Women’s rights activists in Morocco are calling for revisions to the country’s family code, which governs personal matters such as marriage, child custody and divorce. They are launching campaigns for International Women’s Day to highlight problems they see in the legal code often praised as the most progressive in North Africa and the Middle East.
“The family code enshrines patriarchal power and perpetuates the tug of war between [religion] and modernity,” said Saïda Drissi, a feminist activist and former president of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, a women’s rights organization. She called the code “chauvinistic.”
The code, known as the Moudawana, underwent a major overhaul in 2004 aimed at increasing gender equality. The reforms included raising the legal marriage age from 15 to 18, expanding women’s rights to child custody and divorce and allowing women to marry without the consent of a male guardian.
But activists say there are still loopholes and contradictions in the text that they want eliminated.
One of the most criticized loopholes pertains to child marriage. Judges can override the Moudawana and allow girls under 18 to be married.
“How can you defend the interests of a child and authorize their marriage in the very same document?” Drissi asked, adding that the text should be revised to protect minors.
She also calls for an end to polygamy, which the code permits. She argues that the practice should be “inadmissible” under the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which Morocco ratified in 1993.
“When women find themselves in front of a judge and refuse their husbands a second marriage, they are often forced by their husbands to divorce. They have no choice, so where is the equality?” she asked.
She also sees an inherent contradiction in the supposedly progressive code’s deference to Islamic law. An article buried at the end of the long text notes that any matter not addressed in the code can be handled according to Islamic jurisprudence.
The entire document needs to be revised, said Aïcha Loukhmas, the president of Morocco’s Union for Feminist Action, another group campaigning for reforms.
“We want equity to be reflected in all articles of the family code and for the family code to be in harmony with the principles of the constitution, the CEDAW and the real needs of Moroccan families and women,” she said. Like Drissi, she noted that “the achievements guaranteed by some of its articles can be circumvented through other articles in the same text.”
Loukhmas also said some rights extended to women in the code are simply not implemented in practice. The 2004 revisions expanded a mother’s right to child custody after in a divorce, for example, but Loukhmas said women still have to fight for it.
“We experience family dramas every day because sole custody is given to the father and not to the mother,” she said.
Child support payments, which the code requires fathers to provide, are also a recurring problem.
“It’s a never-ending race for the woman,” Loukhmas said. “She must file a complaint every time and look for the father’s address so that he can be legally notified by the police. And when that finally happens, he is given a month to pay. How will the mother be able to provide for her children during this time?”
Loukhmas said reforming the code is just one of the changes she’d like to see in the legal system.
“We need courts dedicated to the family and to women, with a prosecutor’s office,” she said. “Currently, we only have branches that do not have the means to manage problems.”
She said she hoped more comprehensive reforms could finally ensure the sort of equality the 2004 revisions failed to achieve.
“Instead of solving women’s problems, the family code has become another one of them,” she said.