Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
We cannot talk about feminism in Morocco without talking about politics. The history of the feminist movement is linked to the political change and upheaval that Morocco experienced long before its independence. However, to discuss feminism or the “Mouvement de Femmes” (women’s movement), it is essential to discuss its intersection with social class.
The beginning of feminism as a social and political structure took shape in the 1940s in Morocco, a period marked by the French and Spanish colonization of Morocco. These women were members of the Istiqlal, or Independence party, a political party created by a niche of Moroccan intellectuals from a very wealthy social class. One of this party’s main goals was to fight for Morocco’s independence from France. The history of these women and their political involvement is well documented. Much of the history of the feminist movement can be taken from feminist researcher and professor Latifa El Bouhsini. As El Bouhsini states:
“The priority for these activists was the independence of the country, the watchword of the party to which they belonged. This has enabled these women to impose themselves on the political scene and to make the presence of women in the public space more and more acceptable through the supervision and awareness-raising that they have carried out. It can be said that the experience of this sector is broadly in line with the tradition of political feminism. The question of the ratio between men and women was not on the agenda of this structure. This is a struggle in which the other component of the women’s rights movement illustrated itself. This is the association ‘Akhawat Assafa’ which was created in 1946 and whose initiative for the creation belongs to women from the other component of Moroccan nationalism, namely the Democratic Party of Independence (IDP).”
Akhawat Assafa, which in Arabic could be translated as “sisters of transparency” or “purity”, was a group of women emanating mainly from the intellectual bourgeoisie of Fes. This, in effect, was a double-edged sword. Their access to education led them to understand the importance of accessibility to education for girls and women. This early feminist movement led to social change in the 1940s and 1950s as women, especially young girls, gained access to education. They also demanded radical change for their time, such as “demanding the abrogation of polygamy and repudiation, by setting up judicial divorce, raising the age of marriage and the fight against the aggressions that the first unveiled women faced in the street.” However, this activism remained centred in urban areas, often focused on the middle class and bourgeois. But that did not prevent this first political-feminist movement from participating in the coming of the feminist movement of the 1980s.
After the independence of Morocco in 1956, a new generation of women was born having access to school and higher education; these women were also among the first to enter the workplace and seek employment in the 1980s, something that completely changed the relationship of power between women and men in society. As a result, women’s demands for their rights began to grow, especially at the end of the 1970s, with the rise of left-wing political movements and human rights organizations. As El Bouhsini states:
“The Moroccan Association for Human Rights (AMDH) created in 1979 also served as a structure within which activists had set up a commission responsible for the human rights of women. These multiple experiences have been made up of places of learning that allowed the activists to acquire know-how both in terms of the analysis of the political balance of power and in terms that relate to negotiation techniques.”
While this can be seen as a significant step in advancing feminism in Morocco, its inherent link to the upper classes in society can limit its scope. In essence, in the words of Rabea Naciri,
“The women’s movement of the mid-1980s onward, although resembling liberal feminism in terms of demands, has rarely identified its activities as ‘political.’”
Instead, these organizations focus on advancing “women’s rights” as a general societal need, working on social issues such as gender discrimination, inequalities concerning civil rights, violence against women, and sexual harassment. Politically these organizations saw little support, being incorporated with the Bloc or Koutla coalition of the opposition. What little representation they received through being part of the Bloc amounted to the only legitimized political organization that, in some measure, sought to advance women’s rights in Morocco. This coalition itself did not retain much social power as it was only legitimized due to its participation in the independence movement and not through political influence –thus limiting its real ability to advance social change. The conflicts within the coalition itself further restricted its ability to accomplish progressive social development.
These conflicts further extended to within the women’s movement itself. To gain social favour and acceptance, many self-styled “feminist” or “women’s rights” organizations often opted to use Islam within their framework and argumentation in order to strengthen their position; themselves working with the notion that through the utilization of political Islam, they may be able to gain more ground with the public at large. This strategy was never truly effective at garnering greater popular support as “feminism” or “women’s rights” were still widely associated as being limited to the upper or bourgeois class, limiting its popular appeal among the population. Women’s rights effectively were treated not as a rule but as an exception for only those in the upper class.
