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Modernizing Patriarchy

Modernizing Patriarchy
The Politics of Women's Rights in Morocco

This ethnographic study breaks the silence on women’s rights and contemporary development in Morocco, where legal and educational advances are actually leaving some women behind, especially educated, single women.

September 2015
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251 pages | 6 x 9 | 5 b&w photos |

Morocco is hailed by academics, international NGO workers, and the media as a trailblazer in women’s rights and legal reforms. The country is considered a model for other countries in the Middle East and North African region, but has Morocco made as much progress as experts and government officials claim? In Modernizing Patriarchy, Katja Žvan Elliott examines why women’s rights advances are lauded in Morocco in theory but are often not recognized in reality, despite the efforts of both Islamist and secular feminists.

In Morocco, female literacy rates remain among the lowest in the region; many women are victims of gender-based violence despite legal reforms; and girls as young as twelve are still engaged to adult men, despite numerous reforms. Based on extensive ethnographic research and fieldwork in Oued al-Ouliya, Modernizing Patriarchy offers a window into the life of Moroccan Muslim women who, though often young and educated, find it difficult to lead a dignified life in a country where they are expected to have only one destiny: that of wife and mother. Žvan Elliott exposes their struggles with modernity and the legal reforms that are supposedly ameliorating their lives. In a balanced approach, she also presents male voices and their reasons for criticizing the prevailing women’s rights discourse. Compelling and insightful, Modernizing Patriarchy exposes the rarely talked about reality of Morocco’s approach toward reform.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Note on Transliteration
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Ethnographic Reflections
  • Chapter Two: Politicization of Gender
  • Chapter Three: The State, the Public, and Women's Rights
  • Chapter Four: Twenty-First-Century Marriage: Gender Equality or Complementarity
  • Chapter Five: Rural, Educated, and Single
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Ifrane, Morocco

Žvan Elliott is an assistant professor of political science/North African and Middle East studies in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Al Akhawayn University.



Karima was my primary contact in Oued al-Ouliya, a relatively small rural community in the southeastern part of Morocco, where I conducted my fieldwork. She was forty-two years old, single, and a literacy teacher with a degree in Islamic law. She was living in an extended family household with her mother, brother, widowed sister-in-law, and their families. Her personality was rather overbearing and she had “an old mind,” prompting her nieces to conclude that “no wonder no one wants to marry her,” but showed a much more submissive attitude toward her brothers, village elders, and married women. She was among the first in the family to wake up every morning to sweep the floors outside the house and eat breakfast before leaving for work at the local Association Oued for the Development of Women’s Work (Association [Oued] pour le Développement du Travail Féminin). Her morning students were elementary school pupils whose parents could afford to pay for extra tutorials in reading, writing, calculation, and Islamic studies. After lunch, she and two other educated single adult girls were teaching three classes in the informal education program (tarbiya ghair nidamiya). Evenings, too, were taken up with private lessons she was giving to her neighbor’s son. Karima was working full time, six days a week, and earning significant money for a woman in this community. Given the opportunity, however, married women mocked her status as a girl. (In Morocco, as elsewhere in the region, marriage and not age transforms a female’s status from one of a girl to that of an adult woman.) Despite being educated and working outside the home, Karima’s “advanced” age prompted many people to deny her status as physical adult and question her femininity. She was treated as mskina (poor thing) by her family and community rather than as the poster girl of development workers who promote the idea of education as a necessary if not the only way to women’s empowerment and autonomy in the Global South.

The question of what defines a woman is not a new issue. Feminists, notably Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, have discussed the topic at length, and their work has significantly influenced a diversity of approaches to the enhancement of women’s rights within the international development community and national decision-making elites. The case of Karima is an example of how becoming a woman in Morocco is a political and legal question rather than a biological one. There are different categories of adult womanhood, and Karima belongs to that of the underdog. Being a female means that she is not entitled to own family property, and being unmarried inhibits her playing a part in the management of the household. Finally, being an unmarried girl implies that her personal autonomy and independence are severely restricted, regardless of her education, employment, and age.

What does it mean to be a woman and a girl in contemporary Morocco and who and what determine the characteristics of each? Each chapter of the book addresses these questions from a slightly different angle, bringing in new actors and their discourses of women’s empowerment, such as that of the Islamists and the feminists, the neopatriarchal state (re-)creating a legal schizophrenia, and local society fighting these discourses in an attempt to survive in an invasive neoliberal state. Each chapter also introduces a new category of womanhood, be it women as a blanket term for all female citizens—be they married, divorced, or widowed women—or to denote educated single adult girls. As not all women are equal to each other, it is important to anatomize how the pervasive women’s rights discourses affect the different categories of women that exist in a state. Such an analysis is necessary if we truly wish to gauge the impact of development policies tackling poverty and women’s disenfranchisement.

