Morocco has been held up as a brilliant example of progress for other MENA nations grappling with questions of gender equity and democracy, even before the Arab Spring Revolutions. Expanding a trend that was inaugurated by his father, King Hassan II, King Mohammad VI made it clear that in his Morocco, women’s concerns mattered. During the 12+ years of his reign, the King has taken concrete steps to demonstrate the ways in which women would be publicly visible, equal partners in the development of the country’s democratic institutions. Forgoing his legal right to 4 wives (under Islamic Shari’a law), he vowed that Salma Bennani, a computer engineer who he married in 2002, would be his only wife.  Breaking with tradition, he gave her a title, H.R.H Princess Lalla Salma, and made sure that she was publicly visible, not just to his Moroccan subjects, but to the entire world. In 2003, he gave his blessing to the reform of Morocco’s Moudawana, or Personal Status Laws, an impressive feat whose legwork was carried out by a coalition of secular feminists, religious authorities and Islamic organizations, human rights activists, and community leaders.  (After initially rejecting it, the Party of Justice and Development, PJD, accepted the new Moudawana in 2003).  Following the bombing of Casablanca in 2003 by a group believed to be affiliated with the Salafia Jihadia, he inaugurated a program to train women as religious leaders (murshidat) and install them in mosques in urban and rural towns across the country.  The stated goal of this program, profiled in the film “Class of 2006” by Charlotte Mangin (Producer) and Gini Reticker (Director), was...

Read More

Beyond the secularist vs. Islamist divide: gender justice before and after the Spring

Today’s political debates on the changes happening in the post-Arab SpringMENA, continue to employ polarizing language. Casting the major sociopolitical players of the region solely in terms of “secularist” and “Islamist” is guaranteed to obfuscate rather than illuminate shared interests and possibilities for working together to address some of the persistent challenges in the region that bear upon US interests. This is only one example of the use of divisive language, but it is among the most trenchant.  One of the reasons why it is counterproductive to understanding, and building effective alliances with, the parties that have come into power within the post-Arab spring regimes of the MENA can be illustrated by looking at how past and current ruling authorities, and the civil society organizations (CSOs) that operate within these countries, have tapped the power of women.

Read More

Islamism: Poison or Antidote for Women’s Rights?

(post originally published May 30, 2012)

Are women’s rights and Islamism (here, “political Islam”) diametrically opposed?  That is the common consensus, at least among policymakers and pundits in the West.  But all over the world, women are embracing Islamism as the source – not the antithesis—of their power and authority.  Why would women support Islamist movements that have historically opposed women’s political participation and public visibility and have only recently, sometimes reluctantly, embraced the idea of women’s mobilization?  Explanations of women’s attraction to Islamism have ranged from seeing women as victims of “false consciousness” to enumerating the ways in which they benefit from such “patriarchal bargains” (to borrow Deniz Kandiyoti’s well-known phrase), to seeing women’s activism through Islamist channels as a way for them to claim their rights as women through more widely acceptable paradigms, while simultaneously avoiding the charge of being “Western style-feminists.”

Read More