Morocco: The family code 5 years on

Five years after legal reforms were made to Morocco's family code, the "Moudawana", research professor Hakima Fassi-Fihri and film director Zakia Tahiri assess whether changes have been felt by Moroccan society.
It's time for additional reforms by Hakima Fassi-Fihri: In February 2004, Morocco was praised for significant progress in the field of women's rights, particularly for revising its 1958 family code – the "Moudawana". This reform was the result of many years of work between academics, theologians, activists and legal experts. Five years later, it's time to assess whether this praise was warranted.
The 2004 reform was made in a spirit of equity between men and women within the family unit, with the aim of protecting children's interests while respecting the balance between tradition and modernity in a country that is highly attached to its family-based identity.

For example, a young Moroccan woman can now marry freely without permission from her father. The family is also considered the joint responsibility of both spouses and not solely the husband's as before.

Additionally, polygamy – which was a husband's absolute right under the previous code – became subject to the judge's approval and, above all, is allowable only under strict legal conditions which make the practice almost impossible.

The growth in the number of female family judges, along with a clear rejuvenation of the magistracy, are also part of the noteworthy changes resulting from the 2004 reform.

However, additional change is still needed.

Indeed, if at its early stages the Moudawana had a dissuasive effect on polygamy and marriage involving minors, people quickly realised that it was not difficult to get dispensations from judges.

In fact, although the new code stipulates that the legal age for marriage is 18, today in Morocco 10 percent of marriages involve minors. There was a dramatic increase (over 50 percent between 2006 and 2007) in marriages involving youth, especially in rural areas.

In addition to the necessity to properly enforce 2004 reforms, notably by training judges to declare verdicts in line with the new laws, new reforms are still needed to close the gap in gender equity.

For example, when it comes to inheritance and succession, it is neither sensible nor appropriate in cases of female heirs to force them to share their portion with an uncle or male cousin.

Morocco would benefit from intensifying the debate, perhaps with a view to a new Moudawana reform.

Imagining a reversal of gender roles by Zakia Tahiri

Five years after the 2004 family code reform, Moroccans are still debating the identity of the Moroccan family. "Nawal", a young Moroccan woman, is proud of these reforms. For her, like for many Moroccan women, it is a victory. But other Moroccan women, such as "Ilham", do not understand much about it. And "Najat" is opposed to it because she has been told it does not comply with God's will. Female opinion is divided.

"Rachid", a young Moroccan male, refuses to get married because he's heard that in the event of divorce he would have to divide his assets with his wife. And the "Mustafas" of Morocco feel they've lost their dignity since the family is now under the shared responsibility of both husband and wife.

These diverse opinions are reflected in the 2008 film, Number One, so named because its main character is a male manager – or the "Number One" – of a clothing factory operated by 50 female workers. The Moudawana is a recurring theme throughout the film, which portrays the discussion of gender equality in Morocco in a new light.

Thousands of women watched this film: among them, women who, for lack of means or interest, had never been to the cinema before. They came because other women told them that it was about them, about their everyday lives.

Many women identified with the situations pictured in the film. They recognised their husbands, their cousins, their bosses. Men's perspectives too were shattered. One man told me after watching: "I realised I was a male chauvinist too when I saw the film." Another said, "I want my daughters to see this film so that they will never accept what they think is their fate."

Five years after the Moudawana, Number One is using humour and entertainment to open discussions and challenge traditional views of male and female roles in Moroccan society.

Zakia Tahiri writes and directs films with her husband, Ahmed Bouchaala. Hakima Fassi-Fihri is a research professor of business contract law in Rabat and an active member of the women's networks, Women's Tribune and Terrafemina. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

29 April 2009