Morocco: 'Having a Conversation on Other Terms: Gender and the Politics of Representation the New Moroccan Government'


The recent parliamentary elections in Morocco have led to the creation of the first ever elected Islamist government in Morocco’s history. After winning more than forty percent of the votes in the November 25th elections, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) led by Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane formed a coalition government with the socialist Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme (PPS), the nationalist Istiqlal party and the royalist Mouvement Populaire (MP). Benkirane’s first task as Prime Minister was to form the government by appointing ministers. After much speculation and many rumors in the press and social media, Benkirane finally introduced his cabinet on January 3, 2012 at the royal palace in Rabat where he was summoned by King Mohammed VI. The newly formed government is surprising in some respects but predictable in others. It includes controversial PJD members like Mustapha Ramid, an outspoken activist and critic who was appointed Minister of Justice despite rumors in the press that he was blacklisted by the palace. A polygamous man and the father of six children, Ramid has spoken out against limitations on freedom of the press and has argued in favor of limiting the powers of the king. A lawyer by training, he has expressed his support for the February 20th youth movement, has represented Salafi political prisoners as well as journalists like Rachid Nini, the editor of Almassae newspaper who was sentenced to one year in jail for criticizing the unfair trials of Islamists. However, the government of Benkirane, which had to be approved by the king, also includes the usual technocrats and palace loyalists who will ensure that the new government does not deviate much from the palace line or challenge the interests of the country’s elites.

While there is much that could be said about this new government, including the fact that it is based on a historically unprecedented coalition between the socialist PPS and the Islamist PJD, one noteworthy aspect has received much attention. This is the fact that the new government only includes one woman minister in a cabinet of thirty. This is a sharp drop compared to the recent past, when governments formed by other parties had between two and seven women ministers. An official picture released on January third puts this discrepancy on full display.


Taken at the royal palace with King Mohammed VI in the center, his young son (and heir apparent) on one side and Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane on the other, three rows of men in almost identical blue and black suits and ties stand proudly framed by the ornate pillars and walls of the royal palace. On the right, at the very end of the second row, easily missed if one does not look closely, stands Bassima el-Hakkawi. An active member of the PJD, former parliamentarian and president of the organization of PJD women, el-Hakkawi is the only woman appointed to the new government. Dressed in a long black manteaux and a colorful headscarf, with touches of turquoise that liven up the monotone suits of the male ministers, her gaze seems serious and solemn. While none of us can know for sure what she was thinking or feeling at that moment, she appears burdened by the weight and implications of her position. She is, after all, the first Islamist and veiled woman to be appointed minister and the only woman in the new government. As the new Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development, el-Hakkawi inherits a historically weak ministry endowed with a small budget, limited political clout and the impossible task of providing welfare for children, women, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. This is a ministry that definitely stands at the bottom of the government and political food chain. In the outgoing government, it was headed by Nouzha Skalli, a longtime leftist feminist from the socialist PPS. While this position has historically been assigned to women, under the socialist government of El-Youssoufi (1998-2002), it was given to a man (Said Saadi from the PPS).

In a statement to the press outside of the palace on the day of her appointment, Bassima el-Hakkawi expressed her discomfort and unease at being the only woman in the new government. She said that she had hoped to see more women ministers in the new government and that she knew of many women from the PJD and its coalition partners who were fully capable of assuming ministerial responsibilities. She argued that other parties in the coalition did not work hard enough to make that happen and did not to put forward enough female candidates that could be appointed. “There might have been some objective reasons and some personal reasons, but as usual,” she stated, “one looks for reasons not to appoint a woman while one does not look for reasons when it comes to men. The conditions are always there for appointing men but they are never there for appointing women. And this is something that we need to overcome.” In a subsequent interview, she stated that male political leaders tend to treat women as “intruders” and generally do not tolerate any competition from anyone let alone from women.

As the only woman in government, el-Hakkawi both confirms and complicates the secular-liberal fear that an Islamist led government will result in a decline in women’s rights. The drop in women’s representation could indeed be interpreted as proof that Islamists want to confine women to their homes and keep them out of politics. However, the fact that none of the PJD’s coalition partners including the nationalist Istiqlal party and the socialist PPS fought hard enough for their women candidates challenges this claim. After all, only the PJD appointed a woman minister. In addition, by publicly expressing her discomfort at being the only woman in government, el-Hakkawi challenges the claim that the PJD has no commitment to women’s political participation. It is true that by pointing the finger to the other parties in the coalition, she can be interpreted as failing to criticize her own party for not appointing more women. However, by insisting that she knows of many capable women from within her own party and other political parties, she leaves open the possibility that more PJD women could and should have been appointed. In that sense, her statement can be read as applying to the gender politics of her own party as well. In a statement to journalists after his first cabinet meeting, the new Prime Minister Benkirane stated that there is “no reason to be outraged" and “that there was no intention to exclude women from this government." He added: "What we need more than anything are competent people. Parties have tried (to find women politicians) but it's not easy." I would argue that it is exactly this kind of statement and attitude that el-Hakkawi is challenging when she states that “as usual, one looks for reasons to not to appoint a woman while one does not look for reasons when it comes to men.” Finally, by criticizing the fact that the old boys’ network always takes precedence over the inclusion of women in politics and that excuses are always made for excluding women, el-Hakkawi challenges the claim that Islamist and/or pious women have no critique of sexism or of the exclusion of women from politics.<

