There have been significant legislative reforms pertaining to women’s rights in countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the last several decades. In Morocco, important revisions were made to the family code (Mudawana) in 2004, granting women further equality in areas including marriage, divorce, and family responsibility, and Turkey amended its civil code in 2001, addressing biases that had led to gender inequality in private life. Numerous countries in the region also adopted various forms of gender quotas that sought to mandate the election of women to parliaments. Despite critical advancements, many challenges remain. One difficulty facing women’s rights groups is ensuring the effective implementation of laws, and another is changing patriarchal mentalities and cultural norms around women’s economic and societal roles.
As the following briefs make clear, legislative change is not enough, nor is mandated representation. Evidence from other regions even suggests that mandating the formal participation of women in political positions can lead to the co-optation of women into autocratic systems of governance, or to a backlash against female politicians and a regression of women’s rights. As such, grassroots mobilization on a variety of topics related to women’s rights—from ending sexual harassment and domestic violence to ending gender discrimination
in inheritance laws—has continued from below in order to put pressure on governments, institutions, and societies. While there was a heightened international focus on women’s social movements in 2011 as uprisings swept the MENA region, less attention has been paid to women’s grassroots mobilization in the subsequent decade.
The briefs that follow address many facets of women’s mobilization in the second decade of the 2000s.
Using detailed case studies of specific countries and movements, the contributing authors—who include scholars and activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine, and Jordan—examine which spaces for women’s mobilization have opened and which have closed off. They look critically at how women’s grassroots movements become adopted into formal politics and policy, and to what effect. Lastly, they question the nexus between social movements and outcomes such as legislative reform, asking how—even in cases of successful mobilization—participants are able to develop measures that ensure the transformation of demands into law and effective implementation.
Yamina El Kirat outlines the history of women’s movements in Morocco since independence, arguing that while earlier movements tended to be composed of highly educated women in urban locations, more recent mobilizations—such as the soulalyat movement or the Hirak Rif—have included, and even been instigated by, women from rural areas. Nonetheless, El Kirat concludes that Moroccan women’s movements continue to face many challenges in achieving their goals, which include reducing unemployment among Moroccan women, overcoming cultural barriers to gender equality, and improving women’s literacy.
Rabéa Naciri examines the Moroccan soulalyat movement in depth, explaining how predominantly rural women, with assistance from the Democratic Association of Women of Morocco (ADFM), managed to challenge the gendered system of land inheritance in place since the French Protectorate period. Through a series of testimonies gathered from soulalyats themselves, Naciri shows how the women’s perseverance and solidarity, helped along by the support and supervision of the ADFM, led to a new law in 2019 that guarantees both men and women the right to benefit from communal lands.
Soumia Boutkhil focuses specifically on women’s employment in higher education in Morocco, pointing out that Moroccan universities severely lack female representation at all levels. Boutkhil analyzes institutional barriers to women’s advancement in this key public sector, noting that while academics at the Université Mohammed Premier in Oujda created the Association of Women University Professors in 2016 as a key first step to mobilizing around this issue, many reforms are needed in order to mitigate a negative impact on future generations who are at risk of internalizing the extant patriarchal system.
In the Tunisian context, Khedija Arfaoui argues that while women’s mobilization has a long and prominent history in Tunisia leading to numerous gains in the area of women’s rights, women have not yet reached the fully equal status they have struggled for. Despite the 2011 revolution, Arfaoui asserts that many of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s repressive laws remain as an obstacle to women’s advancement, though she highlights recent examples of successful social movements, particularly in the area of anti-sexual harassment campaigns.
Looking at Turkey, Ayşe Ayata discusses the challenges that secular women’s movements have faced in recent years as a result of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) dismissal of gender equality and the party’s support of conservative women’s groups. Ayata focuses on three central issues that constitute the main agenda for the women’s movement in Turkey in recent years—domestic violence, alimony, and child marriage—arguing that the pushback against gender equality is neither specific to Turkey, nor to the MENA region, but is instead reflective of global anti-gender movements.
Hayat Wahab Arslan draws on her personal involvement in Lebanese women’s movements to argue that women’s political empowerment must be accompanied by economic empowerment, outlining the ways in which her organization—the Society of Lebanon the Giver—helped women in rural areas achieve economic independence and encouraged their participation in local governance. While acknowledging that Lebanon is still far behind achieving women’s political participation in line with international recommendations, Arslan argues that positive developments were visible in the 2018 elections, which saw an unprecedented number of female candidates run for office.
In Jordan, Amal El-Kharouf focuses on a disheartening contradiction: Jordanian women have impressively high levels of educational achievement, yet their economic participation rate was just 15.4% in 2018, compared to 55.9% for men. El-Kharouf highlights a number of reforms that the Jordanian government has taken over the last two decades to help improve women’s labor market participation, but ultimately argues that strong political will and further reforms are needed to help Jordanian women achieve participation that is in line with their educational achievement.
Finally, in the Palestinian context, Islah Jad suggests that the “NGO-ization” of women’s organizations since the 1990s has negatively impacted their mobilization potential, resulting in projects and policies that are not necessarily reflective of the broad demands and needs of Palestinian women. Jad argues that this process has empowered NGOs with strong international ties that are adept at speaking to the desires of donors and elites, at the expense of formerly strong grassroots organizations that were more in touch with women’s social, economic, and political reality.
This compilation is based on the “Women’s Grassroots Mobilization in the MENA Region Post-2011” workshops held in Rabat, Morocco and Amman, Jordan in February and March 2020. Thank you to Mohammed Masbah, director of the Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, and Barbara A. Porter, director of the American Center for Oriental Research, for hosting the workshops in Rabat and Amman, respectively. In addition to the authors and hosts, I would also like to thank Saloua Zerhouni, professor at Mohammed V University; Mohammed El Hachimi, professor at CERSS and advisor to the president of the National Human Rights Council of Morocco; and Andre Bank, senior research fellow at GIGA, for their participation and feedback at the workshops,
which greatly contributed to the discussion around these critical topics. Lydia Wells, a master of global affairs student at Rice University, also provided invaluable assistance in the planning and execution of the workshops and the editing of the briefs. The workshops were funded with the generous support of the Kelly Day Endowment as part of the Baker Institute’s program on Women’s Rights, Human Rights and Refugees.
Kelsey P. Norman, Ph.D.
Fellow and Director of the Women’s Rights, Human Rights, and Refugees Program, Center for the Middle East, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy