By Dina Rosin (CMC ’20), Foreign Correspondent
Throughout Middle Eastern and North African countries where Islam dominates both the social and political spheres of life, the rights of women often differ from traditional Western expectations. The legality of polygamy in many Muslim countries limits women’s rights by international human rights standards. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as outlined by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, notes that State Parties “shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.” Polygamy can disproportionately give a man more rights within a marriage (when marriage is between a man and a woman). Only Turkey, Tunisia, and Azerbaijan ban the act of marrying more than one woman, while other Muslim countries place restrictions on the practice. For example, Morocco employs one of the more limiting sets of laws regarding plural marriages, as a woman must be informed if her husband is to take additional wives, but polygamy is not strictly illegal. As one might expect, polyandry (a woman having more than one husband) is illegal in Morocco. Polygamy in Morocco provides a lucid example of the progress made and progress yet to be made towards the promotion of women’s rights.
The practice of men taking more than one wife stems from the Quran. Verse 3 of Surah 4 says: “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, Marry women of your choice, Two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly (with them), then only one….” Polygamy likely made more practical sense at the time that the Quran was written, as the number of women often outnumbered the number of men after wars. Because most Muslim countries use the Quran as the basis for their laws, polygamy has continued to be legal at least to some extent in most Muslim countries.
Muslims often view marriage as a practical and almost contractual situation. In Moroccan culture, it is customary that the husband be in a position to financially support his wife and their future family. In the Quran, wives are considered to be dependents of their husbands. In addition, if, for instance, a wife cannot bear children, many Muslims will see the addition of a second wife who perhaps can as rather natural.
The situation in Morocco is similar to several other Muslim countries that have implemented restrictions on polygyny. While the practice is not illegal, it is restricted to cases where the first wife or wives consent to the addition of a new wife, and where the husband can prove that he has the financial resources needed to support another wife. Since these stronger restrictions were adopted in 2004, polygamy in Morocco has become rather rare, however enforcement is weak in the more rural parts of the country.
The 2004 laws, known as the Mudawana, are considered to be a significant step forward in women’s rights in the Muslim world and put Morocco well ahead of many of the other countries in the region. In addition to the restrictions on polygyny, these new laws said that both a husband and wife have equal responsibility for their families, that women can petition for divorce (previously only men could), set a minimum age for marriage, abolished the legal requirement for a male guardian to give permission for a woman to marry, and required the father of a child born out of wedlock to acknowledge paternity and to provide for the child.
While these laws have now been on the books for more than 13 years, they are not universally practiced. Many Moroccan women are unaware of their rights, and others fear insulting their husbands by asking for certain provisions within the marriage. On the whole, though, female autonomy increased from the Moudawana. In 2008, 20.7% of marriages took place without a male guardian, up from 18.9% in 2004. From 2005 to 2006, there was a 12.5% decrease in the percentage of polygamous marriage relative to all marriages.
Intriguingly, the one area of true societal change has been reduction of new instances of polygyny. This is a case where religious law and civil law seem to converge to make change. Because of the religious-social pressure not to engage in sexual behavior or live together without a marriage contract, virtually all couples get legally married; at the same time the financial and legal difficulties involved in extending the contractual relationship to an additional woman make adding a second wife almost impossible.
There are other successes in the expansion of rights for women in Morocco. Because women can now initiate divorce proceedings themselves, many women have used the legal system to get out of abusive or otherwise bad marriages. While Morocco’s culture continues to deny full equality of status to its women, its legal system has taken steps to widen the legal rights of women and open the door to fuller assertion of rights over time.