While traveling in Morocco, I was offered a bride price of 1,000 camels for my hand in marriage, by a nice young man I just met named Ismael. Of course, this was just a figure of speech. Camels are no longer used as tender in the Arabic world. Nowadays, brides are paid for primarily in cash. “Please ask her family how much I have to pay for her,” Ismael requested of my friend. Little did he know that another Moroccan gentleman had already indicated to me that I was worth 3,000 camels, so he was already behind in the running.
Paying a dowry or mahr to the bride for her hand in marriage is an Islamic tradition that is still customary in the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa, including Morocco. If I chose to accept the offer of marriage, the happy groom and I would then proceed to enter into a marriage contract derived from the Family Code, or Moudawana. The Moudawana governs all aspects of family life, from marriage to child rearing to divorce to inheritance.
Curious about marriage in Morocco, I looked into the Moudawana. In 2004 the government passed an updated Moudawana, changing the minimum age of marriage for females from 15 to 18, making divorce more accessible for women and placing restrictions on polygamy. Inheritance laws are still unequal for females, giving daughters less than half the share of inheritance sons get. Custody of children remains unfairly stacked in favor of men.
This means that if I decided to marry Ismael, I would have to be clear in our marriage contract that I did not permit him to have additional wives. If we had children, I must take additional steps to protect our daughter’s inheritance in case he has illegitimate sons with another woman. If he divorces me for no reason, through his right of “repudiation,” I will have a tough time keeping my children, since I will not have custody of our children after they reach the age of seven if I choose to remarry or move away from the city in which their father resides.
Even though this all seems outdated for a woman from New York, Morocco is actually considered one of the most modern and liberal countries in the Muslim world. More recently, another development in the women’s rights arena is the amendment to the Moroccan Penal Code last year. Article 475 of the code previously exempted a rapist from prosecution if he married the victim of his crime, even if the victim is a minor. Following the incident in which 16-year-old Amina Filali committed suicide after being forced to marry the man who raped her, the Moroccan parliament voted to amend the code to no longer allow rapists to evade prosecution using marriage.
This was a big step forward, but it seems there is room for the Moroccan law to improve. I found that there is no specific law against domestic violence in the penal code. Rape within marriage is not considered a crime. Any sex outside of marriage is a crime, but instead of protecting the victims of sex crimes, there are cases where rape victims themselves were implicated when they tried to file a complaint against the rapist. There is a strict burden of proof for cases of rape and abuse that rests solely upon the victims, making prosecution of assaulters highly difficult. All this prohibits victims who have suffered sexual abuse and violence from having hope of legal recourse.
Where the government is lacking in providing support for the women in Morocco, NGOs offer valuable resources for women in need. I had the pleasure of visiting one such organization, the Amal Women’s Training Center in Marrakech. The Amal Association is a reputable organization that offers job skills training and job placement for disadvantaged women who may be orphans, widows or divorcees. The women are paid a salary as they train and work at the Association’s restaurant. I had a delicious traditional couscous lunch here, served by a young trainee who was a little bashful, but very attentive. The women learn restaurant and hospitality skills and are placed into internships following their training where they often excel and are offered permanent positions. It was inspiring to see the women working toward a brighter future at the Amal Association.
Prior to my trip to Morocco, I was given many warnings from concerned family and friends. I also read blogs of female travelers who were aggressively groped by men in public. I braced myself for the worst. I even came to expect to be harassed and disrespected in Morocco.
Heeding the advice of other travelers, I dressed modestly with loose fitting and unrevealing clothing wherever I went, and covered my hair with a shawl or hat most of the time. I discovered that dressing modestly not only kept me warm on the chilly evenings and shielded me from the sun during the hot afternoons, it demonstrated to the local Moroccans that I respected their culture. A Moroccan man I met in the coastal village of Imsouane said he appreciated the conservative way I dressed, unlike other modern women who are “nearly naked.”
My way of dress, however, certainly didn’t stop countless Moroccan men from calling out, “Konnichiwa,” or “Arigato” (“hello” and “thank you,” in Japanese) or just, “Japan,” to me, assuming I was a Japanese tourist. I would understand another traveler being insulted by this behavior, but I chose to believe their eagerness to engage with me was just an expression of their interest in seeing an Asian face in Africa, and their manner of welcoming me to Morocco. Curiously enough, when I was accompanied by my male friend Rahul, who looks Moroccan, all the harassment stopped completely. All in all, there was only one incident in which I felt offended by inappropriate contact on a crowded street in Marrakech.
On our drive to the Sahara Desert, our Moroccan tour guide, Rashid, pointed out a little straw hut outside of a home in a roadside town. “Do you see that? It’s a ‘private prison.’ If a wife makes a mistake, the husband can lock her in there for as long as a month.” Horrified, I asked if it was a common practice in Morocco. “It is something that is done all throughout Morocco, except it is harder to do in the big cities,” he said. Later, Rashid laughed and revealed he was merely making a joke, and that the little huts were outdoor shower stalls.
I’m still not completely sure if it was an joke, but it’s true that the rural parts of Morocco are much more traditional than the city centers. In some of the towns in the south, such as Tamri, I hardly saw a single Moroccan woman outdoors. In these regions, social and religious customs have yet to catch up to the legal reforms made by the government.
Despite the deep patriarchal traditions, women are slowly but surely becoming more empowered. “You can feel it,” says Moroccan human rights journalist Yassin Adnan about the progress of women’s rights in Morocco. In the streets of urban centers such as Casablanca, Marrakech and Fes, I did indeed find Moroccan women going about their business walking in the streets, riding motorbikes and driving cars. There are affirmative action plans set up for governmental seats and educational institutions to promote female participation. In the last 2011 elections, 17% of the seats in Parliament were filled by female representatives, not far behind the 19% of women in the US Congress. Women are encouraged to take jobs outside of the household.
“There are now even female taxi drivers,” Yassin Adnan said proudly. I started to comment that I didn’t encounter any female taxi drivers in Morocco, but then I realized that I hardly saw female taxi drivers in New York City either.
When I returned to New York, I must admit I was happy to wear yoga pants again without feeling disrespectful, and relieved that I can walk the streets without men calling out to me at every corner. But I miss the feeling of a nation progressing toward social equality. Many rights that we have come to take for granted here in the United States, the women of Morocco appreciate daily and fight so hard for.
As for the marriage proposal from Ismael, I must turn down his offer, mainly because I just met him and do not know him at all. Also, I do not wish to live as a nomad in the Sahara desert with him.