MARLISE SIMONS, "Cry of Muslim Women for Equal Rights Is Rising," New York Times, March 9, 1998


CASABLANCA, Morocco -- The day Rashida was called to family court, she found herself in a scene that nearly stopped her heart. There, before the judge, was her husband of 10 years, father of her two children, the man she thought so enlightened when they first met at the university. That same man was seeking the court's consent to marry a second wife.

It took just minutes for the judge to approve. He ruled that the petitioner, who was a senior government official, earned enough to maintain two families. Rashida's unexplained summons to court was the first she had heard of the matter.

Since her husband's second wedding, two years ago, Rashida has begged him in vain for a divorce and child support. She dares not think of remarrying. If she did, under Morocco's Islamic law, she would be likely to lose her children. That is also why she did not want her full name used.

"This case is cruel, but it's mild compared to many others," said Fatima al-Maghnaoui, a counselor at a legal-aid center for women where Rashida had gone to seek help.

Before Rashida, two women went to the center who had been repudiated by their husbands -- effectively relieving the husbands of any further responsibility toward them -- and left in the street with their children.

A 14-year-old girl had been raped, which left her pregnant and with nowhere to go. She could not return home. "Her oldest brother said he would kill her for dishonoring the family," Mrs. Maghnaoui said.

Such cases are common -- and not just in Morocco, which likes to see itself as one of the more cultured and humane Muslim nations. They occur throughout the Islamic world, where texts of the Koran and a range of appendages attached in the Middle Ages are invoked to deny equal rights to women.

Protests against the humiliation of women in Islamic societies are hardly new. But more Islamic women's groups are speaking out against what they call the Muslim system of apartheid.

The status of Muslim women varies widely. While some have gained rights, others have recently lost them. But like a deep fault line, the issue of how women are viewed socially and legally runs through most of the Islamic world.

Women and what they are forbidden to do or wear are at the heart of the fundamentalist policies in Afghanistan and Iran and even of the divisions that have led to the political violence in Algeria. Whether women should wear head scarves as a sign of religious modesty has been revived as an issue in Turkey. And demands to abolish discrimination in Muslim family laws are testing official promises for greater democracy in Morocco, Tunisia and Malaysia.

But even if these issues are ubiquitous, there has been little motion.

"Islamic countries have modernized many laws -- in the economy, education, commerce, politics, you name it," said Wassyla Tamzali, an Algerian lawyer and a specialist in Muslim women's rights at UNESCO. "But there is practically no movement in the status of women. When it comes to women's rights, religion and theology are invoked.

"Change is so difficult because in Islam, women symbolize tradition and cultural identity. It is as if the whole burden of the Islamic tradition rests on their shoulders."

But a public, if relatively quiet, rebellion is under way. The activists do not get much limelight: They usually do not march in protest, either because it is forbidden or because they fear a backlash. But as International Women's Day, on March 8, approached this year, there was a multitude of debates, conferences and television programs about the issues across North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt.

Because the movement is informal and ad hoc, statistics about participation or impact are hard to come by. Almost by definition, it revolves around educated women.

In Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, where women rank among the more emancipated of the Islamic world, activists say the U.N. international women's conference in Beijing in 1995 was an important catalyst for defining the issues and planning action.

But most important, they say, support has grown because women are caught in the growing contradictions and shifts within Islamic societies.

One such shift, in the countries around the Mediterranean, has been the enormous migration from the countryside to the cities in recent years. As a result, more women now go to universities and work as doctors and lawyers as well as in factories and offices. But the archaic laws linger.

"Legally we are still as helpless as the illiterate girls on the farms," said Nouzha Skali, a Casablanca pharmacist. "We are all legal minors, and we depend on permission of our fathers, brothers or husbands."

Educated or not, a Moroccan women needs the permission of a male relative to marry, name her children or work. She inherits half as much as her male siblings. She can be forced into marriage or polygamy and can be beaten or repudiated without recourse.

In conversations with Moroccan women -- social workers in Rabat, artists in Marrakesh -- and with female lawyers from several Arab countries who recently gathered in Paris, all agreed that the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in recent years had slowed down and complicated their fight. But some believe that it has clarified the need to anchor any new rights in civil rather than religious law.

"Muslim feminists have long argued that it is not the religion but the male interpretation of the Koran that keeps women oppressed, along with the texts that were added on in the Middle Ages," said Mrs. Tamzali. "So the way to reform had seemed to be to re-examine and reinterpret the religious texts. But efforts to reform Islam from within keep failing."

In Algeria, Islamic fundamentalists have been conducting a violent campaign against the government for five years. In Afghanistan, they have captured most of the country and have barred women from virtually all public activities. In both countries they have shown how easy it is to turn back the clock by invoking religion.

Many women now feel that they must fight to expand and change secular law, rather than reform the Sharia, the Islamic legal code, Mrs. Tamzali said.

It is a subject that means little to Zoubida Mhider, 48, who lives in poverty in Rabat. She is illiterate, like almost 70 percent of Moroccan women. In the waiting room of Annajda, a legal-aid office in Rabat, she whispered that she had been beaten by her husband for so long that she finally left with her 11 children.

For almost four years, Mrs. Mhider said, she has been going to court to beg for help with getting a divorce and seeking child support. Her husband usually fails to show up for court appointments, and the court has not pressed him.

Two of the children have married, and she and the younger children have been getting by on money her married daughter sometimes sends from the Netherlands.

Fumbling with her veil, she said she was very religious but did not care if Moroccan law was Islamic or secular. "I just want this settled," she said, sighing.

Fatima Zahra Tamouh, a professor of African history at the University of Rabat, said that in Morocco and a number of countries, migration to the cities had brought more education for women but also more violence, repudiation and divorce.

"In the countryside, couples rarely lived alone," she said. "A husband was accountable to the woman's family -- to her father, her brothers. But there is more abuse and more divorce and repudiation now that couples live alone. The problem is we got a society more based on individuals without the laws to go with it."

In Rabat, Morocco's spacious and sunlit capital, women's groups are mobilizing to get divorce and child-custody rules moved from the Mudawana, the Muslim family law, into the civil code. In 1993 women collected a million signatures in this nation of 28 million people to support such reform. King Hassan II agreed.

But the reforms, made by men, have made little difference. This time, women say, they want a role in drafting the changes.

Equal rights in divorce and abolishing the one-sided act of repudiation are only one aspect of Muslim women's concerns, but in the big cities they affect almost 50 percent of couples, said Mrs. Skali, the pharmacist, who also is chairman of the Association of Democratic Women.

"We want to ring the alarm bell, because divorce is affecting our whole society," she said. "The women are left on their own, with no support. It's one reason why we are seeing more and more street children."


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