Monday, December 30, 2013

Working-Class Women Revolt: Gendered Political Economy in Morocco

- Samira Errazzouki


During the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco was often times described as a regional exception. Through the rise of the February 20 Movement, protests took place – however, unlike their Tunisian and Libyan counterparts, they never culminated into a popular movement that called for the downfall of the regime. This is largely due to King Mohammed VI's swift response to the demands for reform and announcement that a council, which he subsequently appointed himself, would draft a new constitution. The constitution itself was no radical document and did nothing to shift power away from the palace. Instead it put forth measures of liberalisation that introduced language pertaining to human rights, freedom of expression, as well as expanding the definition of ‘national identity’ to include the Amazigh and non-Muslim populations. Parallel to the political response to the February 20 Movement demands, it was also announced just weeks after the first protest that food subsidies and public wages would be increased. In conjunction, these measures collectively quelled what could have become a popular uprising. Additionally, while the regime's initial response to protests was largely peaceful, state violence, torture, and arbitrary arrests were common in the months that followed these measures, especially right before the draft constitution was released to the public for a nationwide referendum.

It remains, however, that a significant core of the February 20 Movement and a source of its momentum came from working-class women. Dubbed the ‘Moroccan Mohammed Bouazizi’ (Lalami 2011), it was the self-immolation of single mother Fadoua Laroui on 21 February 2011, the day after the February 20 Movement's first planned protest, that became a spark and mobilising force for thousands of Moroccans across the country. Throughout the duration of the movement, working-class women were publicly present in demonstrations and international media, as well as playing active roles behind the scenes. Moreover, it was the indirect involvement of working-class women, such as Fadoua Laroui, who had no direct association with the movement, that demonstrates how the policies of the entrenchedmakhzen (Arabic term used to denote the Moroccan authoritarian regime.) have marginalised working-class women. Spanning from the neoliberal economic policies to the personal status code law reforms, these measures drove working-class women to the margins of Moroccan society, triggering drastic responses such as Fadoua Laroui's self-immolation.

Photo: Morocco World News

During May 2011, just a month before the draft constitution was made public, video footage circulated widely of riot police violently dispersing protests across the country, from Rabat to Casablanca, and other cities in the northern region. One particular video sparked outrage among Moroccans, where a police officer attacked a woman carrying a child in her arms with a truncheon in the working-class Casablanca suburb, Sbata. The violent attack against the woman was caught on video and disseminated across multiple social media platforms and stood as a testament to multiple issues.

This woman's presence stood as a threat to the state in multiple ways: she was, firstly, a woman; secondly, she was quite visibly a working-class woman; and thirdly, her presence in an anti-government protest was an expression of her dissent towards the political and economic order. Most importantly, as she stood there withstanding blows from police truncheons while holding a child, her public presence demonstrated a clear break from the norms of her prescribed class membership in Morocco. As a working-class woman living under an authoritarian system which has institutionalised state patriarchy through placing men at the central point when positioning women, her act of defiance strikes multiple levels of the status quo (Hatem 1987).

The symbolic nature of the police officer charging at her repeatedly resonated not just with members of the February 20 Movement but drew media attention and sympathisers from across the political spectrum. The act of a man violently projecting state authority upon a working-class woman protesting, inscribed gender into the social tensions that unfolded. What the video also illustrates is an example of just one of the entrenched hierarchical spectrums of power that cannot be broken down with mere constitutional reforms or minimal changes in subsidies and public wages – as the Moroccan regime attempted to implement in order to quell an uprising. For this reason, it is necessary to contextualise and revisit the plight of working-class Moroccan women.

When examining dissent in Morocco, it is imperative to incorporate gender into the lens of mere opposition against the regime. Incorporating the plight of working-class women who face multiple forces of oppression that operate beyond the state apparatus provides a more nuanced picture of Morocco's experience of the regional uprisings that overthrew neighbouring regimes. Not limited to the woman who faced the police truncheon in Sbata, there have been other instances where working-class women proved that their grievances target the authoritarian neoliberal order and not just the regime. The public manifestation of their plights, such as the self-immolation of Fadoua Laroui and the suicide of Amina Filali, illustrates how their plight has been used as a mobilising force that united Moroccans across the political spectrum. On February 2011, Fadoua Laroui, a single mother whose application for public housing was rejected, set herself on fire in front of a municipal office in Souk Sebt, approximately two hours away from Casablanca. A little over a year later on March 2012, Amina Filali, a young girl who was forced into a marriage with her rapist, committed suicide by swallowing rat poison. The names of women like Fadoua Laroui and Amina Filali do not simply denote the tragic deaths of two Moroccan women. Their names are associated with a greater struggle that transcends anti-government movements and exposes the closeness with which neoliberalism, state patriarchy, and authoritarianism operate as components of the Moroccan regime. Simply drafting a new constitution or electing a new parliament cannot resolve the forces that oppress working-class women. The entrenchment of these forces is embedded within the fabric of society and collectively poses a significant obstacle to working-class women.

