By Molly Lower
Women's Voices Now co-organized a community symposium with ISA-Meknes Study Abroad and ELAP “Experience with Purpose.” Moroccan time means nothing ever starts on time, but no one is ever in a rush to be anywhere else, anyhow. So there is time for everything. And that’s how our symposium began - behind schedule.
Before heading to the Menounni Center, we gathered for a reception and exposition of women’s handicrafts at the “Association Pour la Protection de La Famille Marocaine,” in the new city of Meknes, a center supervised and supported by Professor Ouafae Bouzekri of Moulay Ismail University, who was integral to the planning of our two-day event. In addition to the group of women who contribute and benefit from the services of the Association, we were also joined by Peace Corps volunteers working in nearby cities and villages, local and international students studying at the Moulay Ismail University and volunteering in local organizations, ISA and ELAP staff, and, of course, the WVN team.
At this center, women from the community are able to learn sewing skills, English, how to read, math, and various other trades that give them the opportunity to achieve a bit of economic independence and provide for their families.
About 30 people squeezed into the small exhibition room, surrounding a table laden with plates of ornately designed cookies, cakes, mini pizzas, and the flaky, delicious Moroccan flat bread called Miloui. The women of the association were able to prepare these incredible specialties due to a recent donation of one small oven. Welcome remarks and introductions were made by Prof Oufae Bouzekri and WVN Executive Director Heidi Basch-Harod.
The oven means that these women are now able to develop something of a catering company or patisserie business. This will provide them with yet another means to earn income in a way that works with the schedule of their families. As stated in the name of the organization, the center seeks to promote women in such a manner that preserves, if not advances, the family as well. For Prof. Bouzekri, this is the most sustainable way to improve the status of women in Morocco, particularly the ones that come to the Association to give and receive services and opportunities.
Following the reception, we made our way over to the Mennouni Cultural Center to begin the evening’s symposium. We were very excited to see that the women from the cultural center indeed joined us for the evening program. There was such a strong presence of local women that the panel speakers unanimously agreed to give their presentations in Arabic (instead of French), and, for the benefit of the large number of American students who attended, Prof. Oufae summarized their speeches in English.
We started with a musical performance of a Creole song about community by Kelly, a student of Prof. Oufae and a volunteer at the Association. WVN Global Tour Coordinator Elyse Whitehead officially opened the symposium with remarks of welcome – in English, French, and Derija (Moroccan Arabic dialect) – and shared with the audience the work of WVN and our goals for visiting Morocco in order to learn about the women here, their lives, and how they are involved in strengthening their families and communities by becoming empowered. Gabé Hirschowitz, WVN Fundraising Board Member, followed Elyse with an introduction of “You Can Dream: Stories of Moroccan Women Do,” a film from WVN’s first film festival: Women’s Voices from the Muslim World.
For some of the women in the audience, “You Can Dream,” may as well have been a story about them. It follows six women who decide that they need to find a way to become economically independent in order to provide for the future of their children. One woman who was taken out of school at a young age discovers that she can make coffee from dates, which grow in abundance in Morocco, and she manages to start her own date coffee business, providing jobs and empowerment for more women in the process. Along the way, each of these six women discover what it feels like to gain self-respect, pride, the courage to dream, and the incredible satisfaction that comes when one has the power and capabilities to make her own dreams come true! As each woman revealed her personal journey, a common theme emerged from their accounts: the importance of education. Many of the women have worked tirelessly to achieve their goals, highlighting the necessity of education in order to do so. It was very moving to watch these women of Meknes watch their counterparts on screen - a mixture of pride, curiosity, recognition, and excitement.
Knowing that we had a long program in store for the evening, ISA Meknes staff organized a dance performance by a group of young men from the university. This got everyone up out of their chairs for a moment, to stretch, and to watch in amazement at the breakdancing skills of the young men who came to learn and support the work of the women in their community.
But then it was time to get down to business and discuss the serious stuff. For the first night of the symposium, moderated by Prof. Oufae Bouzekri, who participated in her capacity as patron of the Association pour la protection de la famille marocaine. From right to left (see photo below): Attny. Abla Bouzekri, discussing Article 49 of the Moroccan Family Code (Moudawana); Prof. Zohra Lhioui, speaking on Moroccan women and respresentation; Amal Chakrouni, President of the Association FDIP and speaking on its role in the struggle against violence against women; Prof. Oufae Bouzekri, moderator.
Our first speaker, Amal Chakrouni, opened her remarks with the comment that, in Morocco, it is time that women are no longer treated or considered as second class. The Government of Morocco signs many international conventions that promise to improve the rights of women but it has yet to honor those commitments. In order to implement these changes to improve the status of women, empowerment and independence is crucial and women need to become aware of their rights. When the women’s associations of Morocco work together and build solid partnerships to fight for these common goals, these aspirations will be realized.
