CASABLANCA, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)–The word on the streets of Casablanca, the bustling, commercial capital of Morocco, is out: The emperor has new clothes.
He also has a new baby girl, and the Moroccan press made a splash about it.
Weeks after the birth of King Mohammed VI’s daughter, Princess Khadija, on Feb. 28, Morocco’s two leading women’s magazines offered an "exclusive" visual paean to her little, royal highness.
Featuring the Moroccan royal family in exquisite traditional robes, the special photo features offered a rare, royally sanctioned glimpse of the private world of Mohammed VI, 18th king in the Alaouite dynasty, one of the world’s oldest ruling dynasties.
"Of course I bought copies of both magazines," says Botoul Sahli, a 42-year-old teacher, minutes before the start of an open-air fashion show in an upscale Casablanca district.
"They are beautiful photos. I love the rich, royal traditional outfits," she adds, as gentle evening breeze ripples her shoulder-length hair. "His majesty does not give importance to the veil. His wife and his sisters go out without the veil. They are very important symbols for us, Moroccan Muslim women."
Hailed as a bright hope for Arab modernization when he ascended the throne seven years ago, Mohammed VI has had a mixed track record since. But even his fiercest critics concede that his initiatives supporting women’s rights have been a resounding success.
On Oct. 10, 2003, the king presented parliament with a reformed Family Code. A package of personal and family laws covering marriage, divorce and inheritance rights, the code–or "mudawana"– was a battleground for a decades-long fight between secular modernists and conservative Islamists who called the debate "a war between believers and apostates."
It was the deadly May 16, 2003, terrorist attacks in Casablanca that eventually turned the tide in favor of the modernists. Following a widespread anti-fundamentalist wave after the suicide bombings, the king came down firmly in favor of women’s rights, while positioning his arguments within an Islamic rubric.
In a country where the monarch is the final, sacrosanct arbiter of power, the modified code was in effect, a done deal. Months later, parliament approved the code.
Considered one of the most progressive in the Arab world, the code grants women equal gender status, shared family rights and the right to initiate divorce and marry without the permission of a male family member.
Women in Parliament
On the political front, the 2002 Electoral Code introduced a novel "national list" that reserved 30 parliamentary seats for women. Currently, women hold 35 out of 325 seats in the lower house, including 30 from the national list as well as five who won in their local districts.
As the country heads for landmark parliamentary elections this September, Nouzha Skalli, parliamentary representative from the PPS (Party of Progress and Socialism), admits it’s a long way from the mid-1970s, when she began her political career. The previous parliament, for instance, had only two women in the lower chamber.
But Skalli is quick to note that female representation in parliament of around 10 percent is only a first step. "Morocco is committed to having 30 percent female representation by 2015," she says. "To meet that goal, we have to do a lot more."
Even for the women who have made it into parliament, Skalli says it’s an uphill battle to make it into important committees and positions. "There’s a constant struggle for power from men. We women don’t like to fight."
Although the reformed Family Code has won much international praise, Moroccan women’s rights activists note there are widespread implementation problems across the country with millions of marginalized women still under the mercy of ill-informed, reactionary "adouls," or Muslim family affairs judges.
More than three years after the code was signed into law, Moroccan women’s organizations are now confronting serious shortcomings–primarily due to vague legal requirements–that were initially overlooked in the euphoria surrounding its passage.
Polygamy, for instance, was not entirely abolished. And while the new code put the legal age of marriage for men and women at 18, exceptions were made when the family affairs judges could offer a "well-substantiated decision explaining the interest and reasons justifying the marriage."
One of the most extensively documented shortfalls of the code is the criminalization of sex outside marriage–for females only. The stipulation imposes harsh legal and social stigmas on single mothers, says Aicha Ech-Channa, founder of Feminine Solidarity, a Casablanca-based nongovernmental group that is one of Morocco’s leading champions of women’s sexual rights.
"We need to do a lot more to feed information to women and the media and to pressure politicians to change the law. But it will take a lot of work because of rising Islamism in Morocco," says Ech-Channa.
Like many secular Moroccan women’s rights activists, Ech-Channa views the king as a bulwark against Islamism in this Muslim-dominated North African Arab kingdom.
"For me as a Moroccan, the king is a unifier," she says. "There’s no real democracy in Arab countries and Morocco is not ready for a real democracy. We have a constitutional monarchy with political parties and the king can stay as a unifier."
But others say Morocco is not a constitutional monarchy. Under that system a king’s power is supposed to be checked by strong political institutions but Mohammed, by contrast, faces no such checks and balances.
As a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, the 43-year-old monarch bears the title of "Commander of the faithful," or its religious chief. He can form and dissolve both government and parliament, call for elections or rule by decree. In effect, the country’s constitution grants him absolute power.
In recent years, a small but increasingly vocal section of the population has been openly critical of the makzhan, a term popularly used to describe the royal court and a veritable shadow government of royal advisors and cronies who control the Moroccan economy.
These include people from two quite otherwise unrelated and even opposing factions: secular, pro-democracy campaigners frustrated with powerlessness of Moroccan elected institutions and fiercely anti-monarchist Islamists such as the underground Justice and Spirituality Movement.
It’s a peculiarly post-Cold War Moroccan situation that arranges these two mutually suspicious camps on the same side of the anti-makzhan divide, pitted against largely royalist secular women’s rights supporters.
The hope for many secular pro-democracy campaigners resigned to the current Islamic revivalism is that a moderate Islamic party such as the PJD can successfully bridge Morocco’s precipitous divides.
It’s an aspiration that could well be tested after elections in September.
Leela Jacinto is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. She was an international news reporter at ABCNEWS.com, New York, and has taught journalism at the Pajhwok Afghan News Service in Kabul, Afghanistan.