The cost of liberalisation

The nature of economic development in Morocco following independence in the mid-twentieth century paralleled that of neighbouring countries. Following decades of colonialism, the direction of both political centralisation and control over production and capital fell into the hands of the ruling elite (Richards and Waterbury 2008). The policies of import substitution industrialisation provided the regime with the resources to provide its population with welfare at the expense of their political loyalty. During the late 1980s, as the population rate rose, the regime could no longer sustain funding entitlements, which posed a political threat due to the potential loss of support among the population. As a result, Morocco had to resort to borrowing from the International Monetary Fund and ended up being one of the highest borrowers in the region. Under King Hassan II's reign, the centralisation of state authority was further enhanced with the imposition of neoliberal policies that consolidated the country's capital within a small circle of elites. As the economy became more liberalised during the 1990s, the authoritarian regime became more entrenched (Harvey 2005). The conditions of the loan included harsh structural adjustment programmes that had an even greater impact on the population, especially on working-class women who were already marginalised under the existing political economic system (Moghadam 2007). Part of the structural adjustment programmes entailed a drastic reform of the public sector, leading to various measures of economic liberalisation starting in the 1980s under King Hassan II. Part of these measures included the privatisation of the most valuable state-owned enterprises, a process that was dictated by the pinnacle of the regime (Khosrowshahi 1997). What resulted from the state's policies of liberalising the economy was the webbing of networks that were structured around political patronage. As was the case in other authoritarian regimes in the region driven to measures of economic liberalisation, these networks served as a backbone of the regime's sustenance (Haddad 2011). Therein former political officials were appointed positions in the private sector and vice versa. These measures of privatisation consolidated both the country's wealth and power within a circle of elites, also referred to as the makhzen. The makhzen was a crucial force in reinforcing the monarchy's hegemony, and is even more so today.

The wealth that this circle of elites acquired was accrued as a zero-sum gain at the expense of the population, pushing more women into positions that include the pursuit of income as well as greater duties and responsibilities in the household (Hatem 1992). Moreover, the implementation of the neoliberal policies led to general shifts in the demand for jobs, having serious drawbacks in countries like Morocco, where literacy and development weigh heavily against the vast majority of the population, driving most of the skilled workers outside of the country and providing even fewer opportunities for women. Even prior to the regime privatising its state-owned enterprises as one of its many liberalisation measures, women constituted only 7% of the public sector workforce (Moghadam 2007). While prior to the liberalisation measures, women made up about 30% of the entire workforce; that number dropped drastically in 2003 to 11% after the policies had been in place for over 30 years (Moghadam 2007).

More recently, following King Mohammed VI's accession to power in 1999, the regime, including the business elite, has grown more gender inclusive. On the surface this has been used to denote Morocco's ‘progressiveness’ vis-à-vis neighbouring countries with regard to women's rights. State feminism also succeeded in raising concerns of women's rights but policies were drafted on the regime's terms, often neglecting the specific needs for working-class women. The argument that, for example, the king's wife, Princess Lalla Salma, is the first titled and unveiled spouse of a king in Morocco and is a prominent public figure both domestically and internationally, is used as one of the points to defend Morocco's ‘progressiveness’. Salma has been instrumental in this narrative, especially in her apolitical roles as chair of a foundation for cancer research, the Lalla Salma Association Against Cancer (ALSC). Similarly, Leila Trabelsi, wife of deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was also an instrumental tool in putting forth the ‘progressive’ narrative. Like her Moroccan counterpart, Leila Trabelsi took up positions in apolitical organisation such as the Association for the Promotion of Employment of the Disabled (BASMA). Leila Trabelsi's public presence, both on a national and international level, contributed to the sustenance of this narrative, as she was often characterised as being ‘western’ and ‘fashionable’. Both Lalla Salma and Leila Trabelsi, in some ways, personified the state feminism that these regimes adopted, embodying the detached and elitist nature of the policies put forth that contributed to the marginalisation of working-class women. For example, as one of his first matters as king in 1999, Mohammed VI adopted state feminist policies during the process of reforming the personal status code as part of the National Plan for the Integration of Women in Development (Guessous 2011). The measures, which eased the process of divorce if initiated by the wife, raised the minimum marriage age for women, and made the process for a man to marry a second wife more strict, among others reforms, were reportedly intended to address the socio-economic exclusion of women. Instead, the reforms were met with widespread opposition among working-class groups and its supporters were widely painted as ‘elitists’.

