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The Contentious Debate Over Moroccan Family Law Reform

This past September, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI ordered a series of new amendments to Moroccan family law, or the Moudawana. The issues the reform addresses are controversial, and include extra-marital relations, underage marriage, and inheritance rights. There was a six-month timeline set for the laws, which will face parliamentary approval once completed.


One issue this reform addresses is consensual relationships outside of marriage. Article 490 of the penal code punishes adultery with up to one year in prison, making it one of the more controversial issues. Reformists, led by the Minister of Justice Abdellatif Ouahabi, intend to decriminalise adultery, while conservative activists and religious scholars oppose this movement, which they see as encouraging corruption. 


The reform would also deal with underage marriage, which is currently permitted under specific circumstances. Again divided over this issue, the reformists believe allowance leaves the potential to violate minors, while conservatives contend total prohibition of underage marriage would prevent certain situations where it is necessary or beneficial.


The implementation of gender-equal inheritance is another contested issue, which conservatives firmly reject on the basis of religious rulings and texts while reformists support it in an attempt to reduce discrimination against women.


A Brief Overview of the Moudawana 


The Moudawana was adopted by Morocco in 1958, and governs topics such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody, notoriously granting few rights to women. 


The Moudawana allowed men to practise polygamy without their wives’ consent, and the ability for men to unilaterally divorce any of their wives. Likewise, laws restricted womens’ rights disabling them from marrying without approval from a guardian and obliging women to submit to their husbands with limited rights to divorce.


Past Reform


Mohammed VI’s recent actions are not the first time the Moudawana faced reform. Morocco saw a growing feminist movement in the 1960s; however, from the 1980s the movement began to contend with the rising support for Islamism, which appealed to young, unemployed males. By the 1990s, there was a demand for reform, as many people, especially women, saw the law as oppressive and backwards. In 1993, King Hassan II’s committee recognised their concerns, although this series of amendments were not adequate to reformist expectations.  


L’Union de l’Action Féminine, a women’s rights group, led a reform movement, gaining over one million signatures on a petition, and eventually resulting with the 2004 Reform of the Moudawana which was enshrined in the 2011 Moroccan constitution. This reform granted women the rights to self-guardianship, divorce, and child custody, as well as making sexual harassment a criminal offence. 


The 2004 Moroccan law is considered progressive for the Arab world, and statistics show, has positively impacted Moroccan women. For example, girls’ access to education, female presence in political roles, and female freedoms to travel and work etc. have all increased since the law.


Reform Backlash 


Although the Moudawana reform had its benefits, reformists have since criticised how not all of the legislation translated perfectly into practice as Moroccan society such as its judicial apparatus have resisted certain clauses with conservative practices.  


On the other hand, opponents of the 2004 reformation saw these values as clashing with the ‘traditional’ Islamic views in Morocco. The reform created changes such as raising the age of marriage from fifteen to eighteen, which many conservative Islamists have seen as ‘un-Islamic’. 


Just as in 2004, there is still debate today over Mohammed VI’s reforms, with conservatives emphasising the upholding of Islamic values and reformists promoting individual rights that adhere to international standards.


What Happens Next?


The implementation of the upcoming amendments will be influenced by the contentious public debates surrounding them. These debates reveal the complex dynamics and divisions of Moroccan society and politics, which is not easily dealt with. To avoid conflict, it is entirely possible that the Moudawana will compromise on issues somewhere in between reformist and conservative wants. 

 

For example, the upcoming reform may not fully decriminalise adultery, but just reduce its sentence, as there is so much backlash and this would help to avoid conflict. Additionally, gender-equal inheritance will likely not be incorporated into the amendments because of the royal prerogative to not contradict religious rulings; however, it might provide some leeway instead.


Morocco has upcoming elections in 2026, and this debate surrounding family law plays into the larger picture of the Moroccan electoral landscape. While it is unclear exactly how the reform and election will play out, what is clear is that the discourse between traditional religious views and modern societal views clearly holds a substantial but complicated role in Moroccan politics and will likely continue to do so for years to come.


Image via the Library of Congress

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