Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Moroccan Family Code five years later

By Brigitta Burks

Edited by: Alexandru Cristea

The Moudawana or “Family Code,” was passed over five years ago to give women in Morocco more marital rights— but some say it needs to be more heavily enforced and doesn’t do enough to help rural women.

The Code, passed with Kind Mohammed VI’s support in 2004, changed many aspects of family life. It raised the legal age of marriage, gave women greater rights in divorce and mandated that if a man takes a second wife, he must get his first wife’s permission. It also enables Moroccan women to pass on citizenship to their children if they have a foreign spouse.

“The Moudawana changed the face of Morocco,” said Nadya Khalife, a women’s rights researcher for the Human Rights Watch office in B

eirut, Lebanon.

Morocco is regarded as liberally progressive in women's rights compared to many surrounding countries.

"We're behind Tunisia, but definitely better than Egypt," said Imane Tounsi, a diplomacy and international studies student earning her graduate deg

ree at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane.

However, during a speech in March 2009, Moroccan Justice Minister Professor Abdel Wahed Radi said not enough time has passed for him to evaluate the success of the Code. The Moudawana allows women to divorce their husbands and requires judge to mandate the division of assets. Prior to the Code, a man could divorce his wife with just a letter or even less—now he must giv

e legal notice. Even with these new freedoms, divorces only rose about from 26,914 to 27,935 between 2004 and 2008, something Radi called "a remarkable stability," during his speech.

"This could be attributed to the Moudawana's focus on reconciliation, in which husbands and wives must meet to work on their marriage before divorce," said Jennifer Pendleton, the program associate for the Women's Learning Program (WLP).

Pendleton acts as a liaison between the WLP, a group that supports autonomous women's groups in about 20 countries, and the Association Democratique de Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) in Morocco. The ADFM teaches leadership skills to Moroccan women and advocates women's freedoms, Pendleton said, adding that women's groups in Iran and Malaysia are mirroring the group's model. One way that young women can learn about these freedoms is through the mandated teaching of the Mo

udawana in secondary schools, Khalife said, adding that is required on all syllabi.

Still, many women aren't aware of their new rights. Over 60 percent of women are illiterate in Morocco, according to statistics from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). Illiteracy may make it difficult for women, especially in rural communities, to learn about the Moudawana, Khalife explained.

There is a discrepancy between rural and urban women's rights, said Amrane Cohen, an Orange County based trustee, originally from near Fez.

"I'm sure that the Code makes a big difference to a woman in Casablanca or Rabat who is a lawyer or a doctor," he added. However, "the overwhelming majority have a different life," Cohen said, speaking of rural women who may not be able to act on their rights or may have different mindsets than urban women.

For example, marrying at a young age is more acceptable in rural communities, said Pendleton. Twelve percent of urban Moroccan children wed from 1998 to 2007 while 21 percent of rural Moroccan children married during this period, according to UNICEF statistics.

“Sometimes getting married is the best option,” Pendleton said, adding that an impoverished girl may want to marry an older man for financial security.

Although the Code elevated the legal marrying age from 15 to 18 years old for women, a judge can approve underage marriage. Much of the Code’s overall enforcement relies heavily with judge’s “moral sensibilities” and how they choose to enforce it, Pendleton said.

In his speech, Radi noted that the ministry was attempting to, “improve the quality of services in response to expectations of litigants." Women also need to be able to have the courage to go before a judge.

“How often do women feel empowered enough to go to family court?” Pendleton asked.

But, some women like Mariya Chakir feel empowered enough to go overseas to earn a degree. Although Chakir, a linguistics master’s student at Ohio University, said most of her female friends are pleased with the Moudawana, she added that some men aren’t as happy.

“Some men want to enjoy having power,” she said.

Chakir, who plans to return to Morocco following school, also noted that some men seem more hesitant to get married now because divorce is more complicated.

“They ask: Why have all this headache? Why not just have a girlfriend?” she explained.

However, Abderrahim Guzrou, a master's student at Al Akhawayn University said that he and his single friends are waiting for marriage until their educations are completed and they have more money.

“It’s economic,” and not about the Code, he added.

Guzrou also said he supports the Moudawana because it allows women to leave abusive marriages and added that he wants to see women’s rights expanded.

Despite some young people putting off marriage for careers, marriage rates actually have gone up since the start of the Family Code from 236,574 in 2004 to 307,575 in 2008, according to the Ministry of Justice. The spike in marriages could be attributed to the Code's requirement that all married couples register their union with the government, Radi said in his speech. Before the code, some couples didn't take the steps to make their marriage legal so the government could not count their marriage.

While marriage rates rise, polygamy rates are falling every year, according to the Ministry of Justice. First wives rarely give husbands the now required permission to take a second spouse, Chakir said. But, she added that she had one friend who agreed to her husband's second marriage because she was infertile and they wanted children.

The Moudawana and Islam, the country's primary religion, also requires that a husband treat his wives equally. Some negative attitudes about women's rights stem from misinterpretation of Islam, Tounsi said.

"I personally think there isn't a need for the Moudawana if you go by the Holy Book," she said. "The prophet clearly favored women."

Photos courtesy of and

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