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Signs of New Feminism? Promises of Morocco's February 20

[Image of Amina Boughalbi from a video calling for protests on 20 February 2011. Screenshot taken from Youtube.] [Image of Amina Boughalbi from a video calling for protests on 20 February 2011. Screenshot taken from Youtube.]

The absence of established figures from feminist organizations is one of the most striking features of the 20 February movement in Morocco. Nevertheless, the movement shows modes of engagement with feminism, such as the call for gender equality and a practice of parity, which suggest that feminist discourse has not only penetrated the social imaginary of younger generations of activists, but also informed their practices.

Signs of new gender arrangements were already visible in the first calls for protest on the internet. Young men and women’s alternating faces indicate an understanding of gender or sex “parity” in political representation. A young woman, Amina Boughalbi begins the call stressing her desire to march for “freedom and equality for all Moroccans.” During the movement’s first press conference, it was Tahani Madmad, another young woman, who spoke on behalf of 20 February.  Tahani concluded her intervention, before the press, by expressing her desire to see the “flag of freedom, equality, and social justice reign over Morocco, through peaceful means.”

The absence of established feminist organizations, including the Association democratique des femmes du Maroc (ADFM), the Ligue democratique pour les droits des femmes, and l’Union de l’action feminine, from the 20 February movement calls for a reconsideration of a shifting topography of a feminist consciousness. The implication of feminist leaders in a political process still dominated by the King is creating a gap between the leaders of these organizations and the youth who mobilize on the ground for more radical change. Liberal feminist organizations rely on the King’s constitutional role as a mediator in a political field dominated by Islamist players. The ability of 20 February to work with several brands of Islamists and Salafi triggered memories about the struggle feminist groups faced during their bid to reform the Code of Personal Statute (mudawana) in Morocco (Salime 2011). Feminist leaders have vocalized fear about first, the loss of painfully-won rights as they anticipate an electoral process would certainly bring the Islamists into the government. Second, leaders of feminist organizations did not want to see women’s rights subsumed under a general call for a political change that may not occur.  For these reasons, it was difficult to see an alliance among these organizations and the youth movement. 

Yet feminism does not seem to have been confined to the alliances and weaknesses of these liberal movements. The discourse of equality has appeared outside of the usual boundaries of traditional feminist circles and established feminist leaders. Can we then speak of a new feminism? 

A Counter-Topography of Feminism 

The new feminist subjectivities in February 20 present us with a counter-topography that disturbs first, the NGO-ization of feminist activism, second, the confinement of this activism to women’s spaces, and third, the state’s regulation of the NGOs sector. It is certainly risky to draw quick generalizations about an emerging movement that is still struggling for a wider legitimacy.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to attend to indications that provide a counter-narrative to the overly sexist, patriarchal, and hyper-masculine public space that emerged out of feminist and academic assessments of the “Arab Spring” (Amar 2011, al-Tahaoui 2012). The virginity tests performed under the military rule in Egypt; sexual harassment in the Cairo streets; the various attempts to curtail women’s rights by the newly elected governments in Libya and Tunisia; and the suicide of Amina Filali, a teenager allegedly raped and wedded to her rapist in Morocco; are all alarming cases of abuses.

My take on the importance of feminism as one of the sources of inspiration for political subjectivities in Morocco’s 20 February is meant to carve out a space for a feminist talk, not only a gender talk. More specifically, highlighting a debate that places the focus on the gender dynamics of the “Arab Spring” in the ongoing struggles for dignity, equal opportunities, and sovereignty. A feminist talk is concerned with using feminist sensibilities and politics as a lens to understand and theorize the movements that emerged in the mist of the Arab Spring.  In the case of 20 February, I propose that feminism as a discourse of gender equality has penetrated the social imaginary of a new generation of activists, who were not necessarily active in feminist organizations.

Of course the questions remain: what kind of tension do these rising feminist subjectivities in the youth movement of protest bring about with traditional feminist circles? Does the high visibility of women in 20 February indicate the rise of a new feminism? What are its most significant signs?

