Moghadam discusses activism, women’s rights progress in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco

Northeastern University Professor of Sociology and International Affairs Valentine M. Moghadam gave a lecture about the progression of women’s issues in the Maghreb countries in the Woolley Room on Oct. 3.

Moghadam focused on Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in her talk, which she said have experienced significant progress in various aspects of women’s rights, calling them “some of the brighter spots.”

She discussed how “less research has been about the gendered nature of the uprisings” that happened as a result of the Arab Spring. The Maghreb countries, Moghadam said, saw different outcomes for women as a result of the Arab Spring than anywhere else in the affected areas.

Moghadam began her talk by discussing the specific countries themselves. She described the Maghreb as an “integrated cohesive geocultural unit,” with similar cultural legacies as a result of French colonialism.

She also noted that a transnational feminist network exists in all three countries.

Algeria had an “Arab socialism,” according to her, while Tunisia and Morocco had more of an emphasis on tourism and higher rates of female participation in government. Women’s rights were most advanced in Tunisia, where a “total regime change” created a much more stable and peaceful political transition.

She noted that the highest proportion of female judges in the world are found in the Maghreb countries, even though female judges are “against Islam.”

Moghadam discussed the propensity of the Maghreb countries to sign onto international treaties and agreements, and what specific agreements they have signed onto. “It provides kind of a moral shield for activist groups,” she said.

She said that the Maghreb countries have signed onto many agreements with reservations, because they included clauses that placed Sharia law above any aspects of the agreements that would go against it.

Moghadam said that the rise and spread of fundamentalist groups in the Maghreb countries led women’s groups to form in response during the 1980s. After the Cold War, the phrase was “let’s now talk about democracy.”

Since then, women’s groups in the Maghreb have campaigned for family law reform and the criminalization of violence against women there. 

Family law in the Maghreb “has tended to be very patriarchical,” because men pay a dowry of sorts to women as “a form of social insurance.”

“There absolutely has to be reform of family law,” Moghadam said.

She described progress made for women’s rights in the Maghreb in the form of active trade unions and coalitions for women’s rights. Tunisia was the first country in the Maghreb to set up women’s shelters and hotlines to “listening centers” for female victims of domestic violence. 

In 2004, Morocco’s family law was reformed. 

In addition, as of now all of the Maghreb countries have reformed their marriage laws so that both men and women can seek divorce. “There was not really this notion of shared marital assets,” Moghadam said. Now there is. 

She also discussed the cultural barriers to the progression of Wwomen’s rights in the Maghreb, stating, for instance, that only 17 percent of Tunisians think that men make better political leaders than women do.

Moghadam talked about the main women’s rights activists in the Maghreb. “Leftist parties tend to be more amenable to women’s participation and leadership,” she said.

After the Arab Spring, there was widespread social change in the Maghreb countries. In Algeria, the latest elections resulted in an unprecedented 31.6 percent rate of female elected leaders. Algeria’s new president reacted by appointed seven women to his cabinet.

In Tunisia, the new constitution post-Arab Spring has “enshrined” women. And in Morocco, the Muslim party has won only 26 percent of seats in government.

“Tunisia is emerging as a model of democratization,” Moghadam said. She called Tunisia “the brightest spot.”

Moghadam’s talk was the first of a series of events hosted by Middle East Club as a part of their Middle East Awareness Week. 

Despite the week’s theme, Moghadam focused almost exclusively on North Africa during her talk and later admitted during the question and answer session that she does not think progress in women’s rights in the Maghreb countries is applicable to women’s struggles in the Middle East.