Feminism and Politics in Moroccan Feminist Non-Governmental Organisations

Souad Eddouada, Mohamed V University, Rabat, Morocco

The purpose of this paper is to explore the intricate correlation between feminism and politics that has both supported and handicapped the development process of Moroccan women's organisational social movement. This paper focuses on two organisations that have taken the position of political interlocutors with the government, either as critics or supporters. This is why the focus of this paper is laid on the UAF (Union de l'Action Feminine), and the ADFM (Association Democratique des Femmes du Maroc) as organisations that have originally developed from women's sections of the political left -- respectively the OADP (l'Organisation de l'Action Democratique et Populaire and the PPS Parti du progrès et du socialisme -- and whose actions illustrate a potential feminist movement that can articulate a feminist standpoint and affect the process of democratisation, as well as the gradual development of the culture of human rights in Morocco. I take a "feminist standpoint" to be a position that is socially produced and not necessarily immediately available to all women. For feminist standpoint theory, then, both the representation of a feminist perspective and its "truth" are reached through philosophical and political struggle (Jaggar 83-84; Cf Hennessy 1993:67).

The political tendencies of the leaders of these organisations informed by their former or present political affiliations, together with their continuous personal relationships with their fellow party members, create tension between their feminist commitments and their political allegiances. In his 'Analyse du phénoméne Associatif Au Maroc' Ahmed Ghazali states that usually the institutional dimension is subordinated to the personal dimension in the associations' leaders' relationship with the Moroccan political environment (Ghzali 1989 :255) These NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) emerged as a consequence of these women's struggle with their fellow party members who had to be convinced of the appropriateness of feminist independent institutions. Malika Naciri, one of the founding members of the ADFM, points this out this in her description of the process that preceded the foundation of her organisation (See Daoud 1993: 13). Both UAF and ADFM are the development of women's branches in their respective parties. Their constitution was the consequence of their disillusionment and their failure to integrate their specificity to in their parties broad projects for a socialist democratic society. (See Patrick Haeni 1993: 22)

The incorporation of the gender question as an issue that lacks social support and, therefore, the political legitimacy of a public problem into nationalist or group struggles explains the political resistance and the social alienation that any feminist project has to face. For this reason, I argue that notions and projects such as development, democracy and human rights have always been conceived, designed and executed from a subsuming male view that disregards gender perspectives. This indifference to gender has transformed the principle of democracy, which is advocated by the progressive forces, namely the political left, into a reproduction of paternalism.

According to Zakia Daoud, Moroccan national history does not indicate any consciousness of, or interest in, women's issues. Post-independence political parties have reproduced the same ideology. This ideology assumes that gender equality will be achieved through the projects of modernity and democracy (Daoud 1993: 283). In her analysis of women's movement in Morocco, Latifa Jbabdi also argues in an unpublished paper on the Moroccan Feminist movement that the feminist struggle has always been inextricably linked to political resistance--that is, the women's question has been part of the nationalist and the postcolonial projects. In fact, the elaboration of the first Moroccan Family Law, the Moudowana, was assigned to the nationalist leader Allal Fassi (Ibid: 255). The Moroccan Moudouwana is one of the most gender discriminating and conservative interpretations of Islamic family law since it upholds the principle of tutorship, which effectively reduces all women to legal juveniles (Rhiwi 2000 : 141).

The reform of the Moroccan family law and its harmonisation with the international conventions such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) constitutes the main demands of women's organisations in their resistance to the institutionalised patriarchal order. This fact that enfeebles the feminists' claims since they are charged with promoting western alienating references. The 'representatives' of the Moroccan religious parties challenge the feminists' struggle for gender equity which is -- according to them -- a western and a secular value that promotes the individual's primacy over one of the basic social units which is the family. Both the specific and the religious importance of the family are disregarded -- according to this outlook -- by the above-mentioned international convention, which illustrates the universality of gender equality as opposed to religious specificity in Morocco.