“Zoom in on an unimaginable Morocco”

Lying on the westernmost fringes of the Arab world, Morocco is a bit of an oddball in the region. Never part of the Ottoman Empire, ruled by the longest-standing Arab monarchy, the Alaouites, and never quite caught up in the Nasserist revolutionary fervor of the 1950s and 1960s, but rather developing its own multiparty parliamentary system, the country gives the impression that it is relatively modernized, moderate, and indeed progressive and liberal. Its elites, too, have for some time identified themselves more with the West than its neighbors to the east or the south. Today, the country is praised for its “model” legal reforms in the realm of women’s rights, its liberalizing economic and political agenda, and of course for its professedly reformist king Muhammad VI.

Morocco, it is true, is historically, economically, politically, and culturally tied with the West, and the country’s liberalizing reforms have been informed and often pushed and financed by the international development and financial institutions. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank’s (WB) Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) was introduced to Morocco in 1983. This coincided with the opening of United States Agency for International Development (USAID) office in Rabat that began with the Training for Development Project organized for educated Moroccans who were to work for the agency. In the mid-1980s, the NGO-ization of women’s rights issues began with Morocco’s banned Islamist organization Al-ʿAdl wa-l-Ihsan (Justice and Spirituality Organisation—JSO), establishing a women’s section, and secular leftist women creating Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (Democratic Association of Moroccan Women—ADFM) and Union de l’Action Féminine (Union of Women’s Action—UAF). (Members of all three groups assured me that their organization rather than the other two was the trailblazer.) By 2011 the number of women’s groups in the country had escalated to such a degree that one Moroccan activist quite rightly concluded that establishing a women’s rights association has become a form of (family) business enterprise for middleto upper-class women. Such feminization of Morocco’s civil society and its operation as a business has led to much competition for limited foreign and national funds and to competition for a leading position within the women’s rights movement. Such a position, however, though a boon to obtaining funds, does not translate into the movement’s wider recognition among the Moroccan general public and particularly by women, their supposed subjects. The issue of women’s rights in Morocco today is as much a question of what kind of gender politics to adopt to genuinely ameliorate the position of women as it is a question of criticism of the universalist and Western feminist-inspired international development campaigns.

All indicators show that Morocco’s human development indicators have improved, although the country still performs below the Arab average and below many of the countries within the category of medium human development. Morocco’s 2005 report (Kingdom of Morocco 2005b) on the national progress of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) shows that primary education enrollment increased to 87 percent in 2003–2004 compared with 60.2 percent a decade earlier, in 1993–1994. Its main beneficiaries were particularly girls from rural areas. Morocco’s latest MDG report from 2009 (Kingdom of Morocco 2010) projects that the country is likely to meet the goal of universal primary education for girls and boys by 2015.

It is also true that a Moroccan woman under King Muhammad VI has more legal rights compared with the Moroccan woman under his father, Hassan II, in the 1990s. To paraphrase Moroccan sociologist and feminist Fatima Mernissi (1993), the king’s project of modernizing the country has therefore ostensibly had as a consequence the emergence of women as citizens. In the government headed by Istiqlal’s Abbas al-Fassi from 2007 to 2011, there were five female ministers and two secretaries of state, and 34 out of 325 members of parliament were female. While the number of female parliamentarians increased to 65 out of 395 members under the succeeding Islamist-led government, there was only one female minister in the original cabinet. When the coalition fell apart and the king appointed a new government in October 2013, an additional ministry was given to a woman. (It should be noted however, that the ministries “given” to women politicians can be considered as traditionally female sectors—Bassima Hakkaoui has been running the Ministry of Solidarity, Women, Family, and Social Development and Fatema Marouane has become the head of the Ministry of Handicrafts, Social, and Solidarity Economy.)

The 2004 Family Code (Mudawwanat al-Usra) reform gave women the right to choose to get married without their wali (legal tutor) upon reaching the age of majority, which is set at eighteen. This law also grants women the right to initiate divorce on the basis of irreconcilable differences and without paying compensation to her husband to release her (khulʿa divorce). Furthermore, a 2003 reform of the Labor Code recognized the principle of gender equality in employment and salaries. These are only a few examples of increased presence of women in Morocco’s political life and reformed legal rights that have the potential to ameliorate the situation of women.

However, what does the enhancement of legal and civil rights mean in the context of persisting patriarchy within the state and family, as well as in the face of deteriorating economic conditions in more structurally marginalized regions of the country but also among the urban lowerand middle-class families? The IMF and WB’s promotion of SAPs, of which Morocco was an early and eager student, as well as mismanaged economic liberalization have been recognized as among the main reasons for the deterioration of living standards not only in Morocco but across the globe. The Beijing Platform for Action, the main document produced at the 1995 UN Conference on Women, for example, recognizes SAPs as putting additional burdens on poor rural women and children. The document asserts that “[t]he number of women living in poverty has increased in most regions. There are many urban women living in poverty; however, the plight of women living in rural and remote areas deserves special attention given the stagnation of development in such areas” (UN, The Fourth World Conference on Women 1995). Morocco, similarly, wrote in its Beijing +10 report that social expenditure for education decreased by 11 percent by the end of the 1990s, which had a negative impact on the enrollment of girls in school (Kingdom of Morocco 2005a). However, although the country recorded a 23 percent increase in educational spending in 2008, authors such as Silvia Colombo rightly conclude that “the low institutional quality of agencies in charge of channeling this investment . . . means that the poor quality of education in Morocco is unlikely to be tackled effectively” (2011, 6). Such an observation challenges the government’s promise to achieve universal primary education by 2015. Inadequate utilization of funding is recognized as a result of Morocco’s always having favored economic reforms over meaningful political and institutional reforms, which would address unaccountability, patron-client relations of which the monarchy benefits the most, corruption, and a dysfunctional electoral system (Colombo 2011; Joffe 2009).

