A voice, or just a seat?

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.

Still, Morocco remains scores of places ahead of fellow Arab states such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — the last two of which remain tied at 126th place.

“I mean, it’s a tough neighborhood to be in,” said Jeffrey England, Morocco’s resident director for the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-funded group that focuses on governance issues. “For the Arab world, Morocco probably has some of the best representation for women relative to its neighbors.”

Regardless of the number of women elected to local councils, critics say the problem remains investing the seats they hold — or any elected office — with real clout. In a country where much political power remains in the hands of the king and his appointees, some say electoral politics remains a sideshow.

“Moroccan people don’t have confidence in elections in general, in local elections, in national elections, because we’ve discovered progressively that the struggle between political parties is not a struggle to make Morocco better,” said Abdessamad Dialmy, a professor of sociology at Mohammed V University in Rabat. “I think that first we have to give some credibility to political action in general.”

But Moroccan officials and activists who have fought for the gender quota say the 27,000 total council members nationwide will make decisions of real consequence, issuing building permits and determining the course of construction and infrastructure projects in their regions.

“It’s not his majesty who’s going to manage the affairs of a little village perched on a mountain somewhere. It’s clearly the councils that’ll do it,” said Latifa Jbabdi, head of a national activist group called the Women’s Action Union. “This is not a symbolic change. It’s real.”

Read more on women's rights around the world:

Morocco: The effects of giving women the right to divorce

Creating a women-friendly Seoul

A setback for Afghan women

View Larger Map