mohamed VI announced the reform earlier this month, a major step toward granting women equal legal status with men. Parliament is expected to approve the new law in the coming weeks.

"The act of reform itself is revolutionary," says political analyst Mohamed Tozy, but it will have a real impact "only if it is combined with the massive education of young girls. One should not expect that it will change society. It will go along with social change."

The Moudawana, the Personal Status Law established a year after Morocco's independence in 1957, declared that women were legally inferior to men.

The new legislation, which is based on a reinterpretation of Islamic law, greatly restricts polygamy, gives women equal status with men, the right to initiate divorce, and shared family rights. Moreover, women no longer need a "tutor" - generally their father or brother - in order to get married.

Some women hope this newly acquired equality with men will result in major changes in their daily lives. "Once I tried to open a savings bank account for my son and I was asked for the authorization of my husband," an ADFM activist says. "It was my money and I could not do it without his authorization. Now this law will fall."

The public struggle over reforming the status of women dates back to a reform promoted in 2000 by Morocco's socialist prime minister, Abderrahman Youssoufi. A supportive rally in Rabat drew hundreds of thousands of people. Islamists organized a counterprotest the same day in Casablanca, with at least as many marchers denouncing what they called the Western nature of the project.

Mohamed VI, who made this issue a priority when he reached the throne in 1999, decided to step in, leveraging his status as the country's supreme religious authority. An advisory commission composed of religious theorists, academics, and women activists was later set up to propose a revised, Islam-derived reform.

"Now [opponents to the reform] can't say it's against Islam. The King has settled the issue once for all," explains Mohamed Benyahia, a socialist deputy and former adviser to Mr. Youssoufi. "The new Moudawana is similar to [the 2000 reform] on most issues," he says.

This time, however, Islamist leaders say the plan is in tune with their ideas. In a statement, the official Islamic party, Justice and Development (PJD), declared that the new plan "constitutes a substantial accomplishment for the entire Moroccan people."

PJD leaders claim the king's reform directly refers to Islam, unlike the earlier proposed reform, which had socialist roots. "The Ijtihad [the reinterpretation of Islamic law] has no limits. We just want to avoid contradictions with Islamic law," says Abdeslam Ballaji, a member of the National Council of the PJD.

Analysts say, however, that PJD leaders were acknowledging the king's religious authority while also moderating their language in response to May's terrorist attacks in Casablanca. Many Moroccans blamed the PJD for inspiring the May 16 strikes.

The five simultaneous attacks by radical Islamic militants killed 45 people, including the 12 suicide bombers. They took place in two international restaurants, a hotel, and two Jewish centers.

The bombers belonged to the Salafist Jihad, an underground radical Islamic movement created by former Afghanistan fighters in the 1990s and linked to Al Qaeda.

In spite of the king's recent move, an important part of the population is reluctant to accept this new impending legal equality between men and women.

"We fear that men might become afraid of [reverse discrimination]. And they will not want to get married, then," says Mr. Ballaji.

Since last week, the new Moudawana has been on everyone's lips. In a crowded commercial street in Rabat, the capital, a man loudly complains: "Now I will be commanded by a woman in my home. What do I have left to do in this country now?"

Another man in his early 20s says: "It's fine with me as long as a father or a brother can still correct the behavior of a woman. Some women behave very badly."

A sign that, even if politicians manage to unite in this project, a change in mentality might take a while.

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