Economic liberalization based on SAPs with concomitant austerity measures is seen as further harming women’s integration in development and progress of their country. Valentine Moghadam in her book Women, Work, and Economic Reform (1998b) argues that in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region cutbacks in social spending (but also misallocated aid) impose additional burdens on women because in their role as housewives they are the ones responsible for the well-being and managing of the family budget. Similarly, Naila Kabeer (2003) reports that SAPs caused a “scissors effect” on women’s time because women as the primary caretakers had to increase the amount of (unremunerated) hours to nurture and help those in need. Yet, at the same time many women had to take up poorly paid jobs in exploitative industries and/or the informal sector to compensate for either male unemployment or increased living expenses, if not both (Cairoli 2011).

What do such savings in social spending mean when linked with the state of human development? Illiteracy among rural females above the age of ten in 2004, when the last national census in Morocco was conducted, was still alarmingly high at 74.5 percent (HCP 2008). Women are also underrepresented in the Moroccan workforce, since in 2011 only 26.7 percent of the workforce was female; and women are more likely to experience longer-term unemployment (over one year) than men (HCP 2011). In 2010 only 17 percent of those employed had health insurance and while in urban areas the percentage was slightly better at 31.4 percent, in rural areas an abysmal 3.5 percent of those employed were insured (Agueniou 2010). Furthermore, 11.10 percent of all marriages concluded in 2010 were between an adult man and an underage girl and the rate was slightly higher at almost twelve percent in 2011 (Ministry of Justice 2011, 2012). The conclusion of the Moroccan government in its 2005 MDG report that “despite progress, Morocco is acutely aware of delays in social development and the fight against poverty” (Kingdom of Morocco 2005b), prompts one to ask, how well Moroccan women are integrated into the development of the state.

Or conversely, who are these women contained in the numerous statistics, reports, and development rhetoric arguing that Morocco is nonetheless making progress? Oyeronke Oyewumi is right in concluding that “[t]he woman at the heart of feminism is a wife” (2000, 1094). So, too, is this the case for the development community and for the Moroccan state. Much of the literature deals either with an unspecific category of women or with married women, giving the (false) impression that marital status does not play a significant role in women’s position in society. Moreover, women’s rights seem to be “hijacked” by rights of married women. At the heart of the reformed Moroccan Family Code, the leading and extolled legal document ostensibly improving the legal rights of women in Morocco, is a married woman (or a girl about to get married). The code’s general silence on, if not marginalization of, the rights of single adult girls and, to a certain extent, also divorced and widowed women, subjects them to the whims of their families and local customs.

Islamist, secular, and state development agendas

I understand contemporary development (women’s rights) discourse in Morocco to be directed by the international development agenda based on documents and guidelines such as, but not exclusively, the Beijing Platform for Action, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the MDGs. These three documents are among the main agenda-setting directives, informing much of the official government and (predominantly secular) NGOled programs and campaigns for the amelioration of women’s rights in the country. They furthermore supply material to two other, more specific approaches to women’s issues in Morocco. The first one is the legalistic approach, promoted mostly by the Moroccan elite and secular feminist women’s rights groups, such as the UAF, ADFM, and La Ligue Démocratique pour les Droits des Femmes (the Democratic League for Women’s Rights—LDDF) that deem legal and constitutional reforms implementing gender equality as defined by CEDAW as a necessary prelude to changing people’s mentalities and the advancement of society.

Its rival is the bottom-up approach to progress, advocated by the more moderate Moroccan Islamist movements, such as the JSO and to a lesser extent the parliamentary Parti de la Justice et du Développement (Justice and Development Party—PJD). Contrary to widespread belief I argue that these two latter organizations are not averse to societal progress in the realm of women’s rights. Rather, their respective programs are ones of gradualism and seeking an “authentic” and specifically Moroccan Islamic solution to the problems and challenges arising from colonialism, modernity, and globalization. Legal reforms, which, for them, must be grounded in the contemporary rereading of religious texts, are a necessary consequence of society’s readiness and ameliorated systemic conditions and not a precondition. And, as many other Islamist groups in the region have been arguing in the post–Arab Spring region, modernity and religiosity are not antithetical; instead, Muslim-majority states need to develop a pious modernity based on a “sound” reading of religious legal texts rather than by following the “foreign” and secular Western model. Though this is an important distinction that sets Islamist groups apart from the secular ones, one of the main distinctions between their social agendas is that the secularists focus their immediate attention on the promotion of strategic gender interests whereas the Islamists focus on practical ones. Nonetheless, the two groups share an end goal—women’s empowerment. Chapter 2 will further explore this.

