Moroccan Women to Shake Up Politics

Friday September 27, 2002 8:50 AM,1280,-2046767,00.html

RABAT, Morocco (AP) - For Aicha Hasmi, it became a

familiar refrain: as a woman, your place is at home,

men told her, not out on the streets campaigning to

get elected to parliament. 

Hasmi and hundreds of other women were out to prove

otherwise Friday, when Moroccans head for the polls.

Under new election rules reserving seats for women, at

least 30 of them were to get a place in parliament. 

After years of near exclusion, they were looking

forward to shaking up this North African Muslim

country - and perhaps others in the Arab world - by

bringing fresh faces, ideas and pent-up feminine zeal

to what until now has been almost exclusively a man's


The election of so many women in one go - close to 10

percent of the 325 seats are reserved for women - is

unprecedented for Morocco. The last parliament,

elected in 1997, had just two women. 

On a frenetic final day of campaigning Thursday, Hasmi

already was talking about the example she and the

other 965 women competing Friday would set for their

sisters elsewhere. 

``All Arab women will say: 'Why not us?' And that's

our message: Why not you?'' she said. ``I'm happy

Morocco is going to be the first to take this step.'' 

The election will give Morocco one of the highest

proportions of women lawmakers in the Arab world.

Tunisia's 185-seat parliament has 21 women, while in

Syria's 26 of the 250 lawmakers are women. Elsewhere

in the region, women fare far worse: Egypt has only 11

women in a 454 seat parliament, Qatar none. Women in

Kuwait are not allowed to vote or run for office. 

The election for the Moroccan parliament's lower house

is the first since King Mohammed VI ascended the

throne in July 1999 and set to work, slowly but

surely, liberalizing the tightly controlled regime

left by his late father, Hassan II. 

Mohammed's government promised to make the elections

free and fair, a reform it hoped would help restore

faith among those who Hasmi and other candidates

encountered with depressing regularity on the campaign

trail: Moroccans old and young who complained that the

government has failed to tackle the poverty and

chronic unemployment that make many lives here so


On Thursday, Laila Karim, another woman candidate, was

glad-handing passers-by and distributing leaflets in

Rabat when a street peddler interrupted to ask if her

campaign workers wanted to buy a belt. The offer

provoked laughs at first, but the conversation quickly

turned serious when Karim asked him to support her. 

``I'm not going to lie to you. I'm not going to vote.

I no longer trust any politicians,'' the young man

said heatedly. ``I'm jobless, what is going to change

in my life if I vote?'' 

Such disenchantment provides fertile soil for Islamic

fundamentalists who appear to gaining strength in

Morocco, especially among the poor. A moderate Islamic

fundamentalist party was among the 26 competing


Polling was to start at 8 a.m and end 11 hours later.

Women said they were eager to become forces for change

once in parliament. Karim said that if elected she

would push for reform of a Moroccan law that, among

other restrictions, does not allow divorced women to

keep custody of their children if they remarry and

allows marriage at age 15. 

Women's associations and others have lobbied hard for

more representation in parliament. 

``It was a shame on Morocco and it was creating

problems for Morocco's relations with the world,''

said Nouzha Skalli, who was competing in her tenth

election Friday. She won just one of those races - a

municipal council seat in 1997. 

``Some people have told me that a woman's place is in

the home. Men have said that. Women have encouraged

me,'' said Hasmi. ``Women need women to represent



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