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MEE: Morocco’s skirt length battle: What are the deeper questions?

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When two Moroccan women were accused of gross indecency earlier this month, for wearing clothing deemed “too tight” as they walked through a market in Inezgane, near the southern city of Agadir in Morocco, the headlines were focused on yet another Muslim country’s seeming obsession with women’s sartorial choices.

In an indication of the inflammatory nature of such issues, rallies in support of the two women were held in both Agadir and Casablanca, while hundreds of lawyers offered their services in defence of the women.

Certainly the issue of what women can – or can’t – wear in Morocco continues to cause debate, whether on the streets where women, whether in the traditional djelaba or in short skirts, invariably experience some form of sexual harassment, or on the pages of the nation’s dailies. And although the question is tied into a broader struggle for women’s greater autonomy and individual freedom in a deeply patriarchal context, the debate also speaks to a much deeper, underlying question over the very nature of Moroccan society, and who gets to define it.

But the issues at stake are far wider than women’s hems.

In particular, Moroccan law in the form of Article 483 of the penal code, carries a penalty of up to two years in jail for anyone found guilty of committing an act of “public obscenity”. In recent years, women’s groups in particular have sought to challenge what they perceive as undue restrictions on women’s choices enshrined in law, as well as a lack of legal protection for women in cases such as marital rape or domestic violence more broadly, among a range of other issues.

Just last month, one of Morocco’s most critically acclaimed film directors, Nabil Ayouch, was summoned to court on charges of “pornography, indecency and inciting minors to debauchery” for his portrayal of the Moroccan prostitution industry, in his latest film Much Loved (“Zine Li Fik” in Moroccan Arabic). Thousands called for the film to be banned and the Minister of Communication Mustapha al-Khalfi, from the Islamist-inclined Justice and Development Party (PJD), decried the film as undermining “the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women”.

And in June, two Moroccan gay men were sentenced to jail in another case which caused uproar, after they were arrested as they posed for a photograph in the political capital of Rabat. One of the country’s most provocative, French-speaking publications, Tel Quel, regularly enflames such debates by featuring nudity and sex in its pages, and most recently, an editorial describing “consensual love between two adults” as “not a crime,” despite homosexuality remaining illegal in the kingdom.

Such incidents are merely the fault lines of an ongoing struggle between old and aspiring elites over the cultural references which should delineate the contours of Moroccan society, particularly as related to issues of morality – itself at the heart of the question of identity.

For Islamists and social conservatives more broadly, preserving and enhancing Morocco’s Islamic identity is key to reasserting an independent national identity, free of the legacy of colonial influence, while their opponents regard the use of religion in the political sphere as a tool of social control, which unduly restricts individual choices.

Although the women involved were acquitted, the case sent ripples through Moroccan society, where a petition supporting them garnered over 27,000 signatures and debates were reignited over the limits of personal freedom in a conservative society, in which Islam is the constitutionally established religion of the state.

The case is the second such scandal relating to morality and women’s clothing in the kingdom of late, with American singer Jennifer Lopez’s performance at the Mawazine festival in Rabat in May, currently the subject of an investigation ordered by the Prime Minister Abdelillah Benkirane, after it was aired on Morocco’s public TV network, 2M.

Benkirane, also from the Party for the Justice and Development (PJD), deemed the show “sexually suggestive” and thus in violation of the country’s audio-visual laws, describing the decision to air as “indecent and provocative to the religious and moral values of Moroccan society”.

From a working-class socially conservative background himself, Benkirane regularly denounces the gulf he perceives between the social mores of the Moroccan elites and the sensibilities of the masses and believes in upholding existing limits which preserve Morocco’s conservative customs, rather than seeking to reform them. In this view, he is challenged by campaigners such as Fouzia Assouli, head of the LDDF women’s rights organisation, who lauded the acquittal of the women and whose organisation campaigns for Article 483 of the penal code to be revised.

