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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

The Telegraph: Sharia marriage in the UK is not toxic – polygamous men are

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In 2012, I was working on a documentary for the BBC on polygamy in Britain. Researching such a sensitive topic was no easy task. Contrary to the hype, polygamy is not socially acceptable in Muslim communities. It is often frowned upon and many polygamous families tend to keep quiet about their set up. Nonetheless, we managed to find a discreet polygamous Muslim marriage event, where – an overwhelmingly male turnout – had come to find a potential second, or in some cases third wife. Some had even come as a couple, with one woman explaining that she had grown up in a polygamous household in her ancestral country and liked the “sisterhood” she saw among co-wives.

Sisterhood is all well and fine, but as Aina Khan, a leading Islamic family lawyer, pointed out in the latest reports about the rise of Sharia marriage in the UK, polygamy is often far from rosy for the women involved. “Although many people will be cohabiting or having mistresses, Muslims can’t do that. Polygamy leaves women vulnerable. If you’re cohabiting and you don’t know you’re rights, it is the same position whether you’re Muslim or not, because there are no cohabitee rights (..) because women have an Islamic marriage certificate, they feel protected, but it is a false sense of security – they think they can’t be made homeless overnight, but they can. This is a major issue.”
Women in polygamous “marriages” are not recognised as wives under British law and if and when the relationship sours – which is common – the woman is left with no legal claim to her investment in the household. Although historically, Islam emerged in a polygamous society, it sought to dramatically restrict the practise and the Quran describes the Islamic ideal as a couple. Unsurprisingly, some ahistorical readings render the exceptional permission a blanket encouragement to fulfil a wandering eye. And as is so often the case, it is women – and children – who pay the heaviest price.

Talking me today, Khan expressed her concern over the press coverage of her comments, some of which appear to stigmatise Sharia law and link Muslim ‘nikah’ (Islamic) marriages to Isil-style extremism. “I see no link to Isil” she tells me bluntly. “I see no problem with Sharia, I am a lawyer and for me, it is a legal issue – it is wrong to see that English law doesn’t apply to all faiths equally, that is where the injustice is. The marriage act needs to be reformed to apply to all faiths.”

You see Khan has been campaigning for a reform of the marriage act and her ‘Register Our Marriage’ campaign aims to emphasise the importance of registering religious marriages conducted in the UK, where according to her firm’s estimate, up to 80 per cent of young British Muslims are in unregistered unions. Her campaign has widespread support from leading Muslim organisations as well as women’s groups, who view the issue as an equal rights matter, and recognise the danger of potential human rights abuses.

The lack of recognition of Sharia law marriage – or nikah– the standard Muslim religious marriage ceremony – in British law is part of the reason so many Muslim marriages are going unregistered. While Christian couples who marry in a church, or Jewish couples who marry in a synagogue find their marriages automatically recognised under UK law, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and other religious groups are not afforded the same recognition, requiring them to undertake a separate, civil ceremony. In France, imams refuse to undertake the nikah unless the registry marriage has been completed previously, ensuring that in the vast majority of cases, the nikah and registry marriages are conceived of as the two parts of the marriage ceremony. And in most Muslim majority countries Khan points out, registering nikahs is a legal requirement.

However, in the UK the Government’s reticence to extend the same rights to Muslims – and other religious groups – has contributed to the normalisation of a parallel system, where couples undertake the nikah ceremony but don’t bother with the legal registry marriage. Khan’s clients are not only Muslim, but Sikhs and Hindus too she points out.

There are other reasons also. Nikah marriages in their current UK format are easily dissolved and can be kept discreet – in other words, young Muslim couples may prefer to undertake a nikah marriage – ironically perceived as less binding than British legal mariages – to facilitate a physical relationship prior to committing in the eyes of their family and community. This is less “creeping Sharia” and more, how can we be boyfriend-girlfriend like everyone else, without ‘compromising’ our beliefs.

The lack of official recognition of Sharia ceremonies also leads to issues when relationships break down. As I reported in a piece for the Telegraph and Channel 4 last year, Sharia councils, although not legally binding in their judgements, often provide women with deeply worrying advice as concerns their relationships, and in some cases advising a return to abusive partners. The lack of regulation of these councils – which many women turn to because of their own religious agency and desire to operate within their ethical guidelines – means rogue councils can cement misogynistic practises in the shadows, rather than providing a safe and open environment where religious women can find religiously compatible advice as concerns their marital woes. If the Government is serious about addressing these rogue councils, the solution will not be banning them – a measure which will drive them underground (where they will continue to operate with even less oversight) – but rather to streamline their services. This move would ensure such councils must register, operate within existing legislation and ensure anyone advising couples is adequately trained not simply theologically, but also in matters pertaining to domestic abuse.

Polygamy and unregistered marriages are a serious concern. But stigmatising the religious law of any community and linking religious rituals to extremism does little but contribute to a toxic atmosphere in which all aspects of Muslim life are depicted as a problem in the UK. In reality, it is those like Aina Khan, working to create symbiosis between British and religious laws – including Sharia law – who are doing the most to assist those vulnerable women and children affected by this legal loophole. But as is so often the case with Muslim stories, why let the facts get in the way of a good story, eh?

You can read the piece here

Written by Myriam Francois

July 7, 2015 at 10:19

The Independent: Rape in marriage: Islam doesn’t tolerate rape

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Letter published in The Independent, 15 Oct 2010, here

Islam doesn’t tolerate rape

I was appalled by the assertion by Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, president of the Islamic Sharia Council in Britain, that rape within marriage is “impossible” and that men who rape their wives should not be prosecuted because “sex is part of marriage”. Sex is indeed a part of marriage, but rape is not. Rape is a type of violence expressed through sexual assault; it has nothing to do with sex, love or intimacy.

Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said: “The best amongst you are those who are best to their wives.” How this cleric believes his assertions fit with the preceding statement is unfathomable. Rape within marriage constitutes domestic violence and should be treated with the same severity.

Allegations that many rape victims are lying betray a most cavalier attitude to this serious and heinous crime.

His statement that “in Islamic Sharia, rape is adultery by force” is misleading. The Sharia is a body of law which can be interpreted in differing ways, much like any other body of law. This is not the “Sharia” position on this issue, but Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed’s. This not an issue of Sharia law being in contradiction with British law, but rather of the Sheikh’s interpretation of Sharia being in contradiction with universal principles of justice and fairness.

Until Muslim scholars wake up to the reality that rape is not and never will be adultery (which is voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful spouse), we will continue to let women down and betray the fundamental ideals of our noble faith.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, Oxford University Islamic Society

Written by Myriam Francois

October 15, 2010 at 23:06