“I cannot authorize what God forbids and forbid what God has authorized.” So King Mohammed VI of Morocco recently stated when instructing his (elected) parliament to pass a new family and revolutionary family code (moudawanna), thus reforming the status of women. This demonstrates how progress in the Arab world could realistically be made - from above. This legislation has shown the way for a transformation of the Arab world and demonstrated that Islam and human rights are not necessarily on a collision course. It also provides a valuable lesson for Iraq, one that will hopefully be learned by all concerned.
The proposed family code declares that marriage is the “joint responsibility” of the two spouses. It abolishes “matrimonial guardianship,” which required even adult women to obtain a male guardian’s approval for marriage. There will be no more “proper women’s duties, but reciprocal obligations,” including a duty of consultation on matters regarding family planning and children. Polygamy, while not formally banned, becomes so difficult, and subject to a judge’s decision, as to be virtually impractical. Divorce becomes a “right exercised by both spouses” under a judge’s control. Islamic repudiation remains on paper, but is now conditioned by a court’s decision and only after reconciliation fails, thus de facto making it a legal act; furthermore, it only becomes legal when the husband guarantees the woman’s rights and the children’s income, allows the woman to retain the house or its equivalent, and agrees to the equal division of common property. An abused wife can now initiate a divorce proceeding.
The context of this revolutionary reform is revealing. A somewhat more limited reform proposal was put forward in 1999 by Socialist then-Prime Minister Yousouffi Abderahmane, only to be massively opposed in the streets by Islamists and conservatives, leading to the Islamists’ spectacular electoral victory in the 2002 parliamentary elections. In a manner familiar to Western politicians, the reform was sent to a commission for further study and what appeared to be certain political death. Then came the May 16, 2003, terrorist suicide bombings by Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, Salafiya Jihadiya, in Casablanca, and everything changed – in precisely the opposite direction the perpetrators intended.
First, the secular intellectuals and middle class became scared, with many of them demonstrating against terrorism. Second, and more important, the bombings gave the king a reason to arrest hundreds of Islamists and force the others to take a low profile. Radical Islamism as such was cowed and abruptly discredited in the eyes of a majority, at least in the cities, while the king’s authority and legitimacy increased. As a result, the presumably dead commission (which, by the way, did include a woman, Zoulikha Naciri, the only woman member of the Royal cabinet) was resurrected.
To this, one has to add the fact that, as (claimed) descendants of Prophet Mohammed, Morocco’s monarchs (like the Hashemites of Jordan) are also “Commanders of the Faithful,” the supreme religious authority in the realm. Hence King Mohammed’s ability and credibility to impose his interpretation of Islam on the matter of women’s rights. By invoking the ijtihad, the ability to interpret the Quran given to legitimate individuals, the king could institute precisely what the radical Islamists totally reject. This trapped the Islamists. To deny the right of the Commander of the Faithful to interpret the Quran and the Sunna is tantamount to lèse majesté – a very dangerous, indeed un-Islamic position. Saadedin el-Othmani, the leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, could only lamely claim that the king had “from the beginning to the end insisted on an Islamic reference framework.”
That the king cleverly did, indeed. Hence repudiation and polygamy were not “abolished,” just made practically impossible, and all in the name of Islam. But, as Naciri stated, “it was necessary to reconcile modernity and Islamic references.” Polygamy is a good example. According to the commission’s president, former minister and Nationalist Party leader M’hamed Boucetta, it was not abolished, since the Quran allows it, but it was regulated into virtual extinction because, while the Holy Book allows a man to marry up to four women, if the man is not righteous, he can only take one. And what man is perfectly righteous? Let a judge decide…
What do the Moroccans think about all this? According to the Economist, some 65 percent are in favor of the new family code, leaving a minority of hardliners to mutter that it was all done in order for Morocco to obtain Western support to host the World Soccer Cup in 2010…hmmm!
What does all this mean in the larger scheme of the Arab world? To provide a context, in North Africa, only Tunisia has passed similarly enlightened legislation on women’s rights, which it did when it gained independence in 1957; Algeria and Libya at least pretend that women can vote. In non-Arab Turkey, women gained the right to vote in 1934, ahead of women in some Western countries. The Arab countries of the Middle East, by contrast, seldom even pretend to offer women any rights.
Women’s rights aren’t the only issue on which Morocco is ahead of most other Arab countries. Morocco also has the only significant Jewish community left anywhere in the Arab world (followed closely by Tunisia), has ties to Israel, and is generally friendly to the United States and, of course, France. Which raises the question why other absolute monarchies in the Arab world, all of which, aside from Jordan, are more absolute than Morocco’s, refuse to do what Mohammed VI did. Is it lack of will, fear, disinterest, or indeed dislike of modernity?
Similarly, why isn’t the United States doing more to applaud Morocco as an example of what the other Gulf states could do? All the Gulf states are dependent on Washington for their security, and controlled by absolute monarchs. Liberating women need not be presented as a human rights issue. It could be presented as a matter of economic common sense and national security. Indeed, when a majority of the labor force in the Gulf state is foreign and potentially threatening national security, what is the logic of denying education, skills and jobs to half of the native population?
Most important, however, the Moroccan case demonstrates that progress in the Arab (and indeed Muslim) world is far more likely to come from above, through “undemocratic” means – such as decisions by the hereditary ruler – than through the “will of the people.” Most people are not aware that the reason Turkey is now the model of the potential for democracy in an Islamic context is because the founder of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Atatürk, did not consult the people when he eliminated the Caliphate, proclaimed the Republic, separated Islam from the state, liberated women, and established secular public education. He and his close advisers just decided to do so and imposed their decisions on the people, often by brutal and undemocratic means. It took decades, not to mention a few military coups, for the Turkish public to internalize and accept the reforms and to proceed to a democratic system – an imperfect one, but no more so than that of some of Ankara’s European critics.
Which raises the issue of Iraq. What kind of democracy, if any, is realistically obtainable in Baghdad, by what means, and when? Is a multi-party system, inevitably arranged along ethnic and confessional lines, viable or desirable? Is a Shiite-dominated, mildly authoritarian but tolerant regime acceptable – not just to us, but more important, to the Sunnis and Kurds? Should a nice constitution patterned after some Western lawyers’ notions be preferred to a messy text resulting from political bargains reflecting the balance of demographic, economic and military forces among Iraq’s fractious society?
None of these questions are easily answered. But the case of Morocco should suggest a new angle of seeing these issues – that there are some real virtues to imposing reform from above in the Arab world, the greatest among them being realism.