While the case has largely been described as one of divisions over women’s freedom of choice, Amnesty International condemned the trial as “part of a pattern of discriminatory laws and practices” in the country, pointing out that “The case has all the hallmarks of a discriminatory use of the law against women”. While the rallies in support of the women were often interpreted as being solely about the right to choose one’s clothing, they reflect an increasing vocality among a range of Moroccan women, from religious conservatives to more liberal voices, over discriminatory practises against women, despite the kingdom having enacted a number of progressive reforms to the country’s “moudawana” (the official family code) and having signed up to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) .

The envisaged solutions to women’s problems, however, invariably differ. With the growth in popularity of the Islamist political party, the party for Justice and Development from 2002 onwards, public debates have increasingly reflected a schism between two visions of Morocco, one in which the Islamic heritage of the modern state should increasingly define its outlook and parameters, and those for who favour a more secular nature of both state and society.

Women’s clothing is often a lightning rod issue in post-colonial Muslim societies, where differing views on the primacy of individual freedom versus socially conservative social mores reflect a broader divide over the very nature of the society aspired to. In Morocco, issues of personal freedom, from the right to have sex outside of marriage, to the right to break the Muslim fast openly during the month of Ramadan, or the right to publicly identify as gay in a country in which homosexuality remains illegal, all regularly spark national conversations, dividing those who wish to see the monarchy, headed by a king who doubles as a religious leader, bearing the weighty title of “leader of the believers,” maintain a conservative religious ethos, and those who would like to see Morocco move closer to a European style liberal democracy in which the monarchy itself would take on a far more symbolic role.

In evidence of the deep roots of current debates, the arrest of the gay men was met by demonstrations in front of the French embassy in Rabat, where protestors chanted “This is Rabat, not Paris,” in reference to suspicion the men had been taking their cues from French Femen protestors who’d been deported after kissing as part of a topless protest.

The reference to French influence reflects an underlying divide over the continuing legacy of colonial influence over the form and direction of contemporary Morocco. For some, liberal mores and practises, including secular principles, reflect an ongoing colonial legacy which conflicts with a presumed essential “Islamic” nature of Moroccan society, in a glorified reimagining of pre-colonial Morocco. But the divide is itself complex, with Westernised elites identified with a corrupt, exclusive cast which continues to enrich itself at the expense of an impoverished majority, for whom Islamic principles reflect a call to social and economic justice expressed in the idiom of the masses.

Disputes over clothing and the polarising impact they appear to have should therefore be assessed within the broader struggle within Moroccan society over the nature of the state and society and specifically, which cultural references – those of a francophone elite, or a more traditional majority, get to assert the ethical parameters of not only the Moroccan state, but more critically, Moroccan identity.

You can read the original article here 


Written by Myriam Francois

July 27, 2015 at 14:21

House of Lords presentation: “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”‎

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This is a presentation I delivered on “Turkey and the Arab Awakening: Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model?”‎ in honour of the launch of the Turkish Review at the House of Lords on Friday 11th of Jan, 2013. The event was chaired by Lord John Alderdice and my co-panelists were Dr Gulnur Aybet- Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Rutherford College, University of Kent at Canterbury and Kerim Balci- Editor of the Turkish Review.

A (poorly) edited short clip of proceedings can be viewed here:

Firstly I’d like to thank the organisers for inviting me to address this important topic. I should point ‎out that my own research is focused on Morocco and specifically on the social movement from ‎which emerged the main Islamic political party, currently in government, the Party of Justice and ‎Development (PJD). The PJD very much looks at the AK party as a ‘role model’, it has certain ‎criticisms, particularly in terms of what it views as laxity in the party’s ‘islamic’ credentials, but it ‎aspires to emulate its rise to power. When I interviewed senior figures, they went so far as to ‎suggest the AK party had in fact drawn inspiration from their logo, a lamp, for the AK’s symbol, the ‎bulb and meetings had occurred between the two groups previously.‎

Clearly, the PJD is not alone – the leader of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rashid Ghannouchi, said in July ‎‎2012, that he saw “Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as a model of success ‎for his country to follow”‎ ‎ and Egypt’s new Prime Minister Mohammed Morsi, when he visited ‎Turkey in September 2012, also acknowledged the inspiration of Turkey’s ruling Justice and ‎Development Party (AKP).

