In recent years women in Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia have secured more rights, greater access to education and a modest increase in their political representation. But entrenching those achievements will require joint advocacy by women’s organizations, governments and religious groups, argues Leila Rhiwi of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). “To guarantee and consolidate the gains of the last few years we must follow through with the application of the reforms,” she told Africa Renewal. “If you do not have advocacy, then no change happens because institutions are always reluctant to change.”
The need for concerted effort is even more acute in the face of growing opposition by conservative groups and clerics who claim that such initiatives violate Islamic law or are contrary to the Koran. Such opposition in North Africa, Ms. Rhiwi says, reflects the wider spread of conservative trends throughout the Muslim world. “Ideas coming through the media and especially satellite television are affecting us,” she explains. “In Morocco, most of the people discussing women’s rights in the media have conservative interpretations of the law. There is an absence of progressive voices.”
Resistance and backlash
Ms. Valentine Moghadam, a gender specialist at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), observes that the “political discourse in Egypt is dominated by the conservative polemics of the Islamists.”
Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a researcher on the region, has reported that Morocco’s adoption of a new family law in 2003-04 “won the king much credit among liberals and women.” Louisa Dris-Ait-Hamadouche, another researcher, has noted that as a result of contradictory conservative and liberal interpretations of shari’a law, debate over the role of women in North Africa “moves back and forth between secular values and religious (and traditional) principles.”
Support from clerics
Women’s groups have learned to adapt to differing situations, explains Ms. Rhiwi. “They are very strong, they know the culture. They know the religious context in which they live and can use either universal human rights arguments or religious arguments for their cause.” Most often, Ms. Rhiwi adds, “to succeed we must find clerics with progressive interpretations of the Koran to support us.”
Such support does exist. When the Egyptian government in 2004 appointed a female judge to the Supreme Court, conservative groups attacked the move as a violation of Islamic law. When the government named 30 more women judges three years later, there were further denunciations. That reaction prompted the government to ask for a ruling on the legitimacy of the nominations from Al Azhar University, the Muslim world’s oldest seat of religious learning and the highest authority on Islamic law in Egypt. The mufti of Al Azhar ruled that the appointments did not violate Islamic law.
The mufti had previously judged that Islam allowed equal opportunities for men and women to end unhappy marriages, a ruling that helped efforts by the government and women’s groups to change Egypt’s marriage and divorce laws.
Women’s organizations in Morocco have also sought to work closely with clerics, Ms. Rhiwi reports. “We needed society to understand that the conservative clerics were not the sole interpreters of Islam.” Through such partnerships, she adds, women’s organizations were able to obtain Islamic rulings that supported legal changes, such as increasing the age at which women may legally marry, granting women and men equal rights in marriage and divorce and securing women’s custodial rights to their children.
Ms. Rhiwi believes that continued advocacy by women’s groups is vital. “We realized this is crucial after noticing that most resistance to the implementation of new laws came from the very men and women charged with putting a new system in place,” she says. “We have to do a lot of training of judges and people working in the legal system, to mobilize people and educate them.”
Nevertheless, Ms. Rhiwi is confident that the advances made by women in North Africa are here to stay. “We do recognize that there are conservative voices out there. But we know there are also progressive voices. I don’t think we can regress now. I think we are at a good place in the process. But the equilibrium is very fragile.”