Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Moroccan Berbers seek revival of lost freedom

       On the five year anniversary of a controversial new family law code, Berber activists say that they have fewer rights and freedoms than they did before Moroccan independence, calling the 2004 code a step backwardnot forward.
The family code, widely known by its Arabic name Mudawana, was enacted in 2004 to update an existing 46-year old set of laws in a move the government said was aimed at improving gender equality and protecting women’s rights but that activists reject as less stringent than their traditional laws.

    The new laws granted women the right to seek divorce and placed strict limitations on polygamy. It also required a husband and a wife to equally divide their assets after divorce and it established punishments to protect women against violence and harassments.

   The Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs presents the changes on its website as “very significant in the history of Moroccan women, in the sense that they grant equity, justice and dignity to women.”

But Amina Bencheikh, member of the Royal Institute for the Amazigh Culture (IRCAM), said the changes in the family law were not significant because “Amazigh customary laws (before they were removed) already guarantee all these rights for women.”
“The Berber tradition is rich, open and far more democratic” in its treatment to women than current government laws, Bencheikh stressed.

The long-held legal tradition known as Tamazzalt, for example, required a divorced couple to equally divide assets earned during the time they were married in recognition of her efforts and contribution to the family.

Traditional family law also provided much more severe penalties for crimes against women and sexual harassment than the revised law.

So what the government describes as historically significant, said Ahmed Asid, researcher at IRCAM, is “nothing new” for Morocco’s Berbers.

The only difference is that “the new laws are packaged and diffused in a Western and modern style rhetoric.”

Revisiting history

“We want the government to reexamine our history and acknowledge its mistakes of wiping out an indigenous legal system,” said Asid.

The United Nations recognizes ethnic Amazigh as the indigenous people of North Africa who inhabited Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mali centuries before Christ and are known to the West as Berbers.

Berber activists have led a movement across the region to defend their people’s indigenous traditions and language. Many of them view state-promoted Arabization policies and Western culture in North Africa as threats to their identity.

Bencheikh said the Moroccan government consistently refused to recognize indigenous peoples’ customary laws as part of its attempt to wash away the country’s Berber identity.

But the Berber issue has become a “mine field” in Morocco that most officials avoid discussing, according to an administrator inside the government-owned Institute of Studies and Research for Arabization in the capital city Rabat. The administrator requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Making Berber an official language of Morocco, for example, is an issue political leaders were uncomfortable discussing. Former leader of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party Saad Eddine al-Othmani said his party, like many others, was still officially “undecided” about it.

Abdullah Bouchtart, a graduate student of Amazigh studies and Berber activist, said political parties, afraid of losing a key demographic, hedge on the issue of Berber rights.

“Because they are afraid to say they do not support it, they say their parties are not yet decided.” He added parties often talk about their support for Islam and Islamic values, in contrast, “as a cheap card” to win Berber votes without losing the Arab vote.

“What these parties are ignorant about is that religious rhetoric does not resonate much among ordinary Amazigh people,” Bouchtart said, adding that Berbers are more concerned with cultural identity than religion when it comes to politics.

Ahmed Dgherni, leader of the outlawed Amazigh Democratic Party, said the Berbers were “inherently liberal” no matter how religious they appeared.

    He described Islam among the Berber as “Islam Populaire,” or popular Islam, adding that the Berbers practice Islam but do not make it part of their politics.

   by:Mustapha Ajbaili