Why you should care
This North African country may be showcasing a model for battling crimes against women.
Picture an Islamic nation and women’s rights are probably not the first thing that springs to mind — but Morocco could be challenging that stereotype, armed with recent legislation aimed at protecting women and a growing civil society movement.
“Thank God!” was the reaction of Bassima Hakkaoui, the country’s minister of family affairs, women and solidarity, when the law that criminalizes “acts considered forms of harassment, aggression, sexual exploitation or ill treatment” of women was finally ratified on Valentine’s Day this year. The law passed by a vote of 112 for, 55 against and one abstention. It had been many years in the making, with a push for it beginning 10 years ago and this proposal first drafted in 2013.
The law has its shortcomings, many local women’s groups argue. But others point out that even with limitations, it marks recognition of a deep-seated problem that was earlier ignored in public. Also, the law isn’t the only one aimed at addressing the exploitation of women. A new law enforcing the rights of domestic workers (largely women) has just come into force. And though implementing these laws remains a challenge, Morocco now boasts a growing civil society movement bringing — and demanding — change.
It is one step in a journey, but it is certainly better than nothing.
Maryam Montague, Project Soar
A local group, Tafiil Moubadarat, in Taza in eastern Morocco, successfully lobbied to convince the hospital there to issue free medical certificates to women victims of domestic violence. That initiative has now filtered up and become national policy. Project Soar, an organization that emphasizes investing in girls — from tutoring them for exams to teaching them self-defense — started out in a tiny village outside Marrakech, and now works in 21 other locations with plans to spread to 100.
To Mohammed Akinou, a journalist, teacher and also a father, these shifts couldn’t have come sooner. “We fathers fear for our daughters,” he says. “It has moved away from speech and actually to physical actions, as we saw with the girl on the bus.”
Akinou is referring to the “Casablanca bus incident.” In August of last year, a gang of youths on a bus assaulted a disabled girl, filmed it and uploaded it online. The video went viral, leading to nationwide demonstrations demanding change.
The Moroccan government has also received funds to the tune of 45 million euros from the European Union for a gender equality project that is coming to an end. The passing of this law was one of its deliverables.
The new law punishes sexual harassment (taharrush) in the streets with jail time. Taharrush is endemic in the country, from the shouting out of “Oh, gazelle,” or “Can I have your phone number?” to unwanted physical contact.
That the law in itself is no panacea became clear in early April, after the legislation’s enactment. A 16-year-old girl was violently sexually assaulted and filmed, and the video was uploaded online when she resisted blackmail by her attackers. The incident gained its own hashtag, #dontyouhaveasister, which the girl is heard saying to her attackers.
But the case also highlighted a culture of silence — the victim remained silent about the assault for more than two months, not even telling her parents — that is one of the reasons many women’s rights groups are dissatisfied with the legislation.
“It’s window dressing,” says lawyer Stephanie Willman Bordat, founding partner at Mobilising for Rights Associates. “It is not a law that is meant to be applied. There is no detail to it.” The real problem, she says, is that women do not report sexual violence. When they do, the police often don’t act.
A survey by the High Commission for Planning on violence against women backs up this assertion. Taking conjugal violence as an example, only 25 percent of complaints to the police produce a written report, and 38.3 percent of those claims end up with the women withdrawing their accusations. Of all the cases of conjugal violence reported, only 1.3 percent of offenders were arrested.
Bordat wants legal pressure on police and prosecutors, defining their roles clearly and providing sanctions when they don’t fulfill their duties. Laws also need tools to implement them. The legislation on domestic workers’ rights is a case in point. The country’s labor inspectors — in charge of implementing the law — number only 400 in all, and they’re already burdened with overseeing other labor laws.
The sexual harassment law is also potentially open to misuse, worries Akinou — including in the form of blackmail by female colleagues at the workplace. “How will taharrush actually be defined?” he asks.
But the law still represents an important step, says American aid worker and entrepreneur Maryam Montague, who founded Project Soar. “Even saying the words ‘sexual harassment’ is a good step,” she says. “It is one step in a journey, but it is certainly better than nothing.”
Not that Project Soar is counting on the government alone. Its program to empower women starts with getting them to repeat the mantra: “I am strong, I am smart, I am worthy, I am capable. Girl power!” The idea, says Montague, is to “invest in the girl, so she believes in herself and believes that she has value, and then teach her to advocate for herself so she won’t take this [harassment].”
Tafiil Moubadarat’s work, in getting hospitals to issue medical certificates to domestic violence patients for free, was no small matter either. A medical certificate is a prerequisite for bringing a case and, at around $20, was way beyond most rural women’s means before the group’s success became a part of national policy.
Morocco’s latest steps are part of a journey that began in 2004 with the adoption of the Family Code, which combines the precepts of Islamic law with a modern legal code, and stipulates that “human and citizenship rights are accorded to all Moroccans, women and men equally,” in family matters.
Then in 2011, Morocco amended its constitution to bar all forms of gender-based discrimination. The country is also in the throes of a debate on equal inheritance rights for women and men: Hundreds of prominent personalities have recently signed a petition demanding equality. “The great debate that is going on right now, and that is causing the radical Islamists particularly to grind their teeth, is about inheritance,” says Fedoua Tounassi, a journalist.
Change takes time, Tounassi acknowledges. But Morocco is showing the way. “We will get there,” she says.