The Women Leadership

The calls to go out to the streets on 20 February first appeared on Youtube showing signs of new gender arrangements and cultural politics. Unlike the powerful, yet solitary, call by Asmae Mahfouz for “men” to come down with her to Tahrir Square on 25 January, men and women made the first calls for protests.  This took many by surprise, and not only because of the alternation of colloquial Arabic (darija) and Tamazight (Berber) languages in the call. Rather, it was the young men and women’s alternating voices and faces that were indicative of new understanding of gender parity in 20 February.    

The clip of the call started with Amina Boughalbi’s face and voice. Unknown to the public, Amina is a twenty-year-old journalism student and a founding member of 20 February.  In a fashion similar to that of the Egyptian Asmae Mahfouz, Amina stated  “I am Moroccan and I will march on 20 February because I want freedom and equality for all Moroccans.” She was followed by a young man who stated “I am Moroccan. I am marching on February 20th because I want all Moroccans to be equal.” The faces of young men and women keep alternating, each one speaking in the first person stating her/his reason for marching. On February 20, several thousand rallied in the streets in more than sixty cities and towns in Morocco.

This gender performance of parity in the call for protest is not only virtual; the bodily presence of women in the movement is visible at all levels of mobilization and organization. The women take their share of police brutality, to which the recent kidnapping and trial of Maria Karim, a 20 February activist, bears witness. The women also speak on behalf of the movement in national and international forums. Amina Boughalbi’s intervention at the Centre Mosellan des droits de l’homme, in Paris in June 2011and the first press conference organized by the movement on 17 February 2011 in Rabat serve as examples. 

The conference took place at the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) in Rabat.  The AMDH is headed by Khadija Riyadi, a long standing human rights and feminist activist. Riyadi opened the conference by introducing Tahani Madad, a nineteen year-old science student who spoke on behalf of 20 February. Tahani read the movement’s memorandum, introduced the various organizational committees, and stressed the peaceful character of the protests. She stipulated that “no sectarian, political, or religious slogans are authorized.” She also defined 20 February as a “youth dynamic” that is “secular, modernist (hadathi), democratic, and independent of all foreign agendas or political affiliations.” She concluded by sharing the desire to see the “flag of freedom, equality and social justice reign over Morocco, through peaceful means.”

The Case for Feminism

The framing of this movement’s goals in terms of equality and the institutionalization of parity in its structures indicate the emergence of what I call a “new feminism.” During my interviews with activists working in the cities of Casablanca and Rabat, in which the leadership is mainly composed of women, my respondents constantly challenged my desire to speak to female activists about gender issues. They wanted me to speak to both men and women in the movement. They made me realize that I was still working within old feminist categories of female spaces and leadership. While in 20 February, I was told, the leadership alternates between men and women, as a practice of parity. 

Secondly, to my surprise, there is a deep commitment to the question of parity and representation, not necessarily deriving from on a prior involvement of these activists with feminist groups. This new understanding of feminism, or shall I say, this feminist practice of gender parity, emerges outside the traditional spaces of feminist organizations. Both men and women carry out this practice in the struggle for social, political, and economic justice. To them, the question of gender equality is too narrow to encompass the general goal of social justice that includes men and women. An activist from Casablanca believes that “working together on issues of fair distribution of resources, accountability before the law, equal opportunities, dignity and freedom for all, will create an environment in which women are not isolated in their struggle for gender equality.” It will enable, she believes, the emergence of a political culture in which women are perceived as equal partners.”

Thirdly, gender sensibilities are not expressed in the usual feminist rhetoric of “equality” before the law. More pragmatic, these activists express it in a direct-action-mode in which parity is central. Carving out spaces for women’s representation in the movement is a case in point. Women participate at all levels of organization, mobilization and debate.  For instance, the National Council of Support (NCS) of February 20 is composed of one hundred sixty members. They represent various political constituencies—leftist parties, labor unions, and human rights organizations. Each one of these is represented by three members, one of which must be a woman. The other two members could be two men, two women, or one man and one woman. As it is clear from this institutionalization of a quota system, men cannot be the sole representatives of any one constituency.  At the same time there is no limit on women’s representation. Women could conceivably form the majority of the NCS. In fact, Moroccan feminists and activists in political parties have long mobilized for the institution of a quota system in elected institutions. In 2002, they obtained ten percent of the seats in parliament. Though the 2011 reformed constitution stipulates gender parity, the women’s representation in the parliament did not reach ten percent, and the women’s representation in the newly elected Islamist government shrunk from seven ministerial positions, to one. During my interviews with members of 20 February there was a sharp consciousness about these gaps. However, there was also a desire to show that a new regime of gender equality could emerge through the practice of parity and equal division of labor among men and women in the movement. 

