Women Living Under Muslim Law

(Cover Photo Source)

By Claire Davaine

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

Amnesty International defines domestic violence as follows: “A pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or use of violence, when one person believes they are entitled to control another”. Physical abuse by men toward women in the context of marital relationship is by far the most prevalent form of domestic violence and a significant problem in Morocco. 

According to a national survey conducted in 2011 by the Moroccan government, 63% of Moroccan women had reported suffering from an act of physical, psychological, sexual or economic violence. Only 3% of women who reported conjugal violence had reported it to the authorities, mainly because of lack of structure and no law. 

Legal framework

Morocco is governed by its 1996 Constitution that contains 13 chapters delineating individual rights and organization and power of the government. Although Moroccan laws are primarily based on French civil law, the legal and governmental frameworks established by the Constitution are clearly tailored to the local environment and the Islamic law: Shari’a. In Morocco, government drafts legislation based on the Shari’a’s philosophical guidelines and matters related to personal status such as inheritance, marriage, divorce and child custody, are governed by the family code Moudawana, which is based on the Islamic law.

Domestic Violence Laws and Practices in Morocco 

Over the past decade, Morocco has made significant strides in improving women's rights and giving women greater protection and equality. But the country still struggles with high levels of gender-based violence.

In 1962, the Article 404 of the Moroccan penal code stated, “Anyone striking his mother, father, or relatives is punished”. The 2011 amendments to the Moroccan Constitution clarify this protection and prohibit “all violations of physical and moral integrity and dignity, as well as all cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, under any circumstances, whether committed by State or private actors,” which could in theory be applied to cases of domestic violence. But limited references to family violence are contained in the penal code and punishment varies according to the “gravity of the violence.” 

King Muhammed VI, who ascended to the throne in 1999, took domestic violence protections a step further, as part of sweeping reforms to the Moudawana, amended in February 2004. The preamble now states: “Doing justice to women, protecting children’s rights and preserving men’s dignity are a fundamental part of this project, which adheres to Islam’s tolerant ends and objectives, notably justice, equality, solidarity, ijtihad (judicial reasoning) and receptiveness to the spirit of our modern era and the requirements of progress and development”.

The first version of the current family law was codified in 1957 after Morocco gained independence from France. Prior to the 2004 reforms, the family code required that a woman obey her husband, required a woman to use a male guardian (or wali) to conclude her marriage, and limited the circumstances under which a woman could seek a divorce.The updated code permits a wife to initiate divorce proceedings if the husband has abandoned her or has failed to provide financial support. 

However, many NGOs remain highly critical of the 2004 Family Code as there is no specific law that prohibits domestic violence. For example, rape is criminalized under the penal code, but spousal rape is not - the penal code allowing for a rapist to be acquitted if he marries his victim. 

More, existing penal provisions are considered outdated or inadequate to effectively address domestic abuse due to social pressure to preserve family units, and the conservative attitude of many law enforcement and government officials. 

Male dominance as a cultural anchored by a lack of legal authorities 

Despite these legal protections, abused from outset of the marriage or after few years, “many women and girls enduring domestic violence don’t get the help they need from Moroccan authorities,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East and North Africa women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. Therefore, it does not appear that Moroccan women who suffer domestic violence frequently divorce their husbands; nor do they often press charges. 

In fact, most of the domestic violence who had sought help from police, prosecutors, or courts reported police officers refused to record their statements, failed to investigate, and refused to arrest domestic abuser even after prosecutors ordered them to. 

Moroccan police generally lack the authority to intervene in domestic violence cases unless there is an “imminent threat of death.” Judges in particular are reluctant to jail perpetrators because they “dislike breaking up the family.” Physical abuse is legally sufficient grounds for divorce, but abuse is rarely reported, especially because social dictates favor both the preservation of the family unit and the obedience of women. Also, the Moroccan concept of shame or dishonour compounds social pressures on women. Women pressing charge against her husband confront both family privacy and malauthority. Only few get support from their family, others are pushed back to their abusers.

It is not unusual that a woman who wants a divorce faces her father refuses to hand over the marriage certificate for the divorce application. “In our family, no women get divorced. Stay with him even if he wants to kill you” can be heard. More, women state the police seem afraid to confront the husband. They advise them to go to their family. But when they fill a complaint with the prosecutor, they often have to go back to their husband under pressure from family. 

Indeed, Moroccan authorities often fail to prevent domestic violence, protect survivors, and punish abusers. More, women who seek shelter and support after leaving violent partners are often criticized and blamed for their own situation, even by public social workers.

Unsuitable governmental structures 

The Moroccan judicial system has created multi-sector violence against women “cells” that are intended to coordinate the work of lawyers, judges, NGOs, and health care professionals on domestic violence cases to ensure the interests of women and children are protected. Moroccan NGOs report that the violence against women “cells” are “ineffective and not functional, limited to a purely administrative bureaucratic role of completing paperwork rather than providing information, services or protection to women victims of violence.”

In this situation, the only safe place for survivors of physical, psychological, mental, or emotional violence inflicted upon them by their husbands, are the shelters run by NGOs. Often accompanied by their children, women arrive in shelters having left their families and communities behind. For these victims of abuse, authorities have failed to provide support and protection.

Moreover, women and girls said there are few places to go to escape domestic violence. The small number of shelters have little bed capacity and meager resources. Only a few get any government funding. Thus, women who try escaping their abusive husband go to a shelter but fear they have no choice but to return to him. They cannot stay in the shelter for more than two months, and have nowhere else to stay. Even if they get divorced, they don’t have any place to go. 

If significant strides have been made to protect women in Morocco against violence, more needs to be done.