This post is by Stephanie Willman Bordat as part of the series ‘Culture and Human Rights: Challenging Cultural Excuses for Gender-Based Violence’ hosted by Gender Across Borders and Violence Is Not Our Culture.
A Successful Suicide
For the past ten years, we have worked in Morocco for gender equality recognition both in law and in Moroccan society. During this time we have traveled throughout the Northern African state and we have heard countless stories of abuse. But there is one story that stayed with us.
Global Rights and our local partner non-governmental organizations (NGOs) conducted a nationwide caravan in October 2009. We stopped in a small town in the south of Morocco near Zagora. In coordination with the village leaders we organized a meeting with the local women to discuss violence they had experienced at the hands of their husbands.
One elderly woman stood up and spoke of her neighbor. She spoke of her regular beatings. She spoke of how she heard the beatings and saw the abuse for years. She spoke of how time and time and again she was turned away by the police. She spoke of how she would be directed to “mediation” with her husband. She spoke of how it did not work. Eventually, her neighbor felt so desperate and alone. She made a decision. She ended her suffering by committing suicide.
When the Caravan moved south we heard a similar story, in fact several similar stories. One woman attending the community meeting stood up and said to the group, “I’ve tried to kill myself several times. But unfortunately the roofs of the houses in my village are too low to kill yourself by throwing yourself off of them.”
Others nodded in agreement, understanding the perspective of the woman.
A Political Culture of Unaccountability
Currently there is no specific legislation in Morocco addressing violence against women (VAW). Instead VAW is covered under the provisions of the criminal code, which are rarely if ever enforced by the justice system in gender-based violence cases. This haphazard application and lack of seriousness has been criticized by the CEDAW Committee and human rights NGOs.
Due to international pressure, beginning in November 2006, the Moroccan government has made public declarations to both national and international audiences to draft a law specifically on VAW. Unfortunately, such a bill has not been introduced into Parliament
In Morocco, culture and custom are often used as an excuse for violence against women. Political elites believe the Moroccan society is “not ready for change.” They claim that everyday Moroccans are too ignorant and too uneducated to support women’s rights.
The reality is that societal values and some aspects of the law already support women. With the notable exception of the Moroccan Family Law, legislation is based on secular civil codes. While Morocco identifies as a Muslim society, religion is not necessarily the major factor at the grassroots level in justifying violence against women. In fact, people at the community level frequently stress that Islam does not support violence against women.
If religion is not the main barrier, then the problem is with the enforcement of the law by the justice system. If there is a problem with the culture, it is not with mainstream Moroccan culture. Rather, the obstacles for change are often with the political culture of unaccountability. The process for change from the top down to the people is impaired.
Identifying the Challenges from the Bottom-Up
There is increasing public debate, media attention and civil society mobilization on violence against women in Morocco, however most initiatives focus on service provision, such as counseling and legal assistance to victims. This is indeed important but, perhaps, more important is addressing the impunity that allows VAW to flourish.
Outsiders frequently assume that conversations about domestic violence and violence against women would be considered taboo in Morocco. Rather, in our experiences with participatory discussions facilitated by sensitive and trained local NGO members, women speak quite openly about the challenges they face with violence. They site limited access to resources and justice, as their main obstacle. Like the woman who committed suicide, women who attempted to report domestic violence to the police or to the courts would simply be turned away.
Political elites and the justice system unfortunately tend to privilege reconciliation rather than state justice. Women from focus groups vehemently claim that mediation does little to protect them. Case in point, the story I told earlier. In fact, female participants have stated that they attend mediation only because the police and the court systems are without resources or capacity to listen to them and respond effectively.
This worrying trend strongly suggests that the public authorities are not meeting the needs of their constituents and their community.
Opportunities for Change and Next Steps
One of the biggest hurdles for Moroccan women is in legal remedy and access to justice when it comes to violence against them. As the Maghreb Regional Director of Global Rights based in Morocco, I have spoken with thousands of women across the country about their realities and desires for a society where women are free from violence. And through country-wide grassroots level conversations, a proposed VAW legal framework was proposed to lawmakers to incorporate women’s feedback and recommendations – a first ever in the Arab World. If passed, this bill would represent a significant step forward for Moroccan society.
There are some promising new opportunities for Moroccan women, if these openings are taken advantage of and applied properly. A recent Constitutional referendum provides a renewed opportunity for gender equality and promotes an expansion of local and national government action that could potentially protect women’s rights. The reforms include the creation of human rights councils and advisory boards. This is a welcome change. But what about the political culture? Can the political culture change? Can political and economic elites play a constructive role for women at the grassroots level?
Unfortunately, as long as the name of culture is used as a political tool and justification for political and judicial atrophy, civil society will still need to take an active leadership role in advocacy and technical advice. Civil society will still be the driver for change.
Women cannot continue to be turned away from public institutions. Women cannot give up seeking state assistance out of frustration.
And when a VAW bill that truly protects women is ratified in the Moroccan Parliament, I hope that will be the day that the political culture in Morocco has also changed for the better.
And I hope it is the day that Moroccan women no longer contemplate suicide as an option to end their suffering.
About the author
Stephanie Willman Bordat has been the director of Global Rights’ Morocco-based office since its creation in 2000, and, in 2003, designed and expanded it into a regional program. For the past decade, she has designed and implemented projects in collaboration with local NGOs and lawyers across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia that enhance knowledge of legal and human rights among illiterate and semi-literate women; conduct monitoring and documentation of women’s rights violations in the formal justice system; advocate for violence-against-women legislation; promote the use of the marriage contract as a tool to protect women’s rights; encourage the use of strategic litigation; and facilitate human rights advocacy by local activists at the international level. She also co-authors articles on women’s rights, as well as the Maghreb office’s numerous publications. Stephanie was a Fulbright Scholar at the Université Mohammed V in Rabat, where she studied Islamic family law, personal status codes, and the status of women in Morocco. She holds law degrees with honors from both Columbia Law School in New York and the Université Paris I-Sorbonne in France, and an undergraduate degree with honors in Sociology/Anthropology and Women’s Studies from Swarthmore College. She is a member of the New York Bar Association and is fluent in French, the Moroccan dialect of Arabic, and Spanish.