All this being said, the second generation of feminists greatly impacted women’s rights in Morocco. The Moroccan women’s movement from the 1980s was instrumental in achieving the Moudawana, or reforms, to the Moroccan family code in 2004. This was a landmark achievement specifically addressing violence against women in both the physical and rhetorical sense, discrimination in terms of non-acknowledgment and family inheritance, and the overall under-representation of women in government and economics. This achievement should not be overlooked as it significantly advanced women’s overall societal position. However, it is emblematic of the concessions that were necessarily made by the women’s movement in order to achieve legislative and political success – namely, focusing women’s rights on terms of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and sexual violence. There is little discussion of women except within these domains.
In the present context, young queer feminists are now more vocal about using the term “feminism” to decolonialize that concept and use it in the Moroccan context – building upon their view of what feminism should be, as an intersectional and inclusive term that is not classist. This re-appropriation of the term is often deemed “radical” by previous generations of feminists in Morocco. It is often perceived as an attack on those middle- and upper-class feminists who worked to promote Liberal and Leftist feminism from the 1980s to the present. This criticism goes both ways, as young queer feminists critique previous generations as being not only classist but also homophobic and racist, and for focusing not on including African or even Moroccan identities but instead on Eurocentric ideals. They lacked inclusivity towards LGBTQIA+ persons, in particular shunning transgender persons, and made organizations exclusively for the advancement of cis-gendered women.
This is not to reduce queerness in Morocco to a purely contemporary existence, as there is a longstanding and documented history of queer representations and art in Moroccan society – their having been further shunned and othered in accordance with Eurocentric and colonial legal frameworks. Contemporary modern queer feminism as a political movement instead distinguishes itself from previous generations of political women’s rights-centric movements through its intersectionality with queer discourse. To this end, young queer feminists follow more in line with African-American author and activist bell hooks’ thinking, such as she puts succinctly in Feminism is for Everybody:
“Most women, especially privileged white women, ceased even to consider revolutionary feminist visions, once they began to gain economic power within the existing social structure…. While it was in the interest of mainstream white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to suppress visionary feminist thinking which was not anti-male or concerned with getting women the right to be like men, reformist feminists were also eager to silence these forces. Reformist feminism became their route to class mobility. They could break free of male domination in the workforce and be more self-determining in their lifestyles. While sexism did not end, they could maximize their freedom within the existing system. And they could count on there being a lower class of exploited subordinated women to do the dirty work they were refusing to do.”
In the Moroccan context, the feminists were not white women but were primarily made up of middle- and upper-class women who had access to European modes of education. bell hooks’ thought still applies in that a majority of these feminist organizations were able to utilize their positions to gain mobility for themselves within society. They became more focused on maintaining the systems that put them there. Most feminist organizations denied any collaborations with feminist LGBTQIA+ groups in their beginnings. There are a few exceptions, though their direct denial of collaboration with these younger, nascent feminist groups illustrates the gap between established feminist groups and the younger generations. Instead of establishing alliances with the new generation, they have dug in with transphobic and homophobic ideologies, further distancing themselves from the new generation of activists.
This trend in feminist discourse is not Morocco-specific and can also be observed amongst many feminist groups around the world; there is an apparent disconnect between older, established feminists being unwilling to adapt, adjust, or incorporate new feminist groups that may, in their minds, delegitimize or otherwise destabilize their position. Due to this disconnect with established or legitimized feminist organizations, young feminist organizations have not been able to advance politically. These new groups have instead needed to operate without officially recognized or registered organizations; they are forced to work underground for fear of being persecuted by not only the state or religious organizations but also by their would-be allies in established feminist organizations.
When we speak of the young generation of feminists in Morocco, we refer to those groups formed only within the last ten years. Among them, we find particular growth within queer feminist organizations. In 2012 a group of young queer feminists created Aswat Collective; it was, at that time, the only organization working on LGBTIQ rights in Morocco. The work of this collective was centred on publishing an online magazine in Arabic focused on making LGBTIQ people visible. In the beginning, the collective reached different feminist NGOs who refused to work on this topic, claiming that it was not a priority in Morocco and that the public was not prepared for such a topic. Now in 2022, we can count around 13 different queer feminist organizations. For security reasons, the majority of them are working online within the safeguard of anonymity.