Social invlovement with women victims of the Moroccan gender discriminating legal system can be a point from which the feminists contest the androcentric construction of Moroccan specificity. Both the UAF and the ADFM host centres that offer legal consultation, psychological and medical treatment for women who are victims of violence. Such cases illustrate the tragic social implications of a gender discriminating legal text that legitimises men's violence against women. As social insitutions that open up a space for women's grievances, these NGOS can work as alternatives to the state and the political parties. Strategic and planned investment on these women as partners in the constitution of a social capital constitute the basics on which these organisations can build up a social legitimacy of their claims. The illustration of the inequity of the Moroccan legal system provided by these women together with their association in an institution could constitute the potential needed for socially and politically active NGOs. Usually, these women are offered legal advice, psychological and medical therapy in addition to literacy classes and basic principles of law. This means that the existence of such organisations responds to social demands and therefore illustrates the fact that Moroccan feminist activism emerges out of real social needs and not an alien Western concept. The strategic expansion of these organisations' action from social services to consciousness raising can make them serious mobilising forces. The establishment of a relationship initiated with response to these women 's urgent needs, can lead them to be involved in a type of social activism. In her argument for the thesis that feminism is not exclusively a western movement Miriam Cook points out that :

Activism might precede awareness, or operate independently of it. So might rejection. Awareness might never develop beyond itself, rejection might never be informed by a specific agenda. Activism, too, might never by pass through the negativity of rejection. A woman or a group of women might remain positively focused on constructing new systems without ever having said no to the old system. This definition of feminism describes changing states of consciousness, each reflecting women's understanding of themselves and their situations as related to their social and biological condition. Thus defined, feminism is not bound to one culture. It is no more Arab than it is American, no more Mediterranean than it is north European (Cook 2001: x).

Another challenge to women's organisations is the elitist nature of most Moroccan feminist NGOs leaders. In addition to their contested international references the elitist tendency of the feminist organisations promote the common belief that it is a socially alien movement. This can be countered by Moroccan organisations' modification into grass root organisations. Their status of mobilising social actors together with their position as government interlocutors can enable these NGOs to put pressure on the system for an official political recognition of gender equality as a principal objective for the state' s policy and legal system.

One of the striking instances of such a potential power of public opinion mobilisation is the campaign for the 1 million petitions, which is considered to be an unprecedented event in Morocco. On March 7th, right after the announcement of the revision of the Constitution by Hassan II on March 3rd, 1992, the UAF, through its mouthpiece, the newspaper 8 Mars, announced the launching of the campaign for gathering 1 million petitions for the reform of the Moudouwana. The modifications asked for were the abolition of marital tutorship, recognition of women's full maturity at the age of 21, gender equality in marriage, judicial divorce, and abolition of polygamy (Daoud 1993: 333).

The experience of the newspaper 8 Mars and the debate initiated by the 1 million petitions illustrate instances of the mobilisation of public opinion around women's issues. The campaign elicited an official response, since the king received a delegation of members of the women's branches of the political parties and announced the constitution of a committee of the Oulema (religious scholars). This committee had to investigate the possibility of positive interpretations of religious texts for the reform of the Moudowana.

Despite the fact that the reform was disappointing to most feminists (because it maintained the tutorship principle), it has symbolic implications since it desacralised the Moudowana and made gender inequality a public issue.

The ADFM's counter report to the report presented by the Moroccan delegation in the United Nations on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1996, (Rhiwi 2000 : 142) illustrates another instance when an NGO's action can make use of Morocco's membership in the international community to break the specific versus the universal dichotomy that justifies the existence of a gender discriminating legal system. This is because Morocco's religious specificity is usually constructed in opposition to universal values such as gender equality. Both the examples of the UAF and the ADFM illustrate the way an independent feminist action can destabilise dichotomies such as public versus private and specific versus universal. These dichotomies that determine Morocco's official approach make gender issues dependent on larger considerations such as political equilibrium and, therefore, render principles like democracy alien to women's strategic interests.