Chakrouni continued that one of the greatest challenges facing Moroccan women today is domestic violence. Consequently her work has focused upon establishing centers where victims of domestic violence are able to seek refuge and receive legal advice on their rights as victims. There are such laws in place in Morocco but too few women are aware of these rights. Women’s centers that seek to give relief and aid to women also serve as places where women can acquire skills that may lead to income generation. For example, women may be able to participate in handicrafts classes or earn some money from baking and cooking for events in the community. These centers also provide group or individual therapy. Although domestic violence is quite common in Morocco, many women feel quite isolated in their abusive relationships, but these centers provide a safe space for women to share their experiences of trauma and to find strength in each other to continue trying to remove themselves from damaging situations.
It is important to mention, Chakrouni said, that domestic violence centers do not force women to report acts of violence. Rather, it is entirely up to the woman whether or not she will report the incident to the police or take legal action. Only if she wants assistance does the center intervene on her behalf. It is also a place where reconciliation between husbands and wives may take place, as men have to be standing side by side with women to effectively overcome this longstanding social ill.
Indeed it is very common in Morocco that women are not aware of their rights, not only in the matter of recourse in the case of domestic violence, but they are also ignorant to the rights afforded to them in matters of personal status and family lawy. Maitre Abla Bouzekri stated that in the past 20 years, women have made meaningful gains in the struggle for their rights to inheritance, marriage reforms, and successfully campaigned for major reform to Moroccan family law (Moudawana). However, despite the legal reforms, women are still not equal to men. There is still a long way to go in terms of valuing women’s work, especially when they do not work outside of the home, and in the case of death of or divorce from a spouse. To that effect, Bouzekri has been very active in the formulation and implementation of Article 49 that seeks to codify the right of a Moroccan woman to claim ownership to family assets that are customarily confiscated from her in the event of a change in her marital status. While opposition to these reforms comes with accusation that such are ideas are Western in origin and thus not fit for Morocco, Bouzekri vehemently argues that this is simply not true. Instead, this concept of equality between men and women in terms of inheritance and division of assets has been practiced in the Sous Region of Morocco as long as anyone can remember. And since “it is the right thing to do,” it should be implemented throughout the country, she said.
Prof. Zohra Lhioui discussed the fact that women are disproportionately represented, from the local to the national levels of government and leadership positions, and that this persists as a debilitating impediment to the advancement of the status of women in Morocco. If women held more government positions with clout, perhaps the questions and operations of the government would deal more explicitly and regularly with women’s rights issues, which are really problems that hold back Moroccan society as a whole, men and children included.
There is another issue, as well. There are Moroccan women holding important leadership positions, including seats in the Parliament. However, the way government business is conducted is not conducive to women’s meaningful participation. For instance, many meetings are held late at night and decisions are made in the early hours of the morning. A Moroccan woman who is also a public figure carries the double burden of maintaining her leadership position as well as adequately fulfilling the duties that society expects of her as a mother and wife. This means women leaders cannot be present at the crucial moments in the decision making of a committee upon which she may sit. Thus, while women have access and are able to achieve high levels of leadership, once there, their influence can be quite limited. This needs to change. Because if women are present in these meetings and at the time of the vote on policy reform, then perhaps labor laws, for example, will start to address the needs of working women and, most importantly, contribute to changing the patriarchal mentality that pervades Moroccan society.
A short but impassioned Q&A session followed the presentations. We discussed the necessity of creating more opportunities for women’s organizations to come together under a unified agenda. Each of the speakers also mentioned the pride and surprise they felt in witnessing the February 20th Movement that came with the Arab Spring in which young Moroccan women were out on the street, speaking to the media, using Facebook and Twitter to keep the momentum, and so well representing their demands as Moroccans and as women. Consensus was held among the panelists that as long as Moroccan women believe in their cause the struggle will continue and yield results.
As far as involvement of the international community and NGOs, like Women’s Voices Now, the speakers agreed that an exchange of ideas is crucial to keeping the women’s movement alive and adapting to continually evolving circumstances. Prof. Oufae Bouzekri, the panel’s moderator and tri-lingual translator, emphasized that Moroccan women don’t need to be told what to do, “we know what we need to do, but we can learn from the experience of the other.”
Just as the evening’s event was about to close, a question came from the audience regarding what Moroccan women can do to continue to the struggle and how to alter the patriarchal attitude of the country that is perpetuated by both men and women. Prof. Lhioui stated that Moroccan women must continue to build confidence in themselves and to value their work and their own humanity. One concrete way to do this is to campaign against street harassment and to say NO, a movement that also appeared in light of the Arab Spring with the advent of the February 20th Movement.
Prof. Oufae Bouzekri made it very clear that this shift has to start in the home. Moroccan women need to stop treating their sons as though they are princes or kings, and to value sons and daughters equally. They ARE equal, she emphasized. Boys are not superior to girls, and “it is the mother’s job, in the home,” to implement this mindset.
Special thanks to Gabé Hirschowitz for beautifully and diligently photographing the symposium.