RABAT, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)--Under current law, Ehtimad Bensallah's children cannot obtain Moroccan citizenship because nationality is conferred by fathers and her children's father is a foreigner.
Now the 35-year-old mother of three is part of a women's rights organization that is pushing for fast and broad enactment of a law--proposed in principle by King Mohamed VI in a speech last summer--to expand to mothers the ability to confer Moroccan nationality on their children.
"This is a daily problem that makes many women suffer," says Bensallah. Without the change, a woman is an "incomplete citizen," she adds.
The Ministry of Justice set up a commission after the king's speech to submit proposals to amend the current legislation and present them to Parliament in coming months.
Since then, women's rights activists have been anxious to gain a broad interpretation of the law. They want it to apply retroactively to citizenship applications by children of Moroccan women that have been pending for years and sometimes decades. They oppose setting any age limits on when children may apply for citizenship. They do not want the law to apply only to certain women married to men from selected foreign countries.
"We want the transmission of the nationality without any condition," emphasizes Saida Drissi Amrani, vice president of the Rabat-based Democratic Association of Moroccan Women.
In October, Amrani's organization issued a memorandum to the country's prime minister signed by 27 organizations that called for a no-conditions law to be applied retroactively. The memo also called for the transmission of citizenship to the husbands of Moroccan women. While Moroccan men can transmit citizenship to their foreign wives, women cannot do the reverse.
Follows Major 2004 Reform
The proposed change to the nationality code is viewed as a complement to the reform made last year to the Mudawana, the personal-status law established in 1957, that was hailed as a major step toward gender equality.
Because of it, men can no longer "repudiate" their wives, which means they cannot unilaterally and by their own will annul a marriage. In the past, a man could simply tell his wife or the "adoul"--a Muslim family affairs judge--that he was annulling the marriage, leaving his wife with no legal recourse. Now that proceeding must go through divorce court.
The 2004 law also gives women the right to initiate divorce, the right to marry without a "tutor"--generally her father or brother--and restricts polygamy.
Compared to the Mudawana reform, activists see the proposed change to the nationality code as minor, but nonetheless important.
"The Mudawana remains shaky if it is not completed with this reform," said Driss Ben Ali, president of Alternatives, a Casablanca-based think tank devoted to spurring public political discussions. "The woman always remains a minor if she doesn't transmit her nationality."
Local women's and human rights activists have agitated for the latest reform for the past four years and have intensified their efforts since last year's change in the family law.
Non-Citizen Children Bear Burden
They say the current citizenship code imposes a daily burden on children born to mixed marriages. Without access to the Moroccan nationality, such offspring must regularly negotiate the bureaucracy to renew residence permits in their own country and can't travel without visas. Their citizenship is often that of their fathers' homelands.
The heaviest burden, say activists, is that people classified as foreign--including the children and foreign-born husbands of Moroccan women--can't work in public administrative posts or certain sectors. Many must start their own businesses if they want to work in Morocco.
"They can't work if they don't have enough capital to finance a private project. They can't work in administrations, become architects, engineers or doctors," says Bensallah, who is part of the nationality commission at the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women.
The 1958 nationality code stipulates that Moroccan citizenship can only be transmitted to children born of a Moroccan father, those of single mothers or of a stateless father.
The local press has played a pivotal role in keeping the citizenship issue in the public eye.
After strongly advocating for the reform passed last year, the monthly magazine Women of Morocco last summer published a string of testimonies of women and children who feel harmed by the current nationality code.
Under the initiative of family rights advocate and sociologist Soumaya Naamane Guessous and the magazine's chief editor Geraldine Dulat, Women of Morocco collected 3,745 signatures for a petition calling for a change in the code.
Reforms Slow Despite King's Support
Last summer, women greeted the king's announcement of his support for the law warmly but for some that has since curdled into impatience over Parliament's slow pace of acting on the issue.
"I don't understand why it took so long," says Drissi Amrani. "There are children who suffer, who have wasted their lives because of this code and who don't know to which nation they belong."
Khadija Bel Mina, an attendee of a seminar on the topic organized last September by the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, adds that she is ordinarily optimistic but she is concerned about the slow pace of the change in the citizenship rules. "I don't know how long it'll take before I benefit from this law," she says. Bel Mina has a 9-year-old daughter with a man from Cameroon and is now divorced. She says the current law encourages discrimination. "My daughter told me, 'I'm treated differently,'" she says.
Even though the reform is dragging, Bouchra Abdou, the national secretary of the Democratic League for Women's Rights, says the king's direct involvement with the issue gives her hope that it will be enacted. But she regrets that political parties resisted the change and turned back three attempts since 2001 by the Socialist Party to push through amendments.
"Political parties have to play their role and take into consideration the matter of women's rights," Abdou says. "They shouldn't leave the path empty and leave it only to local organizations. They have done nothing. Where are the political parties?"
Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance writer in Morocco who has written for Asia Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Middle East Times and Reuters.
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