A feminist perspective on equity exposes the ways in which a general androcentric view may subsume the meaning of principles like democracy or human rights (Sapiro 1998: 162). Women's collective action needs to consider critically the general rules of democracy which might be complicit with patriarchy, in the sense that procedures like deliberations and political equilibrium create a logic that silences non conformist voices. In an interview Latifa Jbabdi gave in 1993, she showed the way human rights chart lacks a feminist agenda:

La charte des droits de l'homme au Maroc ne parle pas de droits femmes. Elle a tout, elle n'a rien oubli, elle a tout dit sur les droits de l'homme, et en details, sauf en parlant des droits des femmes. Elle n'a parl que de la convention international pour les droits de la femmes. Les comissions fut chargé d'établir cette charte se sont disputés pendant des journées, parce qu'ils n'étaient pas d'accord pour faire passer les droits des femmes en tant que droits humans dans la charte pour les droits de l'homme. C'est la même tendence qu'il y'a dans les partis. C'est le patriarcalisme marocain () même au niveau des gens qui luttent au niveau des droits de l'homme. [Haeni 1993: 50]

This example of the way a human rights chart can ignore gender equity illustrates the need for the integration of women as political actors able to stand for their interests. It also calls for a new meaning of political representation as a concept and a practice that basically needs to recognize women as an interest group among other social groups. One of the rules of interest groups is, as Iris Marion Young (1998) puts it: the promotion of the group's specific interests as thoroughly and forcefully as it can, and it need not consider the other interests competing in the political marketplace except strategically, as potential allies or adversaries in the pursuit of its own (419).

It is undeniable that the women's movement in Morocco has a progressive reference. The latest Plan d'Action pour l'Lntégration de la Femme au Développement which raised unprecedented polemics around the gender issue in Morocco, was supported by what is labelled as progressive forces and attacked by Islamist conservative forces (6). It is also true that values such as democracy and human rights that constitute the bare bone principles of the left's action reinforce the legitimacy for gender equality that is resisted by the political system's conservative religious position. This conservative religious position implies the omnipresence of tenets considered to be among the most conservative and gender discriminating interpretations of Islam.

For this reason, Moroccan women's alliance with progressive political forces can be one of the strategies that feminist NGOs can adopt to gain political recognition and wider commitment for gender equality, especially since parties of the left are now in power. Still, the support of such a government should not be assumed as a given or unproblematic even if fellow party members constitute it. The term NGO as Khatibi (1998) defines it, "means first of all a demarcation vis-a-vis the state and hence constitutes an entity that tries to affect the state as interlocutor" (99). Whatever this government is, it should not be considered as an ally to the feminist cause but as interlocutor and decision-maker (Aicha). Alliance is not pre-given; it has to be a negotiated tactic.

In one of her latest television interviews Latifa Jbabdi declared that the coming of the left to power has strengthened the Moroccan feminist movement. For her, the Plan is not concealed since one of its components concerning women's literacy is being implemented. Her declaration seems to renounce one of the main aspects of the Plan's innovations, which is the global approach. The global approach aims at bringing the gender question to the mainstream, instead of isolating it to illiteracy or family planning projects. The Plan provides for a global program to fight gender inequality, and provides for short and mid-term projects that address and rectify the legal, socio-economic and political practices that affect women adversely.

Said Saadi, the former Secretaire d'Etat Charge de la Protection de la Famille et de l'Enfance, who has led the action for this plan, argues for this point in an interview to the newspaper 'La Verité.' In this interview, Saadi declares that the real danger is the obstruction of the judicial side or any part of the Plan. To a question on the forces of resistance to the Plan, the former Secretary of State explains that it can be among progressive forces, since political parties, including his party, and the political left in general, are the ones which declined support for the Plan simply because the gender question is not a priority for these parties (La Verité no. 14, March 200, p. 13). In another interview to the magazine Femmes Du Maroc, Saadi replies to a question of how the plan was discussed in the Ministers' Council by saying that this issue has never figured in the Council's agenda, and therefore, he has never had the opportunity to present or defend the project (no. 63, March 2001, p. 38).

