The Hon. Nouzha Skalli (Minister of Family, Social Development, and Solidarity of Morocco)

09.11.2009 - Interview conducted by Inès de Belsunce

Nouzha Skalli has been the Minister for Family, Social Development and Solidarity in the Moroccan government since October 2007. A lifelong activist for women’s rights in Morocco, she has contributed articles and editorials to a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and Le Monde.

Minister Skalli gave a speech at the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy’s World Without Walls Congress, where she talked about the ongoing modernization efforts in Morocco and the advancement of women in the North African country. She gave the CD – news team an interview afterwards, during which we talked about the role of Women according to the Quran and in Arab society.

Do you think that Mohammed VI’s wife could play, in Morocco, the role played by Rania of Jordan in her own country, thus supporting and prolonging the empowerment of women?

Princess Lalla Salma already plays an active role in many policy areas, especially in everything relating to health. But there also other princesses - the sisters of his majesty the King – that are very active, especially Princess Lalla Meryem, who is very concerned with the question of women and children’s rights. She, for instance, launched programs in favour of women’s rights. Moreover, Princesses Lalla Asma and Lalla Hasna, are both active in specific domains relating to environmental and social issues. In fact the Royal family as a whole has always played a crucial role in Moroccan policy-making.

If you go back in history, you will see that Princess Lalla Aisha, daughter of Mohamed V, once gave a historical speech in the city of Tangier in 1947 without wearing a veil.  This speech was seen as very innovative, as she told women to benefit from an education and to be integrated in the development process. She also promoted modernity by saying that our culture was so ancestral that modernity would never destroy it, hence our need to embrace it.

Lalla Salma also recently took part in a seminal Congress on the role of women in Arab society, in which she gave an excellent speech talking about progress in terms of women’s empowerment, encouraging Arab countries to promote it, arguing that it would provide a chance for Arab countries to face the challenges of development and reach the level of modernity of the rest of the world.

In relation to this, why do you think Morocco is ahead in terms of women’s empowerment in comparison with the rest of the Maghreb? What do you believe is the source of this success, so hard to obtain in the rest of the Arab world?

Firstly, the Moroccan identity is a very open one as I said in my speech. Geographically speaking, we find ourselves at a crossroads between two continents, at a strategic place. Historically this means that we have always been open to new influences.

There is a long tradition of fighting for women’s rights especially on the part of the Democratic Movement. Personally, I have been leading this battle for forty years, together with many Moroccan men and women.  Currently we also have the luck of having his Majesty the King Mohamed VI on the throne, who, since his very first speech, has made a point in saying that it would be impossible for Morocco to reach development when the feminine half of the population was still not part of the process. It has always been part of his personal philosophy to conduct a fight for the equality of sexes and for the promotion of human rights; this gave us a great opportunity that we knew how to use.

You once said that: “in men there is a constant fight for power, whereas us, women, do not like to fight.” Do you fundamentally think that women are more capable of practicing Soft diplomacy?

I do fundamentally believe that women use power in a different way; they are often attracted not as much by power but by action. Often, they also disappear to let men take the centre stage. My daughter once wrote a poem in which she wrote “woman I am, I am the heart of the fruit“: she was 11 and when I asked her what it meant, she answered that women were in her mind like the core: hidden, solid, carrying life and holding the fruit together. It is indeed a very strong image, saying that women are here and active but it is men who you see first. Women are often confronted by the role of being a mother and so they let men take the front row, which evidently leads to dysfunction in the whole world.

Today, we really need to change this balance of power between men and women in order to create a world that is more human. A world based on solidarity, which cares for the weaker ones: children, the elderly, the handicapped, the marginalized and the excluded. For those people represent too many people in the world for us to be allowed to ignore them.

Your government passed a reform of the Mudwana (family code), one of the most progressive ones of the Arab world. Do you see the potential for similar reforms in other regions of the Arab world? Do you think this reform will be enough to change cultural and religious mentalities that have been rooted in these regions for so long?

Indeed, the reform of the family code that has been implemented in Morocco is strategically very important for the Arab and Muslim world. In fact, it exposed the inconsistencies lying in the idea that Islam would be at the source of women’s inferiority, which is a totally wrong interpretation.

Historically speaking, Islam has done a lot for women. For once, it prevented young girls from being buried alive; (women also used to be part of the heritage, the Islam abolished it). As for polygamy, it was instituted as a first step to go from an anarchic polygamy towards monogamy. This religion came with a message of liberation from women. Those who stop at how it was interpreted 14 centuries ago make a mistake. As Confucius would say ”when you point at the sky with your finger, do not look at the finger but at the sky”; those who read Islam in a reactive way tend to only look at the finger. In Morocco, we are great believers in the values of Islam: his Majesty is not only the king of Morocco but also “Commendeur des croyants” and he holds all legitimacy to put light on the truth about the Islam and women.

As for your second question, laws structure mentalities. When it was written that you had to marry your daughter aged 15 and your son aged 18, it pushed people to do so simply because when girls would turn 15, people thought “She is 15, she is old enough to get married”. However, now that the law states that 18 years is the minimum age for marriage, even though there is a transition period where people need to adapt to it, it is changing. The reformed Mudwana was implemented only 5 years ago, which is nothing compared to a centuries-old tradition, but the new family code is changing the younger generations, who will know that marriage is at 18 and not 15. The same can be said with every article of the new code; it now says, for instance, that women and men are equal in marriage, whereas it used to be that the man was the head of the household. It takes time for people to get rid of the idea that there is a head of the household but when you remind them that it does not exist anymore they finally agree.

It takes time for a legal change to have a real impact on society, but it is a prerequisite for change, a condition that is necessary but insufficient. We made the first step by changing laws; the next one is to promote this law.

In relation to those next steps, what will be your next fight? Are you considering dealing, for instance, with the fact that extra-conjugal sexual relations for women or considered criminal or something else?

My fight now will be for a further diffusion of a culture of equality, especially the institutionalization of positive measures allowing women to access more professional responsibilities. Until now, the measures taken haven’t been institutionalized and it is something I would like to see change in while I am in office. Another fight that I am really involved in is the fight against the “petit bonnes” phenomena in Morocco. In fact, many young girls are unfortunately still working as maids in conditions that are near slavery; unfortunate cultural sequels of another century. There have already been some measures taken to provoke awareness but I would like to see a total abolishment.

I am conscious that it is a difficult fight, but one that we can win as we are lucky enough to have an exceptional King and optimal conditions to promote changes in our society.

Minister Skalli, thank you very much for your time.