Many in the Arab world are reassured by the combination of a democratic process and a ‎commitment to religious identity. A recent poll (by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies ‎Foundation (TESEV) over the last three months of 2011) found that Arabs see Turkey as a ‎champion of regional peace and role model for religion and democracy living side by side ( with a 78 ‎percent approval rating for Turkey and its policies.) In fact, 61% view Turkey as a model for their ‎own countries – On what basis? 32% cited its democracy, 25% its thriving economy and 23% its ‎Muslim identity.‎

It is no surprise that Turkey scored highest in countries where the Arab Spring has ended the rule ‎of dictators ‎ and politics is in flux, with a 91% approval rating in Tunisia and 86% in Egypt. ‎Unsurprisingly perhaps, Turkey polls rather more poorly in Syria.‎

This also tells us a bit about what Arabs tend to value in the models they aspire to – democratic ‎practises, a booming economy, an attachment to identity. Those who don’t consider Turkey a ‎model also tell us about Arab public opinion, notably their view of its “insufficient Muslim identity” ‎and its “ties to the West”.‎

However, the question here today, is whether Arabs, both those who identify with the Islamic ‎political movements and those who do not, should regard Turkey, which of course, means the ‎Turkish political model, not simply the AK party, as a model.‎
Firstly, I’m not fan of models in general. They might be useful conceptual tools, especially when ‎teaching, but the idea of blueprint capitalism or blueprint democracy is problematic. All countries ‎have their specific history and its legacy will ultimately shape their development far more than a ‎prescriptive model ever can or perhaps should. Surely we have something to learn from the errors ‎of blueprint capitalism as applied to the former Soviet East. Why assume blueprint democracy ‎could work any better?

More useful I think are universal standards and principles that all countries ‎should be held to. Transparency, accountability, the separation of power, economic growth, etc. ‎When we look at the evolution of countries according to these standards, we can say, for example, ‎that Turkey has significantly improved on the corruption scale (despite a long way to go), or we can ‎note that it has regressed on the scale of free speech and the freedom of the media. It is ‎principles, married to the specific context of different Arab countries, which I think will be more ‎beneficial in helping them achieve popular aspirations.‎

Secondly, one of the reasons we are talking about Turkey as a model for the Arab world today is ‎because Turkey has an islamically inspired party in power, the AKP and in many Arab countries, ‎islamically inspired political parties (or islamists as some might call them), have taken the lead.
From ‎Morocco, to Egypt, via Tunisia, Islamically referenced political parties have proven to be the ‎people’s choice at the polls.
Because of a longstanding view in certain sections of academia and ‎politics that Islam and democratic politics cannot be reconciled, Turkey is advanced as a model of ‎balance, having successfully integrated an islamically inspired party into a staunchly secular political ‎system, returning the army to the barracks and fostering the type of economic growth ‎ we in ‎Britain can only currently dream of. There were no hand-choppings, no bans on alcohol or ‎nightclubs, and ties with the so-called ‘West’ have been strengthened. Which I’ll translate into ‎layman terms as ‘business as usual’ with our Western partners, which is to a large extent, what it ‎comes down to. ‎

However, I share the view of Turkish academic Shebnem Gumushju, who writes: ‎
‎“there is no “Turkish model” of an Islamist democracy; rather, there are Muslims in a secular-‎democratic state working within a neoliberal framework.”‎

Do I think this is a model which is applicable elsewhere and specifically in the Arab world? I can say ‎speaking of Morocco, which is I case that I know particularly well, that would be a resounding no ‎there. Why? In Morocco, the king who is also known as ‘amir al mouninin’, is both the head of state ‎and leader of the believers, a religious leader heading in all other regards a ‘secular state’. Despite ‎a widespread desire for the King to relinquish power to elected bodies, most Moroccans do not ‎want to get rid of the king, or his religious symbolism, altogether. ‎