I call secular feminists as such because they promote secularization of the legal system, and most of them refer to themselves as feminists. Zakia Salime (2011), on the other hand, terms feminists attached to the ADFM or UAF as liberal feminists.5 I agree with her, but I nonetheless refer to secular feminism when describing them because their agenda is primarily secular in nature despite that some of them engage with the Islamic reference. As Salime contends, this was done with the purpose of furthering their universalist ideas of women’s rights. I as well will demonstrate in Chapter 2 that the utilization of religious language was a strategic choice rather than a genuine attempt at the Islamization of their evidently secular agenda. Their frame of reference is the international human rights law and they staunchly defend the universality of human rights, to which women’s rights also belong. In their view, an Islamic framework of human rights, even when accommodated to address contemporary social, economic, and political developments, falls short of recognizing and institutionalizing gender equality because of such unresolved issues as polygyny, depriving women of equal inheritance shares, and the issue of veil, to name a few. Fatima Outaleb, the director of the UAF’s Shelter for Women Victims of Violence in Rabat (the capital of Morocco) called the Annajda Centre, underlined this issue firmly in my interview with her in 2011: “We are secular and we will die secular. And we will do our best to remain secular.”

However, although secular feminist activists seem to be proud of their label, mainstream society continues to associate secularism with atheism and thus considers it a Western notion, which has to be resisted and condemned as foreign and inauthentic.6 The Islamists, on the other hand, advocate a need to devise a Moroccan Islamic epistemology in order to retain the country’s ostensible cultural uniqueness and authenticity. Much of the Islamist discourse is still their attempt to liberate themselves from what they perceive as the neo-Orientalist and neo-imperial ideological onslaught.

The effect of state-led legal reforms

What is missing in this struggle for the hegemony of one ideological frame of reference over the other? The nonexistence of a constructive dialogue and the lack of tolerance between the secular feminists and Islamist activists harm those whom their campaigns are supposed to help—Moroccan women. Advocating for legal reforms and working with women and men on the ground in urban, rural, and remote areas have to be merged rather than promoted as two separate projects, as admittedly happens now. The conflict, however, is not easy to solve because it is mired in ideological debates about the appropriate human rights frame of reference. Should it be secular or religious? universal or culturally specific? Chapters 2 through 4 will examine in more detail these ideological binaries and their effect on society.

Furthermore, what is the purpose of legal reforms if not to both follow social reality and address social dynamism? Does waiting for society as a whole to metamorphose resemble waiting for Godot? These concerns bring me to the question to be dealt with in Chapters 3 through 5: How do laws and women’s rights discourse affect social reality? It is well documented that the application of the Mudawwana has been slow, and this leads many to conclude that the law has had a rather uneven and minuscule effect on the changes in gender relations. Most of the literature contends that slow application is a result of continuing low literacy rates, women’s ignorance in particular of the law itself, and corruptibility of judges (ADFM 2007; Ennaji 2008; Willman Bordat and Schaefer Davis 2011). I, however, contend that numerous campaigns organized by the state and various NGOs and the coverage of the topic in the media have resulted in raising public awareness of the reforms. Theater productions, for example, and government-sponsored soap operas dealing with such topics as the Mudawwana reforms, women’s empowerment, and promotion of state-sanctioned modernization of female propriety in the public sphere have become a significant part of the regime’s agenda to advance women’s rights within a controlled and modernized patriarchal system (Jay 2013). The problem of (non)application thus necessarily lies somewhere else. Many women (but also the ʿadul, or religious notaries in charge of drafting marital and other contracts) themselves have adopted the attitude of “pick and choose” to the more exposed and therefore controversial provisions of the law, such as the legal age of marriage, women’s right to choose to get married with or without the wali, and stipulating extra conditions into the marital contracts or concluding a prenuptial agreement. A discussion about the disconnect between modernity (represented by the law) and traditions (represented by people’s attitudes) is salient, and it will feature prominently in Chapter 4.

Furthermore, material poverty, which forces many into either marrying off their daughters at an early age or maintaining a dysfunctional, if not abusive, marriage because women have nowhere else to go, is an important factor contributing to the lack of implementation or recognition of the law. Coupled with this is also the largely nonexistent infrastructure in more provincial and rural areas and police, medical, and other staff who are insufficiently trained to deal with women seeking help; however, it is also true that many men and women are not willing to help women because of their own personal biases (Terrab 2007; Willman Bordat and Schaefer Davis 2009).7 Women thus have nowhere to go to and therefore submit to their “fate.”

Finally, what is lacking in most debates about the Mudawwana is the recognition that the reformed law has failed to live up to its reputation. The third and fourth chapters will demonstrate how the law is perpetuating patriarchal family relations rather than instituting gender equality.

Methodological considerations

This is an ethnographic study of women as the main subject of the contemporary Moroccan development and women’s rights agenda. Borrowing the concept of the spiral of silence from Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1984; Gray 2008), the purpose of this book is also to break this spiral, because when the subaltern speaks she exposes the inherent malfunctions of the supposed (Moroccan) liberalizing project.

