Malak Nahass was walking on a busy street near a Rabat beach one afternoon about six months ago when a stranger approached and started taunting her. The situation quickly escalated.
She is always on guard in public because she is used to being harassed, Nahass said. “I try to be invisible.” But this time, she couldn’t make herself disappear. The young man grabbed at her, and when she ran, he threw rocks at her, hitting her in the head. The deep cut she suffered required five stitches.
Nahass, a 32-year-old sound engineer, went to a police station to report the attack. The officers took the information and assigned her a case number. “They almost didn’t want to write down the description,” she recalled. She went back the next day to see if they had caught the man she described. The officers said they had looked around the neighborhood but had not found the suspect. When she followed up again a few weeks later, they accused her of harassing them.
“Can you believe it?” she said, shaking her head.
A 2009 national survey estimated two-thirds of Moroccan women have experienced violence at one point in their lives, and younger women in particular are fighting back.
This year, Morocco banned the manufacture and sale of the burqa, but it’s still a deeply conservative, patriarchal society with a ruling Islamic party that won handily in a parliamentary election last year.
“Everything that concerns women’s rights is connected to religion,” said Khadija Ryadi, former president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights.
Last month, the Moroccan Parliament once again debated legislation long sought by women’s rights activists here that would make it a crime to harass a woman in public, whether physically or verbally. Under the latest proposal, a conviction could draw a month to two years in prison. But the bill remains mired in political wrangling between reformers and members of the conservative parties.
On paper, the anti-harassment law would be a big step, particularly for a country that wants to be seen as a moderate Islamic hub compared with its neighbors in the rest of North Africa and the Middle East.
In September, Morocco rejected 44 of 244 recommendations made by the U.N. Human Rights Council following its latest review of the country’s rights record. All 44 pertained to either women’s rights or individual rights, including laws that prevent women and men from inheriting equally and that deny rights to children born out of wedlock.
In rejecting the recommendations, Morocco said its constitution must adhere to Islamic law — a striking illustration of the traditional and religious thinking hampering the country’s efforts to appear as a beacon of moderation in the region. Nowhere is the contrast between image and practice more evident than in Morocco’s approach to gender rights. Although its constitution guarantees equal rights for women, it does so with caveats, noting that these rights must respect “the laws and permanent characteristics of the kingdom.”
In 2004, Morocco revised its family code, called the “moudawana,” giving women broader rights in custody, marriage and divorce. The changes came after bombings in Casablanca killed 45 people, still the country’s deadliest terrorist attack. Although the Islamic parties were not implicated in the bombings, the government was able to use the atmosphere of anti-extremism they generated to win concessions from them on some of the king’s changes, most prominently the moudawana.
But the monarch can go only so far, said David Alvarado, a journalist and media consultant.
Kenza Allouchi, 21, a recent film school graduate in Rabat, said even if the expanded anti-harassment law is eventually passed, she isn’t sure it will do much good.