‎ Turkish style secularism is not widely desired in Morocco, even if it can accommodate an islamically ‎inspired party like the AK party. I wager this is the case in most Arab countries which will have to ‎grapple between the Islamic identity a majority want reflected in the political system and ‎international laws and standards premised on a religiously neutral public sphere. ‎

However, Islamic political parties will benefit from the precedent of a party which has established a ‎strong parliamentary system and which has worked with the opposition in devising the ‎constitution. Egypt take note. ‎

Economically, do I think neo-liberal economic policies are best for Egypt or Yemen or Algeria which ‎don’t have Turkey’s skilled work force, its strong industries and bargaining weight – no I don’t. ‎There are no equivalent ‘Anatolian tigers’ to fuel the construction of new businesses, no money in ‎the coffers to build cities, schools, and infrastructure which could boost the economy as they have ‎in Turkey.‎
Economically, Turkey’s model of growth is based on premises which are not found in most Arab ‎nations. Tackling youth unemployment, as Turkey has done, and as Arab states must if they are to ‎avoid future instability, is not a ‘Turkish model’, it is common sense. Turkey has made impressive ‎social reforms with universal health insurance now covering almost the entire population and the ‎increase in early childhood education and preschool enrolment. Prioritising health and education ‎are important precedents for Turkey to set, but how Turkey has achieved this, namely how it has ‎financed these, cannot be replicated in the Arab word. ‎

Turkey is the 18th largest economy in the world, compare that with Egypt, which ranks at 43 and ‎Tunisia at 77, according to IMF figures (and given the instability of the past year, this is likely to have ‎dropped over 2012.)‎

Besides which, I’m not even certain neo-liberal economic policies are best for any of us, let alone ‎developing nations. Turkey’s deficit measured in dollars is second only to America’s ‎. Reliance on ‎debt has become increasingly prevalent and you needn’t look much further than Europe to see ‎where that leads. ‎

So in answer to the question, Do the Arabs need Turkey as a role model? – I think at this moment ‎in time, they need inspiration and polls suggest this is what Turkey offers, since a widely held ‎perception is of a country which has built itself on its own terms. A country which appears to have ‎tamed the military, which has a booming civil society, economic growth coupled with a growing ‎regional weight. However, Turkey has its own issues. The resurgence of authoritarianism is of ‎concern, Turkey’s Kurds have been the major source of human rights violations and Turkey is rated ‎as 148th in the Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders, below the Democratic Republic of ‎Congo and only slightly above Afghanistan. It has one of the highest incarceration rates for ‎members of the news media in the world. ‎

I have argued against the idea of viewing Turkey as a model not because I don’t believe that it ‎hasn’t been successful on a number of fronts, but because of the prescriptiveness of models. ‎

Among the unresolved tensions of Turkish politics are the public role of religion, minority rights and ‎civil and religious freedoms. Given that both Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing the same tensions ‎to a greater or lesser degree, they can look to Turkey for policies to adopt or avoid.‎
What the Arab world needs is to be held to the same standards as all nations, but to be given the ‎flexibility to adapt these to their socio-cultural context. Precedents in managing similar conflicts ‎are helpful – Tunisia in particular seems to me have interesting lessons for other Arab states in ‎working with the secular opposition, managing extremist elements and reforming the judiciary.‎

Turkey, despite its pitfalls, offers the alternative of an islamically inspired party which also ‎successfully manages the country in the public interest. Islamic political movements, most of whom ‎are still very new to the political game, have a precedent in the AK party which should broaden ‎their view of what is ‘permissible’ and desirable. Or not, as the case may be. At the very least, ‎Turkey, rather than model, is an aspirational example for nascent independent Arab nations.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

January 11, 2013 at 17:37

Guardian CIF: What does Abdessalam Yassine’s death mean for Morocco?

