Sunday, February 19, 2012

On the gender disparity plaguing the new Moroccan government and an analysis of an article by Nadia Guessous

Hello, it's been a little while. I'm sorry for being out of touch.

February has been a busy month as I try to juggle two jobs though rewarding in nature are very time consuming. My internship at the study abroad organization has been particularly hectic as we are in the midst of running two programs simultaneously in a single space. We have been hosting a group of students from the University of Chicago who are here on a personalized program studying ancient civilizations and this week our standard semester program just arrived to begin their studies in Rabat for the rest of the spring. These past few weeks have been filled with several meetings, running up and down stairs, and orienting this new group to life here in Rabat.

Teaching English has also been time consuming. I have two clients that I meet with multiple times a week for one-on-one lessons. Teaching private lessons has been a completely different experience from teaching in a group environment. It feels much less like teaching and much more like maintaining a professional amiable relationship. I know what kinds of food they enjoy eating, what kind of professions they are in, what their home lives are like, and what they do in their spare time. I really feel like my job is less of an educator and more as a professional multi-lingual friend.

One of the benefits of teaching private lessons is the amount of creativity and personalized tailoring I can do to our lesson plans. Instead of just following the set-out curriculum, I frequently bring in English language articles from The Economist, The New York Times, and other online news sites to supplement our class time with articles that will help expand their vocabulary on topics that interest them.

One of the articles I recently brought in for one of my clients was from the online publication Jadaliyya on the new government in Morocco titled, "Having a Conversation on Other Terms: Gender and the Politics of Representation in the New Moroccan Government". Coincidentally, the author of this article, Nadia Guessous, was one of my old professors from an anthropology class I took at Amherst College called Women and Gender in Islam. I brought this article into class not only for its topical nature regarding recent Moroccan politics, but also because my client works at UN Women and is very interested in issues dealing with women and politics.

The article was fascinating to read, as Ms. Guessous very successfully presents the situation of the new Moroccan government in an unbiased fashion while still posing thought provoking questions about the significance of having a government that promises progress and reform while boasting one lone female appointed minister in a sea of men. Below is a photo taken from an official photograph of the Benkirane Government where this situation is clearly illustrated. Barely visible at the end of the second row on the right-hand side, is Bassima el-Hakkawi, the only female minister of the Benkirane Government out of a total cabinet of 30.

Note: Center stage is King Mohamed VI. To the left, is his son (and heir to the throne).
On the right, Prime Minister Benkirane.

Ms. Guessous writes:

An active member of the PJD, former parliamentarian and president of the organization of PJD women, el-Hakkawi is the only woman appointed to the new government. Dressed in a long black manteaux and a colorful headscarf, with touches of turquoise that liven up the monotone suits of the male ministers, her gaze seems serious and solemn. While none of us can know for sure what she was thinking or feeling at that moment, she appears burdened by the weight and implications of her position. She is, after all, the first Islamist and veiled woman to be appointed minister and the only woman in the new government. As the new Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development, el-Hakkawi inherits a historically weak ministry endowed with a small budget, limited political clout and the impossible task of providing welfare for children, women, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. This is a ministry that definitely stands at the bottom of the government and political food chain. 

After reading this in class, my student let out a small chuckle. I asked him what made him laugh and he said without even pausing, "I am laughing because it is so true!". He continued to say that he thought that it was a poor decision to wear a colorful headscarf and call more attention to her femininity. He thought that it would have been a much wiser choice to have worn something more, "conservative" and, "professional" so she would have been able to blend in better with the rest of the group. While I am hesitant to over-analyze her wardrobe choice and fall into the fateful double standard that the political analysts tend to do whenever female politician's dress is used to fuel political debate, I couldn't help but question the potential symbolism behind her choice to wear a brightly colored headscarf. I appreciate the way that Ms. Guessous describes the color in el-Hakkawi's outfit as an aesthetic relief from the otherwise monotone and drab palate of dark blue and black suits around her. Also, though wearing a touch of color, Guessous adds that her expression remains serious and professional. Perhaps instead of interpreting her decision to wear a small touch of color should be read as a way of her calling attention to the fact that she is the only feminine voice in the new Moroccan government, while her expression reminds the viewer that she understands the burden that has been placed on her shoulders as the Moroccan people wait and see what she is capable of doing.

The article continues to discuss the problems with this unbalanced gender ratio in the new government, and what it may mean for the future of Morocco. Previously when the government was formed by other non-Islamist parties the gender disparity had been relatively more favorable, ranging between two and seven female ministers out of a total of 30. Bassima el-Hakkawi has spoken out to the press about her unease with being the only female minister and how she felt that there were many women in the PJD party who, in her opinion, would have been great candidates for ministerial positions. She argued that the PJD and other political parties in power did not try hard enough to appoint female candidates.

“There might have been some objective reasons and some personal reasons, but as usual,” she stated, “one looks for reasons not to appoint a woman while one does not look for reasons when it comes to men. The conditions are always there for appointing men but they are never there for appointing women. And this is something that we need to overcome.”

Guessous presents the double sided dilemma of el-Hakkawi's position as the sole woman in the new government as simultaneously confirming and complicating the popular Western fear that an Islamic government is synonymous with the perpetuation of female oppression. The fact that the PJD-led government includes only one female representative could suggest that they are in fact reinforcing the traditional mindset that a woman's place is in the home and is therefore an "intruder" in the political sphere. However, since the PJD was the only party among all the other constituents in parliament to even appoint a female candidate could imply a more liberal reading as well. Futhermore, the fact that el-Hakkawi was comfortable enough to publicly express her frustrations towards being the only female in Parliament challenges the popular notion that the PJD isn't supportive of women's political participation.   Guessous continues:

Because she is an Islamist, el-Hakkawi will of course be accused of speaking a double language and of appropriating a feminist critique that is not her own. She will be accused of wanting to appear benign and benevolent when she in fact has hidden intentions of undermining the gains that women have secured and fought for since independence. These include the recent reforms of the family code which made the family the joint responsibility of husbands and wives, increased the legal age of marriage for both men and women to eighteen, restricted polygamy, abolished the wilaya therefore giving women the right to marry without the consent of a male guardian, and gave women more legal grounds for divorce.

I appreciate Guessous' non-partisan analysis of the situation. Instead of attacking the PJD for its "failure" to not work harder to fight the inevitable gender disparity in Parliament, she suggests that all parties are to blame, and should seriously reflect on their gender politics rather than pointing fingers at the easy target, the moderate Islamist group holding majority. Overall, this article is well-timed and a well-balanced assessment of the current political situation in Morocco. How will this gender disparity affect the way that women's rights will be addressed? With a patient heart and an optimistic mind, we wait and see.