Being a poor woman in Morocco: The intersectionality of oppression

Moroccan women, especially in poor neighbourhoods, are entrenched in an oppressive system with no recourse.

Zohra Filali
Amina Filali committed suicide last year after she was forced to marry her rapist, who subsequently abused her [AP]

The discussion surrounding women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa has gained greater steam these past two years in light of ongoing transitions and uprisings. These discussions are taking place across boundaries, from the streets to the screens. More importantly, women from the region are increasingly dictating the direction of these discussions, whether through their written words or unspoken actions. In Morocco, especially, the urgency to address women’s rights has not wavered despite the election of a new government and the implementation of a new constitution. On the contrary, it is becoming ever more imperative to improve the condition of women’s rights in Morocco, a place where oppression comes in bundles.

The greatest victim in Morocco is not only measured by her gender, but also by her marital status, and her class. The past two years alone have marred Morocco’s record of injustices towards this demographic, spanning from public self-immolations to rapes without charges, and suicides. And yet, these are but the stories that made their way beyond hospital walls and into the press.

When neoliberalism, patriarchy and authoritarianism collide

Fadoua Laroui’s self-immolation spread a wave of solidarity among Moroccans during a time of early mobilisation efforts for the beginning of the February 20 Movement. Fadoua Laroui was a single mother whose application for public housing was rejected in what was believed to be due to her marital status. Her self-immolation in front of her local municipal office was captured on video and shared widely on social media. In reaction to her self-immolation, Moroccan-American novelist, Laila Lalami, called her the “Moroccan Mohamed Bouazizi“. 

The political and economic context surrounding her self-immolation is two-fold. Firstly, her self-immolation deliberately took place in the front gates of her local municipal office, an extension of the authoritarian regime’s hegemony. Secondly, her socioeconomic conditions that initially placed her in a position to demand public housing stem from years of top-down neoliberal economic policies. These policies made way for the king and his allies’ vast amassment of personal wealth at the expense of a majority of Moroccans, following the privatisation of Morocco’s state-owned enterprises. Forbes placed the king’s wealth at around $2.5 billion in a country where the Gross National Income per capita is $4,910.

Moroccans call for end to rape-marriage laws

Only thirteen months after Fadoua Laroui’s self-immolation, reports emerged of Amina Filali’s suicide. Following a judge’s interpretation and invocation of article 475 from the penal code, Amina Filali was forced into a marriage with her rapist. Suffering abuse from her rapist and his family, Amina Filali ended her life by swallowing rat poison. Following news of her death, Moroccans mobilised throughout the country denouncing article 475 and demanding justice, to which the only female minister in the cabinet, Bassima Hakkaoui, responded with the claim that “sometimes marriage between a rapist and his victim causes no real harm”. It was not until January of this year that minister of justice, Mustapha Ramid, announced the article would be “changed”.

In a country where court rulings are made in the name of King Mohammed VI and where the lines that create the separation of powers are blurred, even with the 2011 constitution, the political forces against Amina Filali were present. Even as the ruling was made in the rural areas of the northern region, away from the centralisation of authority in Rabat, Amina Filali was a victim of multiple layers of oppressive forces. As poor young woman from a rural area in Morocco, little was at her disposable to oppose these other than reclaiming control over her existence and ending her life. The nature of economic development in Morocco over the past years, like other countries in region following independence, was primarily focused on urban development. The mass migration from the rural to the urban created spatial shifts that funnelled public and private resources at an unequal ratio.

A marriage of authoritarianism and feminism

Unfortunately, neither Fadoua Laroui nor Amina Filali had much to expect from the established women’s rights groups and associations in Morocco. To secure state-sanctioned accreditation and secure the interests of their leaders, these groups and associations existed to promote a framework for women’s rights that had skewed goals. In return for supporting measures introduced by the king, such as the personal status code law reforms of 2004, these groups and associations are able to maintain a source of funding and political legitimacy. The elitism of these groups has long been the topic of critical literature and carries unfortunate patterns across the region where authoritarian regimes imposed their power beyond the confines of government buildings.

At times, these groups will come to the rescue of victims once harm has already been inflicted. They rallied together in response to the suicide of Amina Filali, yet their demands narrowed in on simply reforming or abolishing article 475. The demands for steep political reforms or the rejection of structural adjustment programmes, which have shown to facilitate greater inequalities, were not spoken of.

And yet, with or without article 475, injustices against poor women in Morocco continue. Recently, the case of Nasma Naqash received widespread media coverage. The young domestic worker who was raped and rejected from her family, attempted to commit suicide by jumping off a building in Casablanca. She survived with sustained injuries, but spoke of the injustices committed against her, from her family’s pursuit of income forcing her into domestic labour work, to the man that raped her and continues to walk a free man. In the same week, it was also announced that a member of parliament, Hassan Arif [FR], was acquitted of rape charges while his victim faced charges instead. Even more recently, a mother and her two daughters set themselves on fire [FR] in Casablanca after their shantytown was demolished. Their story surfaces just a few days following news of the death of a young domestic worker who suffered burns believed to have been inflicted by the employer.

These young women, like Fadoua and Amina, share a position in Morocco’s working class. And as young women of Morocco’s working class, it is not enough that their economic welfare has come at the cost of their well-being and survival, but they must face immeasurable forces of entrenched power and patriarchy. Shifting away from culturalist arguments that suggest solely religion and traditions have shaped these and other young working class women’s conditions is a step towards acknowledging the causes of inequality and proposing measures for dignity.

Samia Errazzouki is a Moroccan-American writer and researcher based in Washington, DC. She is a co-editor of Jadaliyya‘s Maghreb page and a co-founder of the Bil3afya blog.

Follow her on Twitter: @charquaouia