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10/10/09 Moudawana Day

Five years ago, Morocco passed a comprehensive set of family laws, usually referred to as the Moudawana. These laws, written after extensive consultation with the king's religious advisers, created dozens of new protections for women and children in Morocco, and have been widely praised.

Today, National Women's Day in Morocco, I traveled to a friend's site to help him lead a discussion with local women about the Moudawana. We wanted to educate them about their rights - rights aren't much good to you if you don't know you've got them - and discuss the implications of the changes in the laws.

(By the way, you can get an excellent history of the Moudawana itself and the efforts to revise it here. It only gets up to 2001, so doesn't include the terrific revisions of 2004, but does give some context as to why it took so long to make these important changes.)

Some notable changes:

  • While it's still legal to marry more than one wife, men now need the written consent of their prior wife/wives before marrying again
  • The requirement that wives obey their husbands has been replaced by one for both spouses to support the needs of the household.
  • In the past, a man could divorce his wife by a simple letter of repudiation, while a woman required years of legal battles to divorce her husband. Now, both can sue for divorce, but both most go before a judge who will (1) require a six-month attempt at reconciliation, and (2) work out terms of alimony and child support, before granting the divorce. These are radical new concepts, here.
  • In the event of a divorce, whichever parent gets custody also gets to keep the house. In the past, a repudiated woman would usually have to go back to her parents, if they'd take her in, or else would have no resources - she could literally be put on the street with nothing. A large percentage of the sex workers in Morocco are repudiated wives.
  • The minimum age for marriage changed from 15 for girls to 18 for both boys and girls.
  • Sexual harassment in the workplace is now considered a criminal offense.
  • A woman can choose her own husband, even without the consent of her parents. In the past, the parents chose the spouse, sometimes without regard for their daughter's wishes. This is no longer possible; the woman must consent to the marriage for it to be legal.
  • Moroccans who legally marry in other countries will have their marriages recognized under Moroccan law. [[I wonder what this means for gay couples who marry in the Netherlands or South Africa?]]
  • * Children of Moroccan women who marry non-Moroccan men will now be recognized as Moroccan citizens. This one was not part of the 2004 law, but was passed in October 2006, after heavy lobbying.
We had an interesting discussion with the women about the changes of five years ago. They said that they were familiar with the changes, but that the problem is enforcement. Most of these protections can be waived by judicial order, which happens regularly. For example, judges regularly rubber-stamping the requests of any girl appearing before them, asking to marry before her 18th birthday. In fact, girls here in the bled are still getting married at 14, 15 years old.

Furthermore, there's no mechanism to follow up on deadbeat dads. Even women who have the resources to go before a judge and get alimony and child support orders (and many women don't) have no way to force their ex-husbands to pay the ordered amount. If the man is a government employee, she can get his wages garnisheed, but most men in Morocco are cash laborers. If they refuse to pay, the woman's only recourse is to try to get him arrested...which generally requires bribing a gendarme. And if she's so desperate for her alimony and/or child support that she's willing to jail her ex to make him pay, odds are that she can't afford the bribe.

But still.

Women and children now have legal protections that didn't exist 6 years ago, which is an enormous stride forward. Transforming this written protections into actual, practical protections...that's a separate step. But this one took fifty years to accomplish, so it's worth celebrating.

And then we push onward.

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