Parallel to the political inclusion of women, there is also the economic inclusion of women that has been used as the means of legitimising the narrative that frames Morocco's approach to women's rights as ‘exceptional’ and ‘progressive’ in the region. A recent example is illustrated through the business ventures of franchise mogul, Selwa Akhennouch. Akhennouch comes from an established family that made its name in the tea trade. Her success expanded following her marriage with the current minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Aziz Akhennouch, a marriage marked by the 2011 opening of what is described as Africa's biggest destination mall, the Morocco Mall. The Morocco Mall, which opened its doors to the public December 2011, was a $240 million business venture that Selwa Akhennouch spearheaded in partnership with Saudi businessman Emad Eldin Abdalla. The mall hosts over 300 stores and high-end boutiques as well as the country's first IMAX theatre, a Bellagio-inspired musical fountain, a large aquarium, ice skating rink, bowling centre, among other features.

Selwa Akhennouch exemplifies one end of the results stemming from the neoliberal economic policies while Fadoua Laroui demonstrates the other end of the spectrum. Living in the country in the region with the highest income inequalities, Moroccan women's experiences are centred on socio-economic factors that comprise the fabric of Moroccan society, where inequalities are measured more on economic welfare than any other factor. Selwa Akhennouch's business ventures, such as the Morocco Mall, are on such a scale that it is impossible to remove her from the neoliberal authoritarian system that operates as the monarchy's cushion of protection. The participation of the king's sister, Lalla Meryem, as the official ribbon-cutter during the opening ceremony of the Morocco Mall in December 2011 is a testament of that complicity between her position as a businesswoman in the private sector and the authoritarian regime that props up the monarchy.

In an authoritarian context, the development of feminist and women's rights groups is not entirely devoid of political agendas. In the case of Morocco, in order to maintain accreditation and funding, which the regime issues, these groups operate within limited boundaries of autonomy. Because of this, the advocacy for the socio-economic rights of working-class women is low on the list of priorities. Rather they articulate their objectives within a framework that the regime shapes, which ultimately exists to sustain the status quo. Referring back to the state's withdrawal from the public sector through an ongoing process of liberalisation that saw the privatisation of various state-owned enterprises, this undoubtedly had an impact on the women workforce. In Morocco, as Hatem (1992) argued was the case in Egypt, ‘state adoption of liberalization as policy orientation has created new forms of economic management that affected the demand for the labor of women, the type of employment open to them, and the conditions under which they work’ (239). As the accruement of capital became the top priority for the regime, whether in the public sector or through its established and growing networks of former government officials and political allies in the private sector, the welfare and socio-economic rights of women in the workforce come at a higher cost, which poses a threat to the neoliberal economic order. Additionally, working-class women must also face the fact that this pervasive economic system and its alliance with the authoritarian regime thrive on the exclusion of women's work in the household from the flow of labour and capital.

State feminism in a marriage with liberalisation and authoritarianism

It is imperative to look at the campaign to reform article 475 beyond the layers of women's rights groups demanding reforms. Article 475 was the article cited in the legal case that led to a judge ruling that Amina Filali marry her rapist. The following are the contents of article 475 from the penal code (1962):

Quiconque, sans violences, menaces ou fraudes, enlève ou détourne, ou tente d'enlever ou de détourner, un mineur de moins de dix-huit ans, est puni de l'emprisonnement d'un à cinq ans et d'une amende de 200 à 500 dirhams.

Lorsqu'une mineure nubile ainsi enlevée ou détournée a épousé son ravisseur, celui-ci ne peut être poursuivi que sur la plainte des personnes ayant qualité pour demander l'annulation du mariage et ne peut être condamné qu'après que cette annulation du mariage a été prononcée.

Whoever, without violence, threats or cheats, kidnaps or takes away, or attempts to kidnap or take away a minor under the age of eighteen years, shall be punished with imprisonment of one to five years and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams.

When a nubile minor is kidnapped or taken away, marries her captor, he cannot be prosecuted on the complaint of persons entitled to apply for annulment of marriage and cannot be sentenced until after the annulment of marriage been finalized.

