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Thursday, 10 August, 2000, 21:56 GMT 22:56 UK
Eyewitness: Moroccan women's misery
Moroccan women demand their rights: But their was an even larger demonstration by Islamist women
Moroccan women demand their rights
The BBC's Frank Gardner reports from Casablanca on the plight of Moroccan women whom the law gives men huge powers over.

On a Friday night at Amnesia, a nightclub in the capital of Rabat, it is hard to believe that you are not in Europe.

The drinks flow fast and the dance floor is alive with scantily dressed Moroccan couples.

The women who come to the club arrive in BMWs and speak three languages. However, they are the lucky few.

Illiteracy


She will sleep with him. She'll become pregnant. He will abandon her. She'll lose her job

Nicholas Hughes, charity worker
Out in the countryside, 90% of women are illiterate.

A British charity worker, Nicholas Hughes, has seen first-hand how their poverty has laid them open to abuse.

"The classic situation is a girl who leaves her family home at the age of six or seven because her family needs the money," he explains.

"She comes to work in a big city as a housemaid. She reaches the age of maybe 15 or 16 and the first bloke that she meets who promises to take her away from this awful situation that she's in, she believes him because she wants to."

Charity worker Nicholas Hughes
Hughes says poverty lays women open to abuse
"She's had no affection from her family for a number of years."

"She will sleep with him. She'll become pregnant. He will abandon her. She'll lose her job and she'll be rejected by her family and she can be followed by the law for prostitution."

Rape

In a hostel for single mothers in Casablanca, I met Rachida, who is eight months pregnant.

At 16, she looks twice her age, and her wrinkled hands are calloused and chapped.

16 year old Rashida: Now pregnant, she has been married, divorced and raped
16-year-old Rashida: Now pregnant, she has been married, divorced and raped
She was married before puberty against her will, but when her husband divorced her later, she was sent by her family to work in the city.

She was not prepared for what came next.

"It was the afternoon and I was sent out to the shops," she says.

"The streets were empty when a man came up and put a knife against me. He forced me to follow him to a room where he raped me."

"When I learned I was pregnant three months later, I was rejected by my family and society"

"Only God knows what will become of me now."

Abandoned babies

When Rachida's baby is born, at least it will have a temporary home in a crèche run by the Swiss-funded charity, Insaf.

However, with tens of thousands of families sending their daughters to the cities each year, the police are finding abandoned babies almost every day.

Babies are abandonned frequently by young, desperate women
Babies are frequently abandoned by young, desperate women
Part of the problem is that many Moroccan men have acquired a taste for premarital sex from working in Europe.

However, as Nicholas Hughes explains, their society is not yet ready to accept the consequences.

"I think the root of the problem in Morocco is that it's in a phase of transition from being a more traditional Islamic society to a more open Western society," he says.

"So the normal support mechanisms of the family and the community are starting to break down, particularly with the fact that the woman needs to go out and work, to earn money for her family."

Moroccan families send their daughters to the city to work
Moroccan families send their daughters to the city to work
"But the society hasn't moved on to a situation where it can accept relationships outside marriage."

Many married women say that they are treated unfairly.

Under Morocco's family law, even a high-profile businesswoman needs her husband's permission to travel, while a man can divorce his wife whenever he chooses.

Islamist influence

The government was hoping to put women on a more equal footing. In March, 40,000 women demonstrated in favour of reform.

However, a massive counter-demonstration by conservative Islamists put government plans back on the shelf.

Islamist spokeswoman Nadia Yassine explains why.

Yassine: Their plan doesn't recognise our Islamic culture
Yassine: Their plan doesn't recognise our Islamic culture
"We held our march to tell those women that their plan doesn't recognise our Islamic culture," she says.

"They want to let the West impose its ideas on our culture. We are all for the emancipation of women, but we want it to be done along Islamic lines."

That, say women activists, means keeping women as second-class citizens in their own homes.

Government dilemma

Yet the power of the Islamists puts the government in a difficult position. It wants to bring the country closer to Europe, which means giving Moroccan women more rights.

However, the government is clearly afraid of upsetting the Islamists who have deep-rooted support amongst the poor.

Casablanca: ... could be Europe.
Casablanca ... could be Europe.
Morocco's Prime Minister, Abderrahmane Youssefi, has the air of a man who knows there is a problem but finds it hard to act.

"The government looks at it on the basis that there is a great deal lacking when it comes to women here, especially in the countryside, in the areas of education, information and health, as well as social and economic rights," he says.

"So the government is busy drawing up a series of measures to tackle all four areas."

Tackling poverty and illiteracy is a goal that everyone can agree on. But in this still traditional North African country, society is deeply divided when it comes to the status of women.

While the argument continues, more and more women are suffering in silence.

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See also:

07 Aug 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Islamists take to the beaches
30 Jul 00 | Media reports
King Mohammed - one year on
26 Jun 00 | Middle East
Battle of the sexualities
28 May 00 | Africa
Morocco told to stop child labour
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