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Is Morocco a model for the Muslim world?

Family law reforms gave women the right to divorce. A look at the effects five years later.

A woman holds a copy of the Koran while taking part in a demonstration along with hundreds of thousands of Islamists on March 12, 2000, in Casablanca to protest the Moroccan government's plans to give women more rights. The law has now been in effect for five years. (Jean Blondin/Reuters)

RABAT, Morocco — In the lottery of arranged marriage, winners and losers sometimes take years to reveal themselves.

But one soft-spoken woman seated in a Casablanca women’s shelter said her fortunes were apparent from the start. Soon after her 2003 wedding, her husband made a regular practice of abusing her, said the woman, 27, who asked for safety reasons to go only by her initials, S.H.

For six years, S. stuck with her husband, an unemployed textile worker, who insulted her, punched her and, once, smashed a glass on her head, she said. As the daughter of a poor farmer, she believed she had little choice but to keep suffering. But in the five years since her son was born, the legal landscape in this North African nation has shifted.

“Now you can get your rights,” said S., who has filed for divorce and full custody of her son. “All your rights.”

The Moroccan parliament cemented these rights with a set of sweeping changes to the country’s family code, or Moudawana, in 2004. The reforms give women the right to divorce and protect them from the traditional practice of repudiation, whereby husbands could dissolve marriages nearly at will.

Spurred by a home-grown women’s movement, supported by Morocco’s king and denounced by Islamists, Morocco’s revamped family law has been held up as a model by feminists throughout the Muslim world. But, on the fifth anniversary of the reform, some traditionalists here worry that marriage is under attack — even as feminists insist the revolution has yet to fully deliver on its promise.

“It has really energized reform in countries across the region,” said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, whose book, "Paradise Beneath Her Feet: Women and Reform in the Middle East," is due to be published next year. “Family law is a very sensitive and critical issue around the region and the example from Morocco is being brought to bear in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Iran.”

In particular, the million signature campaign currently at the center of Iranian feminists’ efforts to rework their country’s family law was “really inspired by what women in Morocco had accomplished,” Coleman said.

Moroccan feminists did gather a million signatures in their push to reform the family code. But activists here say a key to their success was arguing for reform in the vocabulary of Islam, rather than Western feminism. The effort required re-reading Muslim theology and applying its lessons on social justice to the question of gender discrimination. The result was a uniquely Moroccan case for change.

“It’s very important that the movement emerged from inside, took its strength from inside,” said Fouzia Assouli, president of the activist group Morocco's Democratic League for Women's Rights. “Morocco shows that you can accede to modernity without contradicting your faith.”