On the surface, when women's rights groups took to the streets demanding justice for Amina Filali's death and for the abolishment of article 475, the widespread mobilisation appeared to be a major force. Gathering supporters from across the political spectrum, especially among members of the opposition, widely publicised marches took place, most notably, in front of parliament in Rabat. These otherwise dormant groups carried portraits of Amina Filali, shouting slogans at the steps of parliament, an institution with no power to challenge that of the king. The significance of the space they occupied along with their short-term objectives reveals the problematic nature of these groups. These groups, such as Union d'Action Feminine (UAF), were not interested in protecting the rights of working-class women whose immediate objectives and interests differ greatly from the elitist members of these groups. Their demands hovered around calling for the reform or abolishment of article 475. Their distance from the experiences of women like Amina Filali is exemplified through the simple fact that these groups only came to Amina Filali's rescue when she already ended her life. Rather than targeting the sources of oppression in Moroccan society that place working-class women in such dire circumstances – sources of oppression that span from societal norms to the palace halls to the International Monetary Fund's structural adjustment programmes – their demands to reform article 475 barely scratched the surface of what working-class women struggle against on a regular basis.

Groups like UAF instrumentalised the death of Amina Filali in a way that allowed them to remain publicly present. However, they narrowly operated and articulated their demands within a framework dictated by the regime. As an organisation with ties to the regime, varying from funding to accreditation to the political associations of its members, UAF is bound by the conditions the regime sets. Instead of stepping beyond the immediate concerns of the penal code's article 475, they are cornered into a discourse that leaves little room for countering the state's feminist discourse. For example, the UAF steered clear from addressing the neoliberal policies that left the rural areas socio-economically marginalised from the urban areas. Such a change in policy would have placed Amina Filali in a different position and context and is a measure that working-class rural women would benefit from greatly but remains unarticulated by organisations such as UAF.

Months later, it was announced that parliament would be reforming article 475 to prevent the marriage from a rapist and his victim. In a country where decision-making is highly centralised and far from transparent, the regime's response to the demands of reforming this article affirms that the state-allied women's rights groups do not threaten the regime's hegemony. Generally, when reforms are undertaken in an authoritarian regime, the sources of power dictate the measures and the measures avoid shifting power away from its central source (King 2007). As a result, reforming article 475 never threatened the sources of power in Morocco, otherwise it would not have been a decision made and carried out by the pinnacle of society. Moreover, the campaign to reform article 475 was pushed forth by institutions allied to the state in some capacity, such as the aforementioned UAF. That is not to say that independent groups were against reforming article 475, but that these groups, like those from within the February 20 Movement, were asking for more radical change, namely addressing the intersection between the state and neoliberal economic policies. This intersection was actually further reinforced following the statements of the only female minister, Bassima Hakkaoui, minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development. During a press release where Amina Filali's rapist was present along with Amina Filali's family, Bassima Hakkaoui claimed that a marriage between a rapist and his victim ‘causes no real harm’. Bassima Hakkaoui's presence as an extension of state authority weighed heavier than her presence as a woman, illustrating how the co-optation of female figures within the regime benefits the sustenance of state ‘feminist’ policies.

The process of reforming article 475 parallels the regime's previous responses to dissent. Much like the state's response to demands for reform following the rise of the February 20 Movement, the king handpicked the council that was tasked with this undertaking. It is not simply that the regime publicly acknowledges and responds to dissent from civil society that has allowed it maintain its grip on power. It is the Moroccan regime's ability to appropriate the rhetoric of protests and reformulate demands into measures that liberalise power instead of democratising that has sustained it. Once the cosmetic changes were made, members of the regime-allied women's rights groups withdrew from the streets and applauded their successes. Yet, with or without the implementation of article 475, the intersection of the state, its hegemonic ‘feminist’ policies, and the neoliberal economic order formulate a set of forces that transcend any legal framework.

The force of this intersection is further represented by the case of Malika Slimani, which occurred the same week article 475 was reformed. Malika Slimani, who was raped by parliament member Hassan Arif, ended up facing charges after she legally pursued Arif over the rape. Arif was subsequently acquitted of any charges and maintained his position in parliament. While the conditions of Malika Slimani's case differed from that of Amina Filali, they both exemplified how the surface changes of the penal code failed to bring about any change towards the legal treatment of disenfranchised working-class women.