How is such a discrepancy between the image that Morocco has cultivated for the domestic and international public consumption and the reality on the ground possible? One problem is data collecting. Looking at the official census statistics for the community I studied, and especially data dealing with education and first-time marriages among girls, appeared to me as grossly exaggerated. I shall deal with the issue of the possibility of “politically correcting” data in Chapters 4 and 5; suffice it to say here that a cursory inquiry into how data were collected revealed that none of my interlocutors remembered being surveyed by a government official. In addition, by chance I came across a survey conducted by Morocco’s statistical agency called Haut-Commissariat au Plan (High Commission for Planning—HCP) that dealt with the implementation of the Mudawwana five years after the reform. The results of the survey, however, were never published because, as I was told by a source at the agency who did not want to be named, they were “too sensitive politically.”

The second important issue is the question of what numbers can actually reveal about the lived realities of people. I suggest that even sexdisaggregated data do not suffice in gauging the quality of women’s and men’s lives. Material poverty is, to a large extent, quantifiable and measured on the basis of various indicators, such as the somewhat outdated income per capita or the updated Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI). Yet even improved and expanded gender-related poverty indicators, such as the UNDP’s Gender-related Development Index (GDI) and Gender Empowerment Index (GEM), though welcome for a general analysis, continue to portray the kind of picture that does not necessarily reflect people’s perceptions of their own condition. Regardless, various leading international organizations recognize poverty first and foremost as material deprivation, and it is only recently that some authors and agencies have started to look at it from a multidimensional perspective. The WB’s World Development Report: Attacking Poverty, for example, identifies poverty primarily in economic and material terms while also acknowledging the effect of “social norms, values, and customary practices” on the exclusion of women and other minority groups from actively participating in the national economy (2000, 3). This report furthermore specifies other areas of human development, such as low achievement in education, poor health, and substandard nutrition, all of which constitute human privation (World Bank 2000). The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in its 2005 En Route to Equality report defined poverty as income, human, and time poverty.

Many academics as well agree that poverty cannot be reduced to pecuniary privation. Unquantifiable poverty, such as gender-based discrimination and lack of self-esteem, respect, and power, is gaining recognition. Hilary Silver and S. M. Miller (2003) write about the European Union’s (EU) definition of social exclusion as distinct from income poverty and rightly argue that the notion of social exclusion offers a more holistic approach to and understanding of poverty. The EU “recasts exclusion as an inability to exercise ‘the social rights of citizens’ to a basic standard of living and as barriers to ‘participation’ in the major social and occupational opportunities of the society” (2003, 8). Naila Kabeer, too, argues that “[t]he well-being of human beings, and what matters to them, does not only depend on their purchasing power but on other less tangible aspects, such as dignity and self-respect” (2003, 80). It is such a definition of poverty as social deprivation or exclusion which is absent from most of the domestic and international institutional statistics and reports.

In other words, women’s (and men’s) lives reduced to numbers, while decontextualizing people’s experiences can give a false impression of the nature of the country’s progress. One often neglected reason thereof is that such indicators do not normally distinguish between different categories of women—according to marital status, age, and educational background. They thus reveal a generalized view of the state of women’s rights in the country, while disregarding the fact that many women, despite lacking education and an independent income, may be satisfied with their societal status and life. In a number of societies, including the MENA region, the status of many women improves with both becoming a wife and giving birth to children rather than through generating income. Diane Singerman and Homa Hoodfar are right in concluding that Egyptian “working women may actually lose their power and status they had in the household because when they work their non-cash contributions to the household decline” (1996, xvii). Moreover, Fida Adely (2013) writes about the Jordanian gender paradox, echoing what seems to be an untapped market for research from other parts of the world about the misunderstood links between education and women’s empowerment. Rather than education enabling women to find jobs outside the home, which is what development agencies so forcefully promote, education has become the means toward different ends. In the Jordanian case, as demonstrated by Adely, education has been linked with improving a girl’s chances to get married. Marriage and not waged employment remains the primary ticket for the enhancement of a woman’s societal status. However, whereas Adely’s interlocutors in Jordan hoped to boost their credentials on the marriage market, in provincial Morocco sending daughters to bigger cities to complete their higher education resulted in many of them facing a different paradox. These educated single adult girls have not only been unable to climb the social ladder by finding good and respectable jobs but they have also been marginalized by their own communities due to their inability to get married. Contrary to Adely’s findings, education of girls in Oued al-Ouliya, as well as in provincial Morocco more generally, has in many cases resulted in forfeiting the opportunity to (ever) get married and as a consequence failing to achieve full adulthood.

Again, the problem arguably lies in the way most leading international organizations, such as the WB and UN, define empowerment of women mostly in terms of increasing women’s economic role and political agency—joining the workforce and having a greater say in the institutions of the state—rather than empowerment on a more personal level. In other words, it is empowerment for economic development of countries rather than empowerment of women per se which is being promoted (Chant 2007). Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their development best seller, for example, make the link unequivocal by concluding that “the economic implications of gender discrimination are most serious. To deny women is to deprive a country of labor and talent, but—even worse—to undermine the drive to achievement of boys and men” (2009, 160).

