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May 2nd, 2016
Education • Justice

Reforming Moroccan family law: the Moudawana

In 1958, newly-independent Morocco adopted the Moudawana, a traditional code of family law that legitimised practices like polygamy and forced marriage and contributed to the subjection of Moroccan women. Led by l’Union de l’Action Féminine, a reformist movement took shape and, through actions as the 1992 One Million Signatures petition, made progress towards gender equality  in family law and elsewhere. These culminated in the Moudawana (‘Personal Status Code’) Reform of 2004 and were enshrined in the 2011 Moroccan constitution.

The initiative

A women's rights group known as l'Union de l'Action Féminine [the Women's Action Union] (UAF), together with a number of allies, spearheaded the Moudawana reform movement. “In 1992, they launched the One Million Signatures campaign, which aimed to gather a million signatures on a petition to reform the Moudawana. [2] The campaign was highly successful and the UAF exceeded their target by collecting over one million signatures, a considerable achievement given Morocco's total population of only 25 million.”

King Hassan II was forced to take action in response to the UAF's campaign. He ordered that a new code be drafted in consultation with some women's groups, to be submitted to him for approval. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) 1993 contained a few changes beneficial to women. For example, fathers were no longer allowed to compel their daughters into marriage. Although the UAF and other women's groups were disappointed, they still saw CEDAW as a victory.

Using the momentum generated by the One Million Signatures campaign and the 1993 Moudawana reforms, the UAF and other women's groups continued to lobby the government by raising awareness of other issues affecting women such as rape and domestic violence. “In April 2001, the king formed a commission to study the possibility of revising the Moudawana, but the final push for reform came after May 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca stoked widespread anti-fundamentalist sentiment." [3]

In October 2003, King Mohammed VI announced a draft family law in the Moroccan Parliament and it was then made available for consultation. “During the next few months, women's rights organisations … analysed the ... draft legislation and organised workshops, roundtables, and discussion groups to prepare for renewed lobbying efforts in Parliament." [4]

The final text of the Moudawana (‘Personal Status Code') reform (2004) secured several important rights for women, including the rights to self-guardianship, divorce, and child custody. “It also placed new restrictions on polygamy, raised the legal age of marriage from 15 to 18, and made sexual harassment punishable by law." [5]

The challenge

The Moudawana, the family code that governs areas of family law such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and child custody, was first adopted in Morocco in 1958, two years after it gained its independence from France. It gave few rights to women, despite their central position in the family structure around which Moroccan society was based.

Under the Moudawana, men could engage in polygamy without their wives' consent and could unilaterally divorce any of their wives. Women could not marry without legal approval from a guardian. Married women were obliged by law to obey their husbands and their right to divorce was tightly restricted.

There had been a growing feminist movement in Morocco in the 1960s, as in the rest of the world. From the 1980s onwards, the feminist movement had to contend with the growing support for Islamism. “The Islamists' ideology appealed particularly to young, unemployed males who were easily led to believe that women working outside the home robbed them of opportunities." [1]

By the early 1990s, many women considered the Moudawana to be archaic and oppressive and wanted to secure equal rights for women under the law. The question was how to achieve the necessary reform.

The public impact

The 2004 law “is now considered one of the most progressive in the Arab world”. It has a significant public impact, for example [6]:

  • “Women now have more freedom to travel, obtain employment and education, greater equality at home, and more leeway to negotiate their marriage rights. They are spearheading business ventures and advancing to higher levels of education ...[7]
  • “The women of Morocco are increasingly taking up national and local political posts and becoming more involved with the judiciary because of the reform. Most recently, a 12 percent quota for women was applied to the June 2009 local elections, substantially increasing female political representation." [8]
  • Girls' access to education has improved, with girls' enrolment in primary school increasing from 52% (1991) to 112% (2012) - the highest in the region.
  • As of 2014, “women now occupy 17% of parliamentary seats, which is above the regional average and represents a dramatic increase from the 2003 election where only 1% of seats went to women." [9]

Stakeholder engagement

The main stakeholders in the Moudawana reform were women, as represented by women's group such as the UAF. They were clearly strongly engaged, as evidence by the One Million Signatures petition.

The UAF reached out to and worked with many other organizations and groups of people to achieve the reforms, forming alliances with, for example, other women's rights NGOs, political parties, independent politicians, social workers, and academics enabled the UAF to succeed in its mission. The movement received some funding, largely from international NGOs, "The Moroccan women's movement received fluctuating amounts of international funding, averaging only 0.3% of total official development assistance (ODA) and channelled largely through NGOs." [10]

There were other stakeholders, such as King Hassan II and, from 1999 the more progressive King Mohammed VI, the Moroccan government and parliament, who responded to the activism. Mohamed VI created the Ministry in Charge of the Condition of Women, Protection of the Family, Childhood and the Disabled to advance gender equality, consulted with women's rights activists, and appointed a commission to revise the Moudawana.