A subversive force

Dissenting working-class women, including single mothers, exist as a subversive force in Moroccan society. Unlike the positive impact neoliberalisation and the entrenchment of the authoritarian regime has had on the upper classes, including its women, working-class women are excluded from both the circle of capital as well as the echelons of power that dictate policy in Morocco. For that reason, the self-immolation of single mother, Fadoua Laroui, carried a symbolic significance that shook the very core of the regime. Her self-immolation was a direct response to the municipal office that rejected her public housing application. Moreover, the public act of setting herself on fire placed her struggle and dissent on full display. The timing of her act, on the eve of the February 20 Movement's first protest, unifies all these elements into the most subversive force against the Moroccan regime, attacking it on all sides. However, it was also a response to the neoliberal policies that have pushed working-class women into an underprivileged position and a response to the societal norms that institutionalised patriarchal hegemony into legal policies through measures such as the personal status code laws. The personal status code laws themselves, prior to being reformed under Mohammed VI, grew out of an alliance between the monarchical institution and tribes as a means of solidifying the state's central authority following independence from France (Charrad 2001). The formulation of the personal status code laws also became a means for the monarchy to establish itself as a neutral actor among quarrelling political parties, placing it above accountability – a position it maintains today.

It is no coincidence then, that some of the most public figures to emerge from the February 20 Movement, whether as members or supporters, have been working-class women. In the Movement's Rabat chapter, an important branch that regularly protested in front of Parliament, working-class women were either at the front leading chants or on major international media networks articulating the movement's goals and demands. Zineb Belmkaddem, a single mother, for example, often times led chants during demonstrations and appeared on multiple major news networks opposing regime spokespeople. Though, as a single mother, she herself acknowledged the limitations on her activities, both out of concern for her daughter's safety and also due to imposed societal perceptions, from family members and outsiders alike, of what is the proper behaviour of a mother. Maternal duties limited her radicalism, as she described to me: ‘I could have done and said a lot more if I was not a single mother’ (Interview, 29 March 2013). In another important chapter of the movement, Maria Karim based in Casablanca also became a public figure following her advocacy for Mouad Belghouate, a formerly detained dissident rapper. Coming from a working-class family and being driven to provide for herself at a young age heightened her political awareness, as she explained to me during an interview (26 March 2013). At the same time, however, in her pursuit of income, which placed her in positions that deviated from prescribed gender roles for working-class Moroccan women, she describes the erasure of her femininity. During my Skype interview with Maria Karim, she further detailed her experience as a working-class woman and its impact on her gender:

The way I lived life, I lived it in a way where I was neither male nor female – just as an agendered human. I experienced something that can be best described as the negation of my femininity. This negation of my femininity was very much imposed upon me by surrounding context.

When pressed as to the cause of this, Maria Karim pointed to the constant pressure of having to work for a source of income that almost entirely went towards her studies, while also having to simultaneously maintain a good academic standing. This pressure was only further exacerbated when she became more involved with the February 20 Movement.


It is important to place the past three years in Morocco on a spectrum of continuity that extends before 20 February 2011 and remains part of an ongoing process. When the February 20 Movement took the streets for their first major protest, the socio-economic and political grievances that led to that event did not emerge out of a vacuum. When Mohammed VI responded with a speech on 9 March, followed by a constitutional referendum on 1 July, the regime's response to the ongoing dissent was systematic. For working-class Moroccan women who express their grievances in the public sphere, whether through self-immolating or marching with a banner, that act of defiance targets the core of a patriarchal neoliberal regime. The formula of political and economic liberalisation measures the Moroccan regime has resorted to, in any instance of dissent, fails to address genuine demands for change. These predatory measures have exacerbated inequalities and placed working-class women in dire conditions, driving women in positions like Fadoua Laroui and Amina Filali to end their lives.

Under the reign of Mohammed VI, the regime has seized women's rights as a tool for liberalising the political economic system and upholding the status quo. Well before the protest movement that emerged from the regional uprisings, through the personal status code law reforms and the placement of women in high positions in the private sector, the Moroccan regime adopted a policy of embracing state ‘feminism’. This was also complemented by the public presence and activities of women from within the regime, spanning from the king's wife, Lalla Salma, to the only female minister, Bassima Hakkaoui. While the regime has attempted to craft a narrative that characterised Morocco's treatment of women as ‘progressive’, the façade is not lost on working-class women, especially those politically active against the regime. Just as the regime has capitalised on the image associated with the ‘progressive’ treatment of women, working-class women continue to break down the regime's smokescreen – an effort whose cost has been and will continue to be at the expense of women's lives. The dissenting acts of working-class women in Morocco stem out of a rejection of the state and the neoliberal policies it propagates.


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12. Richards, Alan, and John Waterbury. 2008. The Emergence of a Public Sector: A Political Economy of the Middle East. Boulder: Westview Press.

The author is associated with Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Georgetown University, USA. This article was first published in the latest issue of The Journal of North African Studies, Vol-19 , No-2 , March 2014.


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