These statement show the tension in Jebabdi's political position as a member in the political board of a party which supports the government. But unlike Jebabdi, Saadi's feminist oulook enables him to keep his distance and look critically at any political absorption of the gender question. Different positions, therefore, imply divergent representations of the gender question, which illustrate the problematic dimension of representation: In order to discuss the representation of women we must consider whether women as a group have unique politically relevant characteristics, whether they have special interests to which a representative could or should respond. Can we argue that women as a group share particular social, economic or political problems that do not closely match those of other groups, or that they share a particular viewpoint on the solutions to political problems? (Sapiro 1998: 164).

The Moroccan legal system and particularly the family law constitute the common denominator that constructs womens subordinate status regardless of their socio-economic agency. This systematic discrimination has both constitutional and hermeneutic attributes. The Moroccan constitution limits men and women's equality to political rights as opposed to their equal civil right. According to the 8th clause of the constitution, men and women have equal political rights: l'homme et la femme jouissent des droits politique égaux. This constitutional discrimination is a unifying element that can stimulate the constitution of a potentially predisposed political feminist union in Morocco. This dimension of feminist activism makes relevant their political union.

Yet, the interference of divergent political partisan affiliations polarise Moroccan women's organisations. This affects any project of alliances and networking. Different political affiliations affect women's relationships as involved in the feminist movement. The two main examples that illustrate the failure of co-ordinating projects are the committee made of women's organisations for the reform of the Moudowana in 1992 and the impossibility to adopt a common strategy to encourage women's candidacies independently from partisan consideration (Rhiwi 2000: 142).

For Jebabdi, the interference of politics, together with the problem of leadership, are the main reasons dividing the women's movement in Morocco. "I think that we are reproducing the model of a male concept of power and the partisan competition for leadership," explains Jebabdi in an interview with Femmes Du Maroc (no. 63, March 2001, p. 28). This reproduction of partisan relationships polarises the women's movement whose members' relationships are affected by their divergent political tendencies. This hampers the development of adequate structures of communication among these organisations, which explains the failure of the main projects of networking.

To constitute this network, Moroccan feminist NGOs need to negotiate their political and feminist commitments in ways that enable them to put the gender question at the forefront of their political agenda. That is why the growth and the development of institutional feminism are preconditioned by a declared and practical break with partisan ties. The political dimensions of the feminist action needed to affect state policy should condition the relationship of these organisations to politics. Their action can then be inspired by women's conditions and not limited by partisan strategies.

The union of women's organisations is therefore not a forgone conclusion, but it can only be constructed and achieved. This is because women might have different and sometimes divergent needs and interests that can contest the assumption that they are a homogenous group. Bourquia's analysis of the effect of class on women can be particularly true in the dissection of women's organisation. For her, women do not live in the same conditions and social contexts. They are separated by class disparities within this group -- That is women -- which may appear to be homogenous, functions mechanisms of exclusion, inclusion and differentiation that establish distances between women. Speaking of women as a uniform group is a reduction of a complex social reality to a political slogan that aims at changing reality without understanding it (Bourquia 1991: 15). Bourquia's point indicates the need for the development of feminist theoretical analysis that can constitute the conceptual background for these NGOs' social and political activism. Such analysis can enable these organisations to recognise and work on their limitations through adopting mechanisms of communisation that can allow the co-existence of multiple meanings and views of feminist activism.

To conclude, Moroccan feminist non-governmental organisations need to work on the integration of women's strategic interests and specific needs into the development and democratisation processes as well as the institutionalisation of human rights. These feminists will be able to develop a Moroccan feminist ideology once they develop critical positions towards broad political agendas such as democracy, human rights or development, which might be gender subsuming. This critical stand has to be extended to the internal structures of women's organisations, which need to work on the potentials of the development of a federal feminist organisation that allows the articulation of different perspectives of the gender question in Morocco.

Souad Eddouada, Rabat April 2001.


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Postcolonial OV discourseov Casablanca Conference Morocco

Last modified: 31 May 2001