Moreover, much of the development discourse has been preoccupied with the notion of feminization of poverty. This idea that poverty is somehow gendered has led to purposely invented slogans such as “femaleheaded households are the poorest of the poor,” “to fight poverty, invest in girls,” “educated mothers [sic!] get married later and have fewer children,” and “women still constitute seventy percent of the world’s poor” in order to attract generous donations for the women’s rights project. In addition, such beliefs have, in the words of Srilatha Batliwala and Deepa Dhanraj, “become mythologized as they become development orthodoxy” (2007, 33). These notions have become so common place that many books, newspaper, and Internet articles referring to various aspects of female poverty and women’s supposedly critical role for economic and human development, do not feel the need to reference their sources anymore. Yet, recognizing women as central to fighting national poverty has indirectly put the blame for poverty on women rather than on larger malfunctions and/or unabated patriarchy, supported and indeed promoted by regimes, as is the case in Morocco and elsewhere in the region.

Moreover, homogenization of women on the basis of, for example, household headship (male and female) does not say much about the range of diverse experiences of women and girls within these households, particularly when some women voluntarily “trade off ” their personal autonomy for financial support and living in a male-headed household. Women may thus be poor materially but not in terms of power, psychological well-being, and/or personal security (Chant 1997, 2007; Davids and van Driel 2001). Trading the material security of living in a maleheaded household for personal autonomy is thus an expression of selfdetermination applied to dealing with adverse situations; yet statistics do not display such female emancipation as such. On the other hand, focusing on the poverty of female-headed households also gives a (false) impression that women and children in male-headed households lead better lives. Again, disregarding the so-called secondary poverty or social exclusion of women and girls in such households (or any type of household for that matter) in poverty-alleviation programs and women’s rights campaigns is dangerous and necessarily discriminatory against married women and single adult girls, whom both the literature and development community seem to neglect or mention only in terms of their assumed (future) roles as wives and mothers.

Further disaggregating data and paying attention to local gender attributes is thus pertinent to the discussion about poverty and women’s empowerment and can reveal a much more nuanced picture than the one painted by numerous available statistics. Micro-level ethnographic research is therefore best suited to expose some of the misconceptions of the contemporary development discourse and to bring to light the intrahousehold inequalities and social deprivation of different categories of women. Particularly younger married and single women, though actively renegotiating their space and rights recognized by the state, carefully tread within the confines of locally delineated patriarchal rules of gendered propriety. Patriarchy thus is modernized, yet reaffirmed by the extent of the trenchant development discourse, legal reforms, and specific socioeconomic conditions of particular communities. Nowhere is this clearer than in the status of educated single adult girls, who will be the subject of the analysis in Chapter 5.

Development activists and policy makers assume that women, if made aware of their rights through education, will invariably be able to choose a more autonomous and empowered life. There are two problems with such a view. First, what does autonomy and empowerment mean for women? Is there a universal definition that women the world over could relate to? As suggested above, many women in this region become empowered through marriage rather than by earning a wage and living an independent life as (Western) development agencies make us believe. And second, this book challenges such reductionist assumptions by looking at married and particularly educated single adult girls from provincial areas and argues that they are denied this right to choose. In the Moroccan case, this is a consequence of the failure of the modernizing project presented in the guise of the reformed Family Code, accompanied by the state’s inability and society’s reluctance to enable educated girls to put their education to work. As such, this book fits into a broader discussion on youth exclusion in the contemporary MENA region as a result of the failure or ineptness of governments to fulfill their part of the social (Nasserist) contract, the youth bulge and unemployment, failed economic liberalization and neoliberal reforms, the influence of mass media, and, finally, delayed marriage (Assaad and Ramadan 2008; Boudarbat 2005; Boudarbat and Ajbilou 2007; Kouaouci 2004; Meijer 2000; Singerman 2007). As Brahim Boudarbat and Aziz Ajbilou writing on youth exclusion in Morocco rightly contend, youth bulge should be looked at as a demographic gift because “by building the human capital of young workers and providing them with opportunities to use their skills, Morocco can increase income per capita, bolster savings and improve social welfare” (2007, 5). Instead, young people in the MENA region in general find themselves in a liminal space between the familial ethos and the Internet era, between collectivity and individualism, between being physically adult but not adult in the eyes of society. They are in the state of what Singerman (2007) terms “wait adulthood.” In her important and timely research on the economic imperatives of marriages in Egypt, she discusses young (male) adults who delay getting married well into adulthood in order to save sufficient amounts of money for the wedding and accompanying costs. While waiting, these young (male) adults continue to live with and depend financially and otherwise on their parents. Such living situation and indeed delaying the foreordained can create sexual and other frustrations due to the general conservative societal attitudes toward what initiates full adulthood, dating, and unwedded sexuality. Conflicts between the old and the new moral order abound and are played out in public, many of which were further exposed during the Arab Spring. The outrage provoked by the virginity tests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as by the Egyptian Alia al-Mahdy’s nude photos, which she posted on her blog in November 2011, are only two such examples demonstrating the unresolved generational and ideological schism. And the 2013 Femen protests in Tunisia show that questions about women’s freedom (or right) to choose and what constitutes justice will continue to be hotly debated in the post–Arab Spring region. There is a need among the youth to reinvent themselves to cope with the restricting realities of their modernizing societies, yet at the same time there is also the need to conform to the established patterns of propriety and social and family expectations to secure a future. This book is a contribution to this salient debate because it concentrates on the rural single adult girls in Morocco, a category much neglected in the literature, which for the most part deals with the urban educated (male) youth between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. I have expanded this age bracket to include single adult girls beyond what academics define as youth because girls in their thirties, too, are part and parcel of the “waithood” phenomena experienced in the region. As will be demonstrated in Chapter 5, these girls experience waithood in a different way because they are marginalized from the labor market, realizing that education is not a strategy to climb the social ladder, as well as from the women’s rights discourse simply because they are not (yet) complete women. Whereas Singerman (2007) concentrates predominately on the male waithood due to the high financial cost of getting married and Boudarbat and Ajbilou (2007) similarly conclude that in Morocco the extent of delaying marriage depends on monetary difficulties of both women and men, I question such assumptions based solely on a person’s budgetary limitations. These authors neglect to address different societal and familial expectations placed on women on the one hand and men on the other, in addition to failing to recognize that the genders face contrasting repercussions when delaying marriage well into physical adulthood. Delaying marriage for girls may in fact translate into spinsterhood for life. A girl’s (young) age and inexperience, rather than her education and employment, continue to define her as a suitable bride; whereas for a man, his mature age and experience of living away from his family while getting an education and/or earning money only confirms his masculinity or the ability to fulfill his masculine societal duties.

