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Correspondent Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 18:25 GMT
The King and the Sheikh's daughter
The young King of Morocco wants his country to embrace progress, to become a fairer, more modern society. But his opponents are applying the brakes. When he tried to introduce new laws to improve the rights of women, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Moroccans took to the streets in protest. Surprisingly, many of them were women. Anita McNaught reports.

King Mohammed VI marries Salma Bennani
Moroccan royal wedding

On 21 March 2002, King Mohammed VI of Morocco married a 24-year old computer engineering graduate in a private ceremony. The public celebration follows on 12 April , with all the pomp and ceremony, the dignitaries and foreign guests, that the West has come to expect from royal weddings.

Except that, for Morocco, this is a highly unusual event - a complete break with tradition. Up till now, royal wives in this ancient Muslim kingdom have been hidden from view.

But this break with custom is very much in keeping with the 38-year-old King Moroccans call "Speedy Mohammed" - in part for his fabled love of jet-skiing, and in part for his enthusiasm for moving Morocco into a new era.

When he succeeded his father King Hassan II in 1999, the young King promised his people badly needed reforms and a liberal agenda. He wanted to modernise the Moroccan economy, and foster closer ties with Europe. He promised tolerance, and respect for human rights. Political prisoners were released, dissidents returned from exile.

Sheikh Yassine

He even freed one of the royal household's fiercest critics, Sheikh Abdesalam Yassine. Sheikh Yassine is leader of an Islamic group called Al Adl Wal Ihsan - "Justice and Charity". He had written an open letter to King Mohammed on his coronation, challenging him to hand his royal fortune back to Morocco's people.

Sheikh Yassine had a hard time of it under King Mohammed's father. Some twenty years previously, he had written the old King, Hassan II, another open letter accusing him of tolerating corruption and encouraging Western-style moral decay. King Hassan jailed him for his efforts.

In that time, the Sheikh built up a sizeable following among ordinary Moroccans. His message of compassionate Islam, of social analysis and good works, found a receptive audience among people disillusioned by the country's grinding poverty and huge unemployment.

The Facts

Morocco's problems
One third of the population is extremely poor
Over 50 per cent illiteracy
Very high infant mortality and death in childbirth rates
Domestic violence is common
Droughts and floods have plagued agriculture
New industries are still in their infancy

Morocco has enormous problems, both social and economical. One third of the country's population of 30 million are extremely poor. Illiteracy rates are well over 50 per cent. Infant mortality and death in childbirth rates are also very high. Domestic violence is a big problem.

Agriculture has been plagued by a succession of droughts and floods, and the country's new industries have yet to pull the country's economy around.

The new King, who went to University in Europe, and whose PhD is on EU reforms and the Maghreb, came to the throne with a long list of measures and reforms to tackle the problems. High on his list was the situation of Morocco's women. The civil law or Personal Status Code, the Moudawana.

The Moudawana

The Moudawana is based on a mixture of custom and Islamic law. Among other functions, it governs the relationship between a husband and wife, even before a wedding takes place. Many Moroccans accept it hugely disadvantages women, denying them many rights and making them almost entirely subject to their husband's control.

The Moudawana is really, in fact, about being your husband's slave.

Damia Benkhouya

While to Western eyes, many Moroccan women appear to move more freely than their sisters in other Arab Muslim countries, their situation under Moroccan law is not helpful.

Damia Benkhouya, a leading Moroccan women's rights campaigner, says: "The Moudawana is really a type of violence, judicial violence against Moroccan women. It entirely goes against the reality of Moroccan women by not including them as part of society, by not allowing them to participate in development in all areas - political, economic, social and cultural. When you look at the Moudawana, women are always inferior... The Moudawana is really, in fact, about being your husband's slave."

Opposition to change

But radical change in any country is not easy, as the new King was to discover. When he announced the changes to the Moudawana, the country took to the streets. In March 2000, tens of thousands of supporters of the reforms marched in the capital Rabat while opponents mustered a demonstration ten times the size in Casablanca.

What had gone wrong? Conservatives in Moroccan society had linked up with the many men who had begun to have misgivings about any relinquishing of their personal power, and the Islamists had also mobilised on the same ticket, saying the proposed reforms were against the Koran. At the head of the Islamists marching in Casablanca that day, Nadia Yassine, Sheikh Yassine's daughter.

Nadia Yassine

Nadia Yassine is one of the Sheikh's big assets. She is university-educated, highly articulate and married with four children. Over the years that her father was in jail, she had become a prominent member of his organisation. Speaking perfect French, she is well-equipped to explain her father's message to a wider world.

Yes, she said, the law did need reforms. But not Western-inspired ones which would impose a foreign agenda on the Moroccan people. Nadia Yassine maintains the Prophet Mohammed was himself effectively a feminist, and that any changes to the social law should be made within a Muslim context.


The campaign against the reforms has, in the short term at least, succeeded in delaying the implementation of new law. King Mohammed was obliged to set up a commission to re-evaluate the proposals. It is supposed to be coming back with a new schema in September.

In the interim, the Islamists, emboldened by their burgeoning influence on government, have made increasingly vocal bids for more political and civil freedoms. On World Human Rights Day, 10 December 2000, they protested in eight cities simultaneously. The government cracked down, hard. Which has in turn made many Moroccans question how deep their supposed new freedoms really go. King Hassan II was notoriously repressive. Was his son going down the same road?

Yet the lessons of Morocco's troubled neighbour Algeria are never far from Moroccan minds. There, Islamic fundamentalism has turned into terrorism, and the government crackdown has tipped the country into a form of civil war. No-one in Morocco, either on the Muslim or government side, wants to make the same mistakes.

The future

The young King undoubtedly has some difficult judgement calls to make. And in this, he may be aided by the fact that his country is also 'young' - two thirds of the population is under the age of 25.

For many of them, Europe, and the culture of the West, remains very important.

Islamists may argue that Morocco is in danger of losing its cultural identity and sovereignty under a flood of Western influences, but the King knows that if the country is to raise its living standards and educate its people, its future relationship with a continent which lies barely nine miles away across the Straits of Gibralatar is the key.

The King and the Sheikh's daughter: Sunday 31st March 2002 on BBC Two at 1915 GMT.

Reporter: Anita McNaught
Producer: Diane Milward
Deputy Editor: Farah Durrani
Editor: Fiona Murch

See also:

22 Mar 02 | Africa
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
18 Mar 02 | Business
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