Partners in prayer: women's rights and religion in Morocco

Human rights ideas are often seen as highly secularized. For many, they are in direct conflict with religion, while for others they are, at best, “awkward bedfellows”. Over the past year, openGlobalRights has run a series of articles on religion and human rights, highlighting these points of convergence and divergence.

Some critics point to alleged Islamic positions on women as particularly problematic, and they portray women as victims of oppressive religious structures or as indoctrinated political subjects. Others point to Islam’s grounding in sacred texts, rather than universal secular humanism, as the problem.

At first glance, the women’s rights movement in Morocco, a highly devout and observant country, seems to highlight this tension. Both Moroccan women’s rights activists and their opponents have framed their debate in “secular versus religious” terms, and both have successfully mobilized widespread public action.

However, our Moroccan Human Rights Perception Polls, based on a 2012 survey of 1,100 adults residing in Rabat, Casablanca and their rural surroundings, suggest that this secular-religious polarization may be an elite-level artifact. Among ordinary people, the issue is more nuanced.

Flickr/Geraint Rowland (Some rights reserved)

Moroccan women walk to a mosque in Marrakesh.

The 1990s struggle over the Moroccan family code was a particularly high-profile and contentious moment in the country’s reckoning with women’s rights. In 1992, a petition calling for reform of the personal status code and Sharia-based family law (Moudawanagarnered one million signatures.

The reform campaign attracted a large vocal base of both supporters and opponents. In 2000, dueling demonstrations materialized: as “tens of thousands, representing women’s groups, human rights movements and political parties (and at least six government ministers), marched in the capital Rabat in support of the plan”, half a million opponents gathered in Casablanca to protest the “secularization” of religiously-based family law. A coalition of Islamist groups organized the anti-reform demonstration, and Islamist women had a strong presence at the rally, claiming that the Moudawana’s reform would disrupt the family unit. Alarmed by the public outcry, the King put the reform policy on hold. Still, the Moroccan feminist movement continued their mobilization and advocacy; the King ultimately approved the new family code and parliament adopted it into law in 2004.

The standard narrative of the Moroccan women’s movement pits religion and human rights in strong opposition to one another. It suggests that Moroccans with stronger religious convictions or levels of religious participation would be more critical of local human rights organizations (LHROs), which they would see as pushing reforms that contradict religious teachings. Our survey evidence, however, suggests that participating in religious institutions and practicing a more personal version of religion may function differently.

First, consider the Moroccan public’s trust in local human rights organizations. We asked respondents how much they trusted local human rights organizations (LHROs), on a 4-point scale, where 1 means “no trust,” and 4 means “a lot of trust.” As Figure 1 suggests, when it comes to trusting local rights groups, religion is not necessarily incompatible with human rights. Although Moroccans who attended mosque at least once a week were indeed less trusting, those who reported praying more often were significantly more trusting of LHROs.

This suggests a distinction between institutional religiosity, measured by mosque attendance, and personal religiosity, measured by frequency of prayer. Although institutional religiosity in Morocco is indeed linked to less trust in local rights groups, as the standard narrative suggests, personal religiosity is linked to greater trust, a surprising finding.

We also asked respondents about their definition of “human rights”, asking to what extent they associated the term with other phrases. We found Moroccans most strongly associated “human rights” with “protecting women’s rights”, even more so than with “protecting people from torture and murder” or “promoting socio-economic justice”.

The Moroccan public does indeed identify human rights with the hot-button women’s movement and Moudawana reforms, but the question remains as to whether Moroccans regard this positively or negatively.

To assess, we considered the relationship between defining “human rights” as “women’s rights”, and respondents’ trust in local rights groups. To our surprise, we found that those who think of human rights as women’s rights are more, rather than less, trusting of LHROs. Moroccans who define human rights as women’s rights are more positively inclined towards local rights groups.

Associating rights with feminism, in other words, is not a liability for Moroccan rights groups. This finding runs counter to the dominant narrative, which suggests a women’s rights reputation would be a major liability in a traditional, religiously devout country such as Morocco.

More advanced statistical models suggest that it is mosque attendance, rather than personal religiosity, that is the problem. The more frequently people attend mosque, the less likely they are to view human rights as a women’s rights issue. This, in turn, leads to lower trust in local rights groups.

In Morocco, it is not personal piety that creates a barrier against human rights; instead, it is engagement with Moroccan mosques, as currently structured, that is associated with human rights disapproval. The causal nature of that association remains unclear; mosque attendance may be a cause, or perhaps a partial effect of, a human rights-skeptical world view.

Mosque attendance, however, is not the only way for Muslims to express their religion. Daily prayer, rites, personal beliefs and conduct all matter enormously. In fact, our data show that only 46% of respondents attend mosque once a week, and 47% attend either “never” or “seldom”. And yet, 96% of those we polled said that religion was “very important” in their daily lives, and virtually all respondents were  of the Sunni Muslim persuasion. Further, 85% reported praying multiple times per day (6% said “never”, 6% said “seldom”, and 4% fell somewhere in between), suggesting that, for many Moroccans, prayer is a more central tenet of their religious practice than mosque attendance.

The “problem” between human rights and Islam, as interpreted by some, seems rooted in the institutional experience of religion. 

Moroccans, in other words, are serious about personal religiosity and Islamic belief. Mosque attendance, however, is only central for half of the population. The “problem” between human rights and Islam, as interpreted by some, seems rooted in the institutional experience of religion.

Although many Moroccan intellectuals and activists may buy into the notion of a religious-secular conflict, not everyone is convinced. Zakia Salime, for example, a prominent feminist Moroccan scholar, writes that Morocco’s anti-family code reform marches were, among other things, a site for exploring “the intersections [between] … the feminist and the Islamist women’s movements.”

In fact, it seems that women’s rights mobilization in Morocco perhaps led to the emergence of a grassroots Islamic feminism that is comfortable with both religious and human rights discourse. This emergent ideological compatibility may help to explain the surprising findings of our public opinion poll.

In Morocco, Islamic and secular feminism are shaping one another’s discourses, and opinion polls demonstrate that the religion-human rights divide is not as clear-cut as some suspect.