Case studies of consideration

The main analysis of this book focuses on two categories: married women and (educated) single adult girls in a provincial Moroccan community I call Oued al-Ouliya. The community lies in the Errachidia province, much of which is, according to poverty maps, among the more economically vulnerable and poverty-stricken regions in Morocco (World Bank 2004). An ethnographic analysis of the community will follow this introduction. I chose these two groups of women as being perhaps the most representative types and, what appears to be, on opposite poles of womanhood in this community in particular and in Morocco more generally. Although educated single girls represent a minority, they nonetheless form an important category not only because the majority of families in Oued al-Ouliya will have at least one such daughter but also because the development discourse places an enormous emphasis on the education of girls from poorer backgrounds. The singlehood of these girls could be one repercussion of higher education and as such warrants a closer look at their situation. Contrasting their experiences is thus necessary for understanding the impact of the development discourse on women’s lives.

Poverty, understood as social deprivation, exclusion, or disenfranchisement, is manifesting itself in different ways in married women and single adult girls, regardless of the type of household they live in. Whereas being married is defined as fulfilling one’s role in society, being single is failing in doing so. Daisy Hilse Dwyer in Images and Self-Images: Male and Female in Morocco (1978) contends that generally young girls were excluded from verbal denigration, whereas married, divorced, and widowed women were usually its target. I argue that being divorced or widowed, particularly with children, is not stigmatized to the extent that being an (educated) single adult girl is. Education, I suggest, has changed the perception of these girls since the 1970s, when Dwyer did her research. Postsecondary education makes them vulnerable to slander and gossip owing to their experiences of living away from the community while at the university. Looking at the so-called intra-household inequalities between women and men in general and different categories of women within households in particular sheds light on diverse experiences of social deprivation. Furthermore, adding education to women’s status shows that although education is generally accepted as a positive and welcome contribution, there are negative consequences to being “too” educated. On the basis of analyzing education in Oued al-Ouliya in Chapter 5, I contend that in the case of educated single adult girls, higher education can be an impediment to fulfilling their feminine role. I demonstrate that the prevailing development and women’s rights discourses and homogenization of women as one category obscures the experiences of many educated single adult girls. A combination of pursuing (post)secondary education, while deferring to a specific local social order, traps them in the space between traditions, symbolized in the community expectations of the ideal woman, and modernity, a quest for autonomy and individualized identity through employment and ownership of resources as promised by the development projects. In fact, these girls fail in fulfilling either their traditional feminine role or the modern one.

Despite their education, girls lack negotiating powers because opposing one’s parents and brothers, whose role is to protect these girls regardless of their marital status, is like bringing a lifelong curse upon oneself and consequently losing protection and her identity. Although it is wrong to think of these girls as completely vulnerable—their power is seen in the way their behavior affects the honor of their male kin and family—it is precisely such gender-role ideology that forces families to control their daughters’ movement and hence restricts their opportunities (Abu-Lughod 1999; Joseph 1994).

Why such inequality in women’s statuses in society? The most apparent reason is found in the way society and the Family Code define a woman. I contend that a woman in the legal (and practical) context is a married woman regardless of her age. (It is for this reason, and following the local terminology, that throughout this book I use girl to denote an unmarried woman and woman as her married [or divorced and widowed] counterpart.) Single adult girls, albeit having reached the legal age of majority, continue to be treated as minors by the law and their families. In other words, legal majority does not entail or lead to personal autonomy. How has the “silent revolution,” as the reform of the Family Code has been referred to in Morocco’s 2005 MDG report (Kingdom of Morocco 2005b), ameliorated the position of these girls? Or has it?


