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A voice, or just a seat?

Women are now guaranteed seats on local councils in Morocco, but the question remains of whether it will translate into real power.

A female campaign volunteer hands out leaflets on the streets of Rabat in the run-up to nationwide local elections where women are slated to make historic gains at the polls. (Erik German/GlobalPost)

RABAT, Morocco — This may well be remembered as the moment when town halls across Morocco saw their occupants begin sporting high heels, handbags or the hijab.

Elections for “commune councils,” the bodies that oversee local development, are taking place Friday in cities and villages countrywide — and the 130,000 candidates vying for seats include an unprecedented cohort of women numbering more than 20,000.

A new national law passed in 2008 boosted the size of each council and reserved 12 percent of seats for women, a move urged by women's groups and supported by the king. Proponents of the shift say it will have real consequences and will place the North African nation in the
vanguard of Arab states giving women a voice in public life. But detractors call the change imposed and, in a monarchy, largely symbolic.

Rather than dwell on symbolism, the women running for office seem focused on the banal but decisive details that characterize local politics everywhere. In an affluent section of the capital city Rabat, Nadia Belqari, 47, sits behind the wheel of her Honda Accord and points out the various municipal shortcomings she’d remedy if she wins a seat on her council. Her neighborhood needs a health clinic, there’s no place for kids to play and the garbage collection stinks, she said.

A doctor and a mother of two, Belqari said a neighborhood full of educated professionals like her ought to have a recycling program. “If it doesn’t start here, I don’t know where it can,” she said.

The female candidates say they’re uniquely placed to diagnose everyday problems in their communities. “When there’s no park for children to play in, it’s the women who are bothered,” said Fatima Benlamine, one the rare women to have served on a local council before — until now, women held less than 0.5 percent of seats on the 1,500 urban and rural councils countrywide.

“Women live the problems of their children, live the problems of their kids’ education, live the problems of providing for them,” Benlamine said. “They’re more apt at translating these problems to bring about results.”

When the political participation of women is compared worldwide, Arab countries tend to fare poorly. When last surveyed, Morocco ranked 78th out of 180 countries in terms of its percentage of female elected officeholders, according to a 2005 study by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Stockholm-based group that monitors democracy in developing countries.