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GLOBAL | summer 2007

Women’s Words
A Moroccan scholar-activist links language and power

UNTIL 2007, MOROCCAN women who married foreigners could not pass citizenship to their children—who had to apply, year after year, for residence permits to live in their own country. Finally, after decades of feminist protest, parliament has guaranteed paternal and maternal equality in determining nationality.

The new citizenship law follows the 2004 Moudawana (Family Law), which entitles women to a range of civil rights. The minimum marriage age was raised from 15 to 18; women may now wed without the consent of a male wali (marital tutor); polygamy is restricted to cases in which wives, including the new bride, consent by written contracts approved by a judge; and men may no longer unilaterally “repudiate”—divorce—their wives without compensation.

One feminist responsible for such rights is Fatima Sadiqi, a Moroccan- Berber professor at the University of Fes and a linguist specializing in how women and men use language in Morocco. She found that Berberspeaking persons lack access to information and resources because they speak a “female language” associated with the home and hearth. In this country, where Arabic, French and English predominate, many more women and girls than men speak only Berber, don’t attend school and are illiterate— approaching 90 percent in some rural areas.

Sadiqi has shown powerful connections between language and women’s rights. “I see the official recognition of Berber as a recognition of Berber women,” says Sadiqi, author of the first grammar textbook for this ancient language still spoken by millions. She has also struggled for the inclusion of women’s voices in Moroccan education. “I wanted to help democratize our higher education by introducing gender studies,” says Sadiqi, who also founded the first gender-studies program in North Africa when she realized the absence of women’s texts in university syllabi.

“The Family Law has greatly democratized debate on women’s issues and introduced the idea of equality between spouses. Of course, not everyone believes in this equality, but at least people discuss it,” says Sadiqi. Networking with other Moroccan feminists and keenly aware of the power of words, she agitated for the Family Law by speaking on television and in the printed press, and organizing major international conferences on women, language and development. “The present king [Mohammed VI] made clear in his very first speech that he wanted to improve the lot of women,” she says. “Symbolically, this was huge for the feminist movement, which had to constantly negotiate power with both the monarchy and the radical Islamists.”

Even before the Family Law struggle, Sadiqi used her work on language and power to strengthen Moroccan feminism. Her studies have led to teaching invitations abroad (including this past year at Harvard), and to her establishment of the ISIS Center for Women and Development in Fes. She is also editor of the forthcoming Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region (Feminist Press, 2007), which includes oral and written works of numerous languages and cultures. But she says it all began in her Berber village, where few women read or wrote: “I owe this to my father, who took me to school and believed in me.”