Very significantly, this participation of women shows a deployment of a feminist understanding of political practice in terms of gender parity. This holds true for all of the movement’s structures. The men and the women work together, organize meetings, speak to passer-byers, and distribute leaflets.  Most significant for gender representations are the street cleaning campaigns as a performance of citizenship by women, and the “Freeze for Freedom” and “Freeze Against Globalization” events. These events normalize women’s appropriation of the public space, as spectacle, for a bodily performance of dissent. The "freeze-out" bodies of women transgress “modesty” as a regulatory regime of women’s presence in the public space by inviting the gaze and attracting the crowds.

Interested to learn more about the effects of the Islamist participation in 20 February, I interviewed several women about their encounters with the activists of the Justice and Charity Movement (al-Adl wal-Ihsane), as a former component of 20 February.  I spoke to women militants in the leftist party al-Talia, who were active in neighborhood committees in Casablanca.  The militants spoke about all the “positive changes” they witnessed in the “attitude” of the Islamist members who were part of the committee. In this committee there were twenty-six members, half of whom were women. But the implementation of parity in these committees did not go unchallenged. In one activist’s words, the “Islamists got over their initial attitude toward working, meeting, or listening to secular women.” This activist celebrates the fact that the Islamists’ perception of “secular leftist women has totally changed.” She added: “We made sure they adhere to the ethics of parity, we worked, talked and marched together, and this slowly became no issue for them.” Being herself a member of the Ligue marocaine pour les droits des femmes, this activist spoke of secularism mostly in relation to the “universality” of women’s rights. She also spoke of the need, expressed by most liberal feminist organizations in Morocco, to keep family law outside of the realm of religiously based interpretations of these rights.  

Concluding Remarks

I do not intend here to draw broad conclusions about gender arrangements in the entire movement, because of its leaderless base, flexible agendas, and multiple centers (see Bamyeh on the Egyptian revolution and its leaderless character 2011). However, I find it useful to take the information coming from my respondents as indications of emerging modes of regulating women’s access to “street politics” (Bayat 2007) and a liquidation of old feminist tensions between direct action and mediation through NGOs and state institutions.  My intention is not to engage in a conversation about the role of NGOs as governing bodies in the neoliberal era (Kamat 2004; Salime, 2007). I want to instead point to the displacement of a “feminist talk” from self-defined feminists to self-defined social justice activists. What we see is the desire accompanied with an endeavor, to couch all of the movement’s structures into notions of gender equality. This goes against the very gendered, disciplinary, and regulated arenas of feminist organizations. 

References:

Amar, Paul (2011). Turning the Security State Gendered Politics Inside Out . International Journal of Feminist Politics. 13(3): 299-328

Bamyeh, M. ( 2011). “Arab Revolutions and the Making of New Patriotism”. Orient III. 6-10

Bayat, A. (2007). Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford University Press

Bayat, A ( 2011). ‘‘A new Arab Street in Post Islamist Times’’. Foreign Policy. The Middle East Channel. Posted on January 26, 2011.  Retreived on May 29, 2012.

El Tahawy, Mona (2012) Why do they Hate Us ? The Real War on Women is in the Middle East. Foreign Policy. May/June 2012. Foreign Policy. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/04/23/why_do_they_hate_us?page=0,1

Kamat, S (2004). “The Privatization of Public Interest: Theorizing NGOs in a Neoliberal Era.” Review of International Political Economy 11 (1): 155-176.

Salime, Zakia (2012). A New Feminism? Gender Dynamics in Morocco’s February 20th Movement. Journal of International Women’s Studies

Salime, Zakia (2011) Between Feminism and Islam: Human and Rights and Shari 'a Law in Morocco. University of Minnesota Press.

Salime, Zakia (2007) The “War on Terrorism:” Appropriation and Subversion by Moroccan Women.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33-1: 1:24

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