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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 August, 2004, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK
Divorce divides Morocco and W Sahara
By Pascale Harter
BBC correspondent in Rabat

A new family code in Morocco, known as the Mudawana, is having differing effects on women's rights in the Islamic kingdom and the disputed territory of Western Sahara, which falls under Moroccan rule.

A Saharawi woman with henna tattooed hands
Saharawi women have henna tattoos for divorce parties

For Fatima in Morocco, the law allowed her to leave her husband when he beat her last month.

He had beaten her before, but this time Fatima told him: "The King says you can't beat me anymore".

Earlier this year, Moroccan King Mohammed VI pushed the Mudawana through parliament.

As of February 2004, Moroccan women no longer have to obey their husbands by law, something many Moroccan men saw as enshrining their right to use their fists on disobedient wives.

Fatima's husband asked for forgiveness and Fatima went back to the marital home satisfied she had the equal, if not the upper, hand.

Camels and jewellery

The new Mudawana is undoubtedly a progressive piece of legislation - for women in Morocco - but not necessarily for women in the Western Sahara.

Morocco has administered the Western Sahara since 1975, and legislation passed in Rabat is law in the Western Sahara.

Salka, a Saharawi woman, divorced twice
When you get divorced... you're happy because you will meet new people, start a life with someone new
Divorcee Salka
But in terms of women's rights they are two wildly differing cultures.

"For us, if a man beats his wife, he is no longer a man, he is a dog," said Salka, a 45-year-old Saharawi woman, recently divorced for the second time.

In the Western Sahara, if a man beats his wife the minimum he must do to ask her forgiveness is hold a second wedding, with all the gifts of camels and jewellery that entails.

Even so, he will rarely be successful in convincing his wife to return.

Saharawi women divorce their husbands for far lesser misdemeanours.

"I divorced my first husband because I never really fell in love. I divorced my second because he fell in love with someone else," says Salka.

Divorce parties

Polygamy, still allowed but made much more difficult under the new Mudawana, is not uncommon in Morocco. But in the Western Sahara, to most women it is unacceptable.

In Morocco, particularly in the lower and more religious classes, divorce brings great shame on the woman. In the Western Sahara, she throws a party.

Saharawi women
In the Sahara, marriage is built on love
Anthropologist Naima Chikhaoui,
"Sadness is while you're married. When you get divorced you laugh again, you're happy because you will meet new people, start a life with someone new," says Salka.

The party is a way of letting everyone know that a woman is available again.

Fatou is a professional divorce-party goer. Sitting on a red carpet, pouring mint tea from an ornate gold-plated set she explained the finer points of a divorce party.

"The party is meant to pay homage to the divorced woman, so that she doesn't feel weak or ashamed.

"We dress up, we get a band to play, and the men who fancy the divorced women bring her presents, like a camel, perfume, or money. It can last for three days, or as long as it takes for the woman to accept another offer," says Fatou.


And divorced women in the Western Sahara receive no shortage of offers.

"Since I got divorced this time, there are many men who want to marry me," Souka told me, slapping her thigh and letting out a loud cackle.

"The young men want me even more than the older men do."

A Saharawi woman
Saharawis are Muslim, but divorce carries no stigma for women
Mustafa's wife has been married three times before.

"A divorced woman is more alluring, she is experienced and sure of herself," he explains.

In most of the Muslim world divorce carries with it a great social stigma, and yet, Saharawis are devoutly Muslim.

Naima Chikhaoui, an anthropologist at the national Moroccan Institute of Archaeology, says it is a common misconception that divorce is forbidden by Islam.

It is not the Koran, she says, but the social standing of women in each Muslim country which dictates how divorce is seen there.

"It's true that divorce was and still is a problem in Morocco. But divorce is not a problem for a Saharawi woman because she enjoys a very important social place. Men respect her not only for herself but for her family too."

Another reason, she says, is the Saharawi concept of marriage.

"In the Sahara marriage is built on love, it's not a traditional structure of marriage where a man shows up and says: 'I want to marry your daughter' and she has no say in it."


Under the new Mudawana, couples now have to go to court to obtain a divorce rather than just getting a letter of repudiation from an Islamic official.

Women's groups in Morocco say this is a step forward, fewer women are turned out on to the streets with their children to look after, as judges must now award the family home to whoever has custody of the children.

But for Saharawi women, divorce has never presented a problem and Saharawi men too are unhappy about the new rules.

Batoul, a Saharawi man, is being forced to go to court to insist on a divorce settlement.

"It's shameful for a man to ask his wife to go before a judge and claim her rights or her children when all this is automatically taken care of among the families," he says.

Sahara women relish their rights
30 Oct 03  |  Africa
Morocco women win rights
11 Oct 03  |  Africa
Profile: Western Sahara
20 Feb 04  |  Africa


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