Because she is an Islamist, el-Hakkawi will of course be accused of speaking a double language and of appropriating a feminist critique that is not her own. She will be accused of wanting to appear benign and benevolent when she in fact has hidden intentions of undermining the gains that women have secured and fought for since independence. These include the recent reforms of the family code which made the family the joint responsibility of husbands and wives, increased the legal age of marriage for both men and women to eighteen, restricted polygamy, abolished the wilaya therefore giving women the right to marry without the consent of a male guardian, and gave women more legal grounds for divorce. In fact soon after el-Hakkawi’s appointment, a YouTube video started circulating in leftist and secular feminist circles with warnings about what is to come. In it, el-Hakkawi is shown passionately questioning the announcement by the outgoing Istiqlal government that Morocco has formally withdrawn its reservations against the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and in so doing has confirmed its full commitment to gender equality. Morocco ratified CEDAW in 1993, with reservations to articles 2, 9(2), 15(4), 16, and 29. These reservations deal with legal and constitutional equality between men and women, equality within the family, the right of women to pass on their nationality to their foreign-born spouses and children, and women's right to freedom of movement. Leftist and secular feminists have been campaigning for lifting these reservations for over a decade. In the video, el-Hakkawi is shown in parliament asking what has changed in Moroccan society and identity or in the shari`a that all of a sudden warrants this lifting of reservations when for years the Moroccan government insisted on only accepting those aspects of CEDAW that do not contradict the tenets of Islam. She is also shown asking for clarification on what gender equality in rights and obligations entails and whether this means that a woman would now be expected to pay a dowry to her husband and obliged to pay him alimony in cases of divorce. “The people of Morocco have a right to know,” she said.

The questions raised by el-Hakkawi seem to be concerned with the top down nature of the decision to lift the reservations to CEDAW and the lack of discussion in parliament about what this means at a local level. Yet, the video clip has been circulated as proof of el-Hakkawi’s opposition to women’s rights. The questions that she asks in the YouTube clip also suggest a concern with the relationship between international treaties and a commitment to Islamic principles especially when it comes to matters such as inheritance and alimony. While many leftist and secular feminists have been calling for the privileging of international treaties and principles in matters of women’s rights, el-Hakkawi and other members of the PJD have been calling for privileging religious principles. This however does not necessarily mean that el-Hakkawi or the PJD are against women’s rights but simply that they would like to shift the terms of the conversation away from international conventions like CEDAW.

The fact that el-Hakkawi was active in the PJD campaign against the National Plan of Action for the Integration of Women in Development (NPA) in 2000 is similarly being invoked as proof of her anti-feminist credentials. What both accusations fail to take into consideration is that the PJD has historically expressed a critique of the privileging of international treaties and conventions and of the priorities and criteria of foreign bodies like the World Bank in matters of women’s rights. Instead, they have argued for the importance of conducting ijtihad from within the Islamic tradition. They have also criticized the fact that they are often left out of important discussions on women’s rights, as was the case in the drafting of the National Plan of Action in 1998 and the recent lifting of the CEDAW reservations. In an interview with the Moroccan sociologist Zakia Salime who has recently published a fascinating book on the relationship between feminism and Islamism in Morocco (see interview with the author on Jadaliyya), Bassima el-Hakkawi is quoted as saying: “This is a government (referring here to the government of the socialist el-Youssoufi) that is waging a war on so called ‘obscurants’ (SIC) and ‘anti-democratic forces,’ meaning us. This is a government that came through a democratic process of election, but does not practice democracy. Democracy is about inclusion; we were excluded. We are not against women’s rights, but against letting others define them on our behalf” (Zalime 2011: 80).

I agree with feminist critics that the dramatic under-representation of women in the new government is scandalous. However, I would like to suggest that the responsibility for this lies with all parties of the coalition and extends beyond the makeup of this particular government. In my opinion, all political parties (and not just the PJD) need to take a serious look at their gender politics rather than conceal their own sexism by pointing accusatory fingers towards the so called conservatism of Islamists. The male leadership of leftist and progressive parties, in particular, has relied for too long on a contrast effect with Islamists and conservatives to hide its own sexism. Leftist feminists should treat this transitional moment as an opportunity for an internal critique rather than for the perpetuation of the myth that progressive and leftist men have better gender politics than their Islamist or conservative counterparts. Finally, while the anger and disappointment of many leftist, progressive and feminist women is understandable, it is problematic to direct that anger at Bassima el-Hakkawi who has been placed in a difficult situation as the only woman Minister with an impossible mission and inadequate means. The fact that she has publicly expressed her discomfort and criticized political parties for their gender politics and old boys’ networks should be interpreted as an invitation for solidarity and activism on behalf of women. It is a mistake to assume that anyone who is critical of the language of universal human rights is necessarily opposed to the rights of women. There are multiple traditions of women’s activism and of feminist politics and multiple conceptions of justice and of equality in Morocco. CEDAW and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are not the only means of advocating for greater justice and equality for Moroccan women. If women of the PJD like Bassima el-Hakkawi seek to have a conversation about the rights of women, justice and equality on other terms, then let’s listen to them in good faith instead of assuming that secular and leftist feminists are the only ones qualified to speak on behalf of women’s rights.