Women Win New Rights
In Morocco by Invoking Islam

August 10, 2004; Page B1


SALE, Morocco -- During a recent afternoon in the main courthouse here, dozens of women stopped to pick up divorce applications. One flight up, mothers in headscarves waited to discuss alimony and child custody cases with court officials.

They are part of a small revolution in Morocco under new legislation that is among the farthest-reaching women's rights laws in the Muslim world. Since January, women can chose to divorce their husbands, collect alimony and receive some types of inheritance -- all rare privileges in many Muslim countries. Polygamy, another fixture in Muslim nations, has been all but abolished.

Remarkably, these changes haven't been achieved through calls for a more secular society. Instead, the legislation was advanced under the umbrella of Islamic law, which has long been used to justify constraints on women's rights and presented as immutable and unquestionable.

Nouzha Skalli, a 55-year-old longtime women's rights advocate and a member of Morocco's parliament, is a major force behind the changes and one of a new breed of Muslim activists trying to transform societies by working within religious traditions.

"If we said we were against religion, we would never have won any battle," says Mrs. Skalli. "Now there is optimism for the future of women in Morocco, for the first time."

Officials and rights activists from Jordan, Egypt and Bahrain have asked for copies of the new law. Mrs. Skalli has been invited to several regional conferences to share her experiences.

It is unclear the extent in which citizens in other Arab countries have heard about Morocco's new law -- in part because government-controlled media in those countries have focused more on the war in Iraq than on change in Morocco. Reaction has been largely muted.

Although there has been no outward backlash from extremists, some of Morocco's more religious leaders -- even some women -- say they are dissatisfied with the law. Bassima Hakkaoui, a member of parliament who voted in favor of the law, says she would like to repeal parts of it, including fully reinstating polygamy (she believes the Prophet Mohammad approved of it.) "There are many things that must be corrected if we want the law to conform to our society," she says.

Mrs. Skalli was born in Casablanca just before France ended its colonial rule in Morocco in 1956. Though the country's new king, Mohammed V, retained much of the legal system France left behind, he restored Islamic law's Family Code to regulate marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody.

After high school, Mrs. Skalli studied in France, where she experienced the intense debate about social justice that was exploding through the Western world. Returning to Morocco in 1974, she was shocked by the discrimination women faced. She joined a small activist community and, a few years later, put her name forth in Casablanca's municipal election. Her platform: women's equality.

She dropped by cafes filled with men to explain the problems women faced. Surprised patrons usually laughed, she says. Though she didn't win that election, Mrs. Skalli soon earned a reputation as a "militant feminist," a label that placed her and her goals squarely in a Western framework.

Progress came first in a form that was barely recognizable. In 1993, bending to pressure from activists, Morocco's aging monarch, King Hassan II, set up a commission to review women's legal status. But the commission had no women as members and produced only minor changes, such as allowing women whose fathers were deceased to select their husbands. "It was like a conspiracy of silence," Mrs. Skalli says.

Yet by changing a part of the existing law, the commission had embraced a central part of Mrs. Skalli's argument. "It meant the Family Law was no longer sacred," she says. By then, married with two children, Mrs. Skalli reframed her case: Islam, she argued, was about protecting women, not hurting them. She pointed to passages in the Koran that showed Prophet Mohammad allowed polygamy only when the husband was able to provide equal treatment to each wife, and even then he didn't encourage it.

"It's impossible for a husband to provide completely identical treatment to different wives," she says. In another passage, Mrs. Skalli noted the Koran called on both women and men to heed God's will. This, Mrs. Skalli argued, showed God viewed men and women equally.

In speeches, Mrs. Skalli toned down criticism of Islamic law and played up the reforms by Prophet Mohammad that inspired it. She talked about the "egalitarian" nature of Islam. And, in meetings with religious leaders, she pressed the notion of reconciling their differences within Islam, not outside it.

In 2000, the year after Morocco's new reform-minded king, Mohammad VI, ascended to the throne, leaders announced plans to change the legal status of women. But the effort was couched in secular language and immediately created tension. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Casablanca to protest what they believed was an attempt to impose Western-style culture on the nation. The government scuttled the plan.

By the spring of 2001, Mrs. Skalli and other activists got a break. Mohammad VI called a group of 40 women -- scientists, women's rights advocates, teachers and Islamic activists -- to a private meeting at his palace in the northern city of Fez. There, amid whitewashed walls and towering marble pillars, he announced a plan to convene a new commission on women's rights. Change, he told the women, was overdue.

The new commission, the king said, would include women, and its findings would be put before parliament for a vote. He also asked his guests to play an advisory role.

About a year later, Mrs. Skalli and two other colleagues gave their report. They ticked off the most serious problems Moroccan women face: spousal abuse and sexual harassment, inadequate divorce rights, inequality in the workplace and poor education. They proposed lifting the marriage age, banning polygamy and giving women the same divorce rights as men -- reforms that could all be justified in the Koran, they said.

In the months that followed, nearly 60 other groups, including Islamic activists, presented reports. The commission then holed up at the Royal Academy of Morocco. Surrounded by manicured lawns and pink-washed buildings, they tested proposed changes in the law against passages in the Koran. Nearly a year later, they handed their conclusions to the king.

Last October, King Mohammad VI -- whose wife is a computer engineer -- unveiled the new law before parliament. Moroccan women, he said, would be allowed to divorce freely, and judges would be required to grant such requests within six months. The marriage age for women, he said, would be lifted to 18 from 15. Alimony and new property rights rules would be enacted.

He also sketched a picture of delicate compromise. Polygamy, he explained, was enshrined in the Koran and couldn't be fully banned. But, in accordance with Prophet Mohammad's views, it would be severely restricted, allowed only in rare cases.

Women, he added, would be allowed to choose their marriage partners. But in deference to Islam, the traditional practice of entrusting fathers or brothers with the selection process would still be allowed.

In January, Morocco's parliament passed the law unanimously -- not surprising, given the king's absolute power. The Ministry of Justice then convened training seminars for hundreds of judges and government lawyers who will enforce and practice the new law. Mrs. Skalli says she was soon inundated with phone calls from women seeking specifics about the law. Court officials say a growing number of women are seeking divorces, although there is no estimate of the exact numbers.

Most were people like Bouchra Biler. A 28-year-old with two children, Mrs. Biler got married when she was 15 years old, but learned only later that her husband had another wife, and a child. A decade later, Mrs. Biler filed for divorce -- permissible but extremely difficult to obtain. She wasn't able to meet the requirements back then, including proof that her husband was no longer providing financial support. Court officials refused her request. Mrs. Biler's husband couldn't be reached for comment.

Earlier this year, Mrs. Biler filed a new petition -- and a claim for alimony, which wasn't allowed before. Under the new law, Mrs. Biler's petition should be granted in months, according to her lawyer, Chaouki Ajani. A religious woman who prays daily, Mrs. Biler says the new law "is good for Muslim women." More importantly, she adds, "It doesn't contradict the principles of Islam."

Write to Karby Leggett at karby.leggett@wsj.com