We can cite the work of two organizations: Nassawiyat and Trans Dynamics. Nassawiyat is an LBTQ womxn* and feminist organization focused on combining art and media in their activism. The organization recently published a magazine titled Ma Warae El Jandar, which translates as Beyond Gender. The magazine is a mix of articles, comics, and shared experiences collected from the queer community. Trans Dynamics, on the other hand, is the first trans organization in Morocco founded and led by trans people. This organization focuses on publishing reports on the situation of trans people in Morocco but, most importantly, created a shelter for trans people.
Despite the overwhelming lack of collaboration between the previous generations and these new feminists, young queer feminist organizations have found a footing independently through their own work, research and outreach. Beyond the lack of inclusion within these established organizations, the new generation of queer feminists also faces significant risks from the state and Moroccan law. These laws add to the discrimination and harassment these organizations and individuals face as they directly criminalize their existence as persons.
Naturally, this further restricts their ability to organize or establish NGOs due to direct discrimination and a lack of legality for their work. Contending with this lack of ability to establish themselves officially, and lacking collaboration with established organizations, puts these new feminist groups at risk. Working independently, these groups operate almost entirely online to create visibility and awareness of queer youth living in Morocco and to avoid the harassment and discrimination they would face if they operated out in public. This also leads to their focus on the representation of the queer community through arts, media, and other means to create work that represents themselves. This combats the social and political narratives that are likewise put online that seek to demonize or otherwise mischaracterize the queer community. Likewise, they work to raise awareness of the specific risks and discriminations they face.
In cases of harassment, abuse, or other forms of violence against specific persons, these organizations publish these stories to demonstrate the physical and mental harm they are faced with. There are also examples of queer knowledge production on specific platforms targeted towards the larger public. Tanit Feminist Research Platform and Nassawiyat both work in this capacity, collecting and developing a queer feminist archive; likewise, Tanit produce work such as Daba Podcast to give voice to individuals who face harassment and violence. Feminist queer organizations also work in community-building capacities, reaching out through online platforms to assist other queer people in need. This is particularly true among Moroccan trans organizations and collectives addressing specific issues such as mental and physical health that are often not accessible to trans people in Morocco.
It is evident that the younger generation of feminists in Morocco understands the importance of intersectional feminism. By incorporating others rather than excluding them – the queer community, lower classes, and other marginalized people in particular – the positive advances of the Moroccan women’s movement can be mimicked for the advancement of more than just cis-gendered heterosexual women.
Intersectional feminism, as applied by these youth organizations and collectives, seeks to fill the gaps left after these advancements and thus makes up for the concessions made by the women’s movement. The grassroots efforts of queer young feminists in Morocco find the audiences they do because these people exist, they hear each other, and they are learning how to organize themselves, even if they must do so on their own. As their numbers grow, it will become impossible for politicians and established political parties to ignore them, and the groundwork they are doing now will prepare society to better understand them.
 El Bouhsini Latifa, Le mouvement féministe au Maroc: Quelques repères historiques, Centre National de Documentation, http://www.abhatoo.net.ma/maalama-textuelle/developpement-economique-et-social/developpement-social/histoire/histoire-sociale/le-mouvement-feministe-au-maroc-quelques-reperes-historiques. (Translated from French to English by the author of this article.)
 Particularly women living in large cities.
 El Bouhsini, Latifa (2016) “Une lutte pour l’égalité racontée par les féministes marocaines”, Rives méditerranéennes 52, DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rives.5034. (Translated from French by the author of this article.)
 Naciri, Rabéa (1998): The women‘s movement and political discourse in Morocco, UNRISD Occasional Paper, No. 8, United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva.
 The Bloc or Koutla consisted of those that participated in the national independence movement, notably the Istiqlal Party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, the Party of Progress and Socialism, and the Organization of Democratic and Popular Action.
 Naciri, Rabéa, op. cit.
 bell hooks (2000) Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, South End Press Cambridge, pp. 4–5.
 Naciri, Rabéa, op. cit.
 Meaning Voices in Arabic.
 Moroccan Penal Code 489 criminalizes homosexuality, while Penal Code 490 criminalizes sexual relations outside of marriage as well as defining marriage as between a man and a women. Given that this law criminalizes all sexual relations outside of marriage, it affects trans and non-binary peoples as well as cis-gendered heterosexual couples. These laws in conjunction are often used to target queer persons and organizations.
 A podcast produced by Tanit in the Moroccan dialect focused on queer stories, sexuality and gender.
 Such as Trans Dynamic.