When discussing women in predominantly Islamic societies, the prominent narrative in the Western media tends to focus on oppression: the lack of opportunity, of advancement, and of freedom experienced by women in these communities. I admit that I myself often subscribed to this notion, reading about policies throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) that limited women in a variety of ways. I was particularly frustrated by practices that kept women from actively participating in their national governments--an honor and privilege I personally had representing the state of Colorado’s 4th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. However, Morocco stands out as an example for the MENA region as a country that devoutly practices Islam, promotes tolerance, and is committed to advancing its women.
During a recent trip to Morocco run and organized by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC), I was very impressed with the level of female representation in the government as well as the positive impacts on female empowerment that have accompanied the country’s economic development in the past few years. In the elections after King Mohammed VI’s 2011 reforms, the number of women serving in the Moroccan Parliament increased to 17 percent, and in 2017, Moroccan women held 21 percent of the seats in the Lower House (compared to 19 percent in the United States). Also holding positions in the government are women such as Mounia Boucetta, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Americas, Bassima Hakkaoui, the Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family, and Social Development, and Rakia Eddarhem, the Secretary of State to the Minister of Industry, Investment, Trade and Digital Economy. Having served as the deputy chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee during her term in the legislature, Rakia’s transition from a legislative to an executive role illustrates the increased fluidity of opportunity for women. Rather than achieving power in a single position, Rakia and others have the ability to apply their talents throughout the Moroccan government and share their important perspectives and ideas on a broad range of topics, both foreign and domestic.
Women also play influential roles in the private sectors as captains of domestic industry and finance. Nezha Hayat is a wonderful example. The first woman to join the board of a banking institution in Morocco, she has served as the Moroccan CapitalMarket Authority Chair since 1996 and was appointed the Vice-President of the Regional Committee for Africa and the Middle East (AMERC), a new role in which she leads a committee of regulators who oversee the region’s financial markets. Nezha’s impressive career is facilitated through the personal independence she experiences in her country, an experience not shared by many women in the Middle East countries that continue to restrict women’s freedom of movement.
A critical aspect to note is how once one woman in empowered, her progress can be more than just a symbol to others. In the case of Nezha, she is also the founder of Femmes Chefs d’Entreprises du Maroc (Association of Women Business Managers in Morocco), an organization that promotes and support female entrepreneurship in Morocco.
Beyond the expansion of professional opportunities for women in Morocco, reforms aimed at expanding women’s rights have been on an upward trajectory since the beginning of the millennia. A fundamental change was the revision of the “moudawana”, the Moroccan family code that governs a number of social aspects. A grassroots movement guided by L’Union de l’Action Féminine pushed to reform this code, since many aspects limited gender equality in official family law. These efforts were highly successful, resulting in a formal reform act in 2004 as well as revisions to the Moroccan constitution in 2011. Changes to this code guaranteed many important rights for women, including those to self-guardianship and divorce, while also raising the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18 and criminalizing sexual harassment. Such reforms, often still topics of debate in our country, have been fully codified in Morocco, providing these citizens the equality and protections they are entitled to.
Further, the success of such a reformist movement serves as a critical example to other countries in the Middle East and Africa. This has already proven effective. Following revisions to the moudawana and the success repeal of Article 475, Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon continued down Morocco’s progressive path and removed their own laws that trapped victims in marriages with their abusers.
In Morocco, I found a clear and admirable demonstration of the interplay between Islamic social heritage and modern concepts of gender equality and—contrary to common misperceptions—the lack of any contradiction between the two. Such an example must be supported by like-minded allies committed to breaking through existing gender barriers. In this, the United States has the chance to highlight Morocco as a true gateway between the West and Africa, linking these two continents in new ways that continue to advance equality for all.
Betsy Markey is the former U.S. Representative for Colorado's 4th congressional district, serving from 2009 to 2011 and the former Assistant Secretary for Intergovernmental Affairs in the United States Department of Homeland Security.