There was resistance from other stakeholders in the Moudawana. For example, “a package of reforms proposed by the government in 1999, including the abolition of polygamy, ultimately failed in the face of Islamist and conservative opposition." [11]

Political commitment

King Mohammed VI provided his support to the initiative and even created a ministry for the cause. However, there was strong opposition from ministries such as the Ministry of Religious Endowments and Islamic Affairs, which encouraged imams to preach against the reforms.

The marches of 12 March 12, 2000 are indicative of the split in public and political opinion. Reformists, including the UAF, organised a march in Rabat in recognition of International Women's Day. On the same day, an alliance of opponents to the movement held a march in Casablanca, which was organised by Islamists, including the Islamist parliamentary party, Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD), and had more participants.

Public confidence

The divide in opinion extends to levels of public confidence. The successful One Million Signatures petition indicated the level of support for Moudawana reform. This was reinforced by the terrorist attacks by Salafia Jihadia suicide bombers in Casablanca in 2003. “The bombings shocked the Moroccan people, making religious fundamentalism unpopular and enabling reformists to take advantage of this change in Morocco's political climate to spread their message." [12]

However, there has been persistent opposition from the various religious authorities as well as members of the general public. “The UAF was opposed by the ulama, Islamic scholars and arbiters of religious law, as well as other religious groups that supported the existing Moudawana as a religious text. [13] Many against the Moudawana reformation believed the UAF's campaign to be against the Islamic values traditionally held in Morocco.”

Clarity of objectives

The objectives of the UAF and its allies in the movement to reform the Moudawana have remained clear: to progress towards gender equality, particularly in the arena of family law. As certain terms of the code have been changed or removed, e.g, the father’s right to compel his daughter into marriage, the reformists have moved their focus to topics still in need of reform, e.g., women’s representation in the Moroccan Parliament.

Strength of evidence

The UAF and its allies drew inspiration for its activities from women's movements across the world and from gender equality legislation that had been widely adopted, particularly in European countries, from the 1970s onwards.

In the Moroccan context, the 1993 law was a watershed. [14] “Minor reforms were made to the Moudawana in 1993 following a sustained campaign by women activists. These were highly significant as they demonstrated that the Moudawana was not a sacred and unalterable text as opponents to reforms claimed. Substantial reform followed in 2004, which led to the Moudawana being renamed the ‘Family Code'.


The Moudawana reform required extensive legal changes (such as  eliminating the principle that a wife must obey her husband and raising the age of marriage from 15 to 18), which were highly contested  by conservative Islamists who believed that ‘reform was un-Islamic’ and political Islamists who believed that women’s rights are a ‘western imposed agenda.’ The anti-reform campaign mobilised large sections of the population who actively opposed the changes. “The anti-reform campaign included disseminating conservative ideology through mosques and cultural spaces, political lobbying and using morality discourses to discredit women activists." [15]


The reform was managed by the UAF, which was led by Latifa Jbabdi who had a long history of activism. She had been involved in campaigns for government reforms in Morocco since the age of 14.

To raise support from the general public, the UAF organised educational events, held seminars in rural areas, and established women's shelters. An important medium for disseminating their message was the ‘women's press,' consisting of newspapers such as 8 Mars and Kalima.

“After the group decided in 1990 that their primary aim should be to reform the Moudawana, it took almost two years to gain the support of other women's rights organisations ... The UAF held debates with these organisations to convince them that the Moudawana reforms were intrinsic to their struggles." [16]

The UAF to educate women that the Moudawana was the source of “widespread poverty, illiteracy, and even domestic violence."


Measuring implementation of this reform was important, though undermined by a lack of comprehensive data. What data is available demonstrates mixed performance, e.g., it suggests that women have made progress towards autonomy in choosing a marriage partner and are more able to divorce without renouncing their financial assets. However, underage marriage remains a problem.

On other key issues, such as terms in marriage contracts to increase women's decision-making within marriage and controlling economic assets, as well as communal property regimes, a lack of data prevents effective measurement of progress.

“Plans of the Ministry of Justice and Liberty to measure implementation of the Moudawana linked with the charter for the Reform of the Judicial System will hopefully provide the [Moroccan government with a] useful tool in ensuring further narrowing of gender equality gaps." [17] There are measurable improvements in gender equality, although not strictly connected to Moudawana reform, such as the proportion of girls enrolling in Moroccan schools and the representation of women in the professions and in Parliament.


There was continuing alignment between the women's groups led by the UAF and those who supported gender equality, particularly the reform of Moudawana. Although there was considerable resistance in the some ministries, there was sufficient support for their cause in government and the legislature. King Mohammed VI was also sympathetic to elements of the reformist cause.

This broad alignment was reflected in the 2011 reforms. “The new constitution of 2011 responded to the demands of the Arab Spring uprising and strengthened and institutionalised women's rights. [18] Women's rights activists mobilised and were able to strongly influence the drafting process, so that the revised constitution responded to many of their outstanding demands.”

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