During the period of my final stage of fieldwork, which was conducted from October 2009 to June 2010 in Oued al-Ouliya, I lived with a local family of eight people belonging to three generations. This living arrangement gave me an invaluable opportunity to be an active participant observer of family life. Through the women in the household I met many other women and particularly single adult girls in the community for reasons which shall be illuminated in the following chapter. A few of these girls became my good friends, and therefore I cannot but disagree with Gesa E. Kirsch, who argues that “as feminist scholars . . . we need to understand that our interactions with participants are most often based on friendliness, not genuine friendship” (2005, 2170).

During this time I took four breaks: a three-weekand a four-weeklong break to visit my family in Europe and to attend a conference in the United States, in addition to two shorter, five-day trips to attend a conference in Marrakech and to see my husband in Europe. I felt that these breaks from my life in the village and from the local family I lived with were necessary because lack of privacy and, at least at the beginning, my own frustration as a result of the inability to coherently communicate with people and to make sense of situations, proved to be quite challenging. My time away from the village was also an opportunity to reflect on my discontent, my dealings with people and situations, and on my research. “[B]eing an ethnographer,” wrote Pat Caplan, “means studying the self as well as the other. In this time, the self becomes ‘Othered,’ an object of study, while at the same time, the other, because of familiarity . . . becomes part of the self ” (1993, 180).

In Oued al-Ouliya I conducted thirty-three individual semistructured recorded interviews, two recorded discussions with both women and men, and a written survey among thirty-five girls attending informal education classes. I tried to choose the interviewed women and men on the basis of what I hoped was a somewhat representative sample of the community, paying attention particularly to their age, marital status, and educational background. In addition to my field research in this community, I interviewed women participants in the USAID literacy classes in four different provincial localities—El Hajeb, Douar Laouamra, Ben Slimmane, and Tamazirt—from October 2008 to December 2008. These interviews were an in-depth survey of the effect of literacy courses on women’s lives outside of classrooms. Its analysis contributes to the understanding of how transformative education is for women living in conservative and lower-income households, communities, and regions.

Finally, during my various trips to Morocco from January 2007 to May 2011, I conducted interviews with secular (ADFM and UAF) and Islamist (JSO) women’s rights activists in Rabat, Fez, and Casablanca. I concentrated on these three associations because they are among the most established and vocal groups dealing with women’s rights in Morocco. I also tried to get interviews with the PJD female parliamentarians and particularly Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family, and Social Development Bassima Hakkaoui. However, getting to interview them turned out to be quite elusive. I had arranged a few interviews, including with Hakkaoui, but they were canceled at the last minute for various reasons, such as claiming I was late for the interview (when in fact I was waiting in the lounge of the PJD parliamentary cabinet, chatting with their party colleagues) or them assuming that they would not be a good person to talk to in terms of what they thought I was looking for. I try to compensate for this shortcoming by including newspaper articles and interviews, although I am aware that such secondary sources are insufficient for an indepth analysis of the PJD’s views and strategies. It is for that reason that I could not and did not include them in the same manner as the ADFM, UAF, and JSO to the discussion in Chapters 2 and 3.

I conducted most of the interviews with an assistant. The majority of my interviewees spoke Arabic and a few of them only Tašilhit. Although I felt I could have done the interviews with the Arabic-speaking persons by myself, I nonetheless felt more secure with an assistant because I wanted to avoid situations in which I and the meanings would be “lost in translation.” I transcribed and translated most of the interviews into English together with Habiba, my closest field-site friend and assistant, in numerous weekend-long sessions. During these, we both got to know each other quite well, and our conversations, which accompanied our work routine, allowed me to get an additional insight into the community life through Habiba’s comments on the interviews and interpretations of customs and sayings I was not familiar with. However, because we had run out of time, I translated the remaining interviews by myself upon my return to the United Kingdom and had the translations checked by Hasna and Amina, two English teachers from Rabat.

This book is a product of fifteen months of field research in Morocco and more than a hundred semistructured recorded interviews, in addition to numerous informal unrecorded conversations with people. The main arguments and ideas, however, are informed by my ethnographic work and life in Oued al-Ouliya, and it is this community to which I now turn my attention.


“Original and convincing. This book helps us understand the complex and deep schism between secular feminism and the Islamists’ view on women. The two viewpoints are often made to converge for political reasons, but this scholarly work shows their non-convergence. This in itself departs from the very recent literature in the field.”
Fatima Sadiqi, Senior Professor of Linguistics and Gender Studies, Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah University, and author of Moroccan Feminist Discourses and Women, Gender, and Language in Morocco

“This book will be interesting to readers in several fields: gender, education, development, political science, social change, and probably others. The author discusses a population that is not discussed by others, e.g. highly educated young women in rural southern Morocco, and explores the various constraints on their lives. She presents data on the value, or not, of their higher education and on the implementation, or not, of the Family Status code, which is much admired but much less systematically explored in the literature.”
Susan Schaefer Davis, author of Adolescence in a Moroccan Town and Patience and Power: Women’s Lives in a Moroccan Village