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Link to the original piece on the Guardian website, here
abdessalam yassine funeral

Mourners surround the coffin of Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, who led the Justice and Spirituality opposition movement, in Rabat, Morocco, last Friday. Photograph: Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

Islamism is often thought to be antithetical to Sufism, but in Morocco, a Sufi-inspired Islamist movement has represented the most potent opposition to the monarchy since the 1980s. The death of its mystical leader, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, last Thursday has left many asking what direction Morocco’s informal opposition will take.

Tens of thousands of people converged on Morocco’s capital, Rabat, to mourn the passing of Yassine, 84, the founder and spiritual leader of Morocco’s largest Islamic opposition movement, Justice and Spirituality (al Adl wal Ihsan), a nonviolent group committed to the peaceful overthrow of the monarchy.

The sheikh’s age and ill health had meant his public appearances had grown increasingly infrequent. Some even speculated that he may have died earlier and his death kept a secret from his devoted followers. According to Michael Willis, fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University, Yassine’s death is a pivotal moment in the evolution of the movement: “The movement grew around him, all members read his key writings, he was at the centre of things – but the movement had been preparing for his death for the last decade or so – there are structures in place.”

The central ideologue and spiritual guide, Yassine’s appeal combined religious and political leadership, something the movement will struggle to replace. Whether his successor’s legitimacy is premised on political or religious credentials could affect the nature of the movement and its popular appeal. In recent years, Yassine’s daughter Nadia, a media regular and French-educated author, has grown in public prominence. Like her father, her public defiance of the monarchy, including a 2005 statement that Morocco would be better off as a republic, saw her prosecuted and kept under surveillance. However, despite her popular appeal and charisma, it is unlikely she will take the helm in a deeply conservative country, where female leadership remains contentious. An interim successor has been appointed in the shape of Mohamed Abbadi, current head of the movement’s guidance council and No 2 in the movement.

The burning question for observers is whether the movement will reconsider a cornerstone of Yassine’s thinking – the rejection of the monarchy’s religious and political legitimacy. Such a move, favoured by younger members, would allow the movement to enter the political fray, but could ultimately undermine its oppositional appeal.

As for the monarch, the passing of such an inveterate opponent will be regarded with muted glee. For decades, the sheikh represented the face of popular dissidence, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the monarchy and sending a succession of impudent letters to the successive kings, accusing them of squandering the people’s wealth and calling on them to return to the path of God. One such letter saw Yassine imprisoned in a psychiatric ward because it is alleged former king Hassan II could not conceive that any sane man would challenge his authority so brazenly. On Mohammed VI’s ascension in 1999, Yassine advised him to use his personal wealth, currently estimated at $2.5bn (£1.5bn), to eradicate the national debt. In a country with over 40% illiteracy and where more than a fifth of the population live in extreme poverty, the fact the king’s 12 palaces reportedly cost $1m a day to operate provides some fodder to Yassine’s call for social justice.

What’s more, in 2011, Yassine’s movement temporarily joined forces with Morocco’s pro-democracy 20 February movement, swelling crowds and increasing pressure on the king to undertake political reforms at a time when longstanding leaders were being deposed across the region. It was these protests that saw the enactment of constitutional reforms and the bringing forward of legislative elections, in which a rival Islamist party, the Justice and Development party (PJD), won a majority of seats. The concession of an Islamist government is widely considered to be the regime’s “last card” in its efforts to avoid relinquishing meaningful power.

With his potent message of Sufi piety and political dissent, Yassine embodied a truly Moroccan form of political protest in one of the most enduring authoritarian states, where window-dressing reforms have long tempered international criticism. His death is undoubtedly a blow to the movement’s religious leadership, but it remains to be seen whether it will negatively affect its political might. According to Michael Willis, “both Al Adl wal Ihsan and the 20 February movement are waiting for the PJD to run into trouble and support to ebb. Then the palace will have to turn to either one of them.” Yassine’s movement may yet have its day.

Written by Myriam Francois

December 20, 2012 at 14:55