x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Four female faces changing Morocco's political landscape

A new quota system increased the number of women councillors twenty-six fold. Four of the more than 3,300 elected recently speak of their hopes and ambitions in office.

RABAT // On June 13, Morocco quietly made history. Thanks to a new quota, local elections boosted the number of women councillors from 127 to more than 3,300, giving Morocco more elected female officials than any other Arab country. The elections saw the dramatic rise of a new political party and provoked accusations of vote-buying. State media quoted international observers' statement that the polls took place in "ideal" conditions.

King Mohammed VI wields ultimate power in Morocco, leading critics to question the importance of party politics. But everyone agrees that women have burst into political life as never before. Morocco set the stage in 2004 with a new family code that greatly expanded women's rights. In June, spurred by a quota reserving 12 per cent of nearly 28,000 local council seats for them, over 20,000 women registered as candidates. Meet four of the first-time victors:

One day shortly after the elections, Malika Chiker left her house in Rabat's medina and had not gone 10 steps down the alley before she was accosted by her neighbour, Faouzia Benayed. "Haja, haja, please! Give me money." Mrs Benayed's hands grasped at those of Mrs Chiker. "I'm a poor woman and I voted for you!" There was a brief, heated discussion, and Mrs Benayed stormed off with cries of "Hachouma!" - "For shame!"

"I can help her in other ways, but I refuse simply to hand out cash," said Mrs Chiker, catching her breath. Two years ago, Mrs Chiker, 58, returned from Spain to Rabat's old city, where she grew up, and last month stood for local councillor with the hope of making the neighbourhood cleaner, safer and more prosperous. That has meant winning over working-class voters who often have little faith in political parties. For many ordinary Moroccans, it is personality and largesse that count. In communal neighbourhoods such as the medina, a warren of tiny streets and adjoined houses, it also helps to be a local.

"When I was young, neighbours all knew one another and you left your windows open," said Mrs Chiker, heading towards the market area to do some shopping. Mrs Chiker's father was a fruit wholesaler and their family of eight lived comfortably in a large house near the market. Mrs Chiker remembers him endlessly rolling his own cigarettes with top-grade heavy tobacco. When she was 18, her father died of throat cancer and the family was forced to move into a smaller house. Two of Mrs Chiker's sisters still live there, surrounded by old photos and china stacked on display in glass cupboards.

Later, Mrs Chiker's mother also succumbed to cancer. When Mrs Chiker fell ill in 1990, she went to Spain to seek medical treatment. The doctors did not find cancer, but the trip was revelatory in other ways. "Women in Spain seemed free," said Mrs Chiker, whose parents had arranged her marriage. "It opened my eyes to the realisation that other modes of living were possible." She moved with her husband and their three children to Madrid, where he worked in construction and she did odd jobs. Eight years ago she divorced him.

"He believed that women should always be behind men, and should never get involved in politics." Mrs Chiker had other ideas and returned to Morocco in 2007. "I saw that things were changing, that women had more rights and that there was development." That year she volunteered as a campaign worker for Fouad Ali el Himma, a school friend of King Mohammed, who resigned from his post as deputy interior minister to stand successfully for parliament as an independent.

Last year Mr el Himma created the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), which has blazed into politics to challenge the government while supporting the monarchy, and is widely seen as having the backing of the palace. The party did well in June's elections, taking nearly a fifth of the vote and securing Mrs Chiker a seat in her local council. "There is poverty, crime, rubbish in the streets," she said. "One can make a difference here."

Mrs Chiker's first goal is to create a youth centre and library in the medina for poor children. She meandered through the market, buying fruit and stopping to chat with neighbours, then headed home. As Mrs Chiker neared her house, Mrs Benayed reappeared with a daughter, Chema Jebril, 17. "Haja, I want to send her to a private school to learn English," Mrs Benayed said. "When you vote for someone it's normal that they help you out."

There was discussion again, less heated this time, and Mrs Chiker promised to help pay for Chema's English lessons. "I understand now that it's about more than just cash," she said afterwards. "It's about that girl's future."

As a young girl, Fatima Azim watched her father sweat in the fields and helped her mother cook his food, and dreamed that one day she would be a pharmacist. "I even got my baccalaureate in sciences," said Mrs Azim, 31, a petite woman in a headscarf and horn-rimmed glasses. "But then we had money troubles." Instead of attending university, Mrs Azim ended up working in a garment factory near the airport, a few kilometres from her home in the countryside east of Rabat. Even this was a step up. "In rural areas, men can always work on the land, but women can only get married and stay at home," Mrs Azim said. "I got into politics because I want to help women achieve more in life."

In June, Mrs Azim was elected to the council of Sohoul district, representing her home village of El Arjat for the Popular Movement party. It is her first foray into politics. "Even if a woman can't go to university, it doesn't mean she can't do other things," Mrs Azim said. "We need more training for them, technical institutes, so that they don't just sit at home." The flat landscape around El Arjat is partitioned into farmland, dotted with scrub oak and boxy whitewashed farmhouses like the one where Mrs Azim lives with her husband and their two-year-old son.

Her father still grows wheat and vegetables on their family's two hectares for sale in local markets. Mrs Azim makes a daily trek from her house through the fields and back to carry water from a well. Too often, the traditions of rural life leave women vulnerable to oppressive husbands, she said. "We have problems like violence against women, or men simply controlling women," said Mrs Azim. "They tell women when to come and go."

Mrs Azim's husband, Mohammed, does not allow male guests in their house unless he is there, a common practice in the countryside. But he applauds his wife's entry into politics. The pair met four years ago in a cafe in central Rabat - she an engaging young woman with a quick bright smile, he a slim man with freckles and auburn hair. Two months later they were married. Mohammed rises at 6am each weekday to head to his job grinding lenses at a glasses shop on the far side of Rabat. Often the crawl home by car through the capital's evening traffic keeps him out until after 10pm.

The couple has debated moving closer to Rabat, Mrs Azim said. "But I want to stay in El Arjat because there's no pollution or noise and it's calm." Now she is further bound to her home village by a sense of vocation. "I've wanted to be in politics for years," said Mrs Azim. "Now the new quota has made that possible." Her family supports the Popular Movement, a centre-left party founded in 1957 to challenge the dominance of the nationalist Istiqlal, or "independence" party, which had led the drive to end French colonialism.

While Istiqlal has historically catered to middle-class urbanites, the Popular Movement has appealed to the countryside. Mrs Azim wants running water, decent roads and better schools for rural families like hers. "I'm a bit scared. It's a big responsibility and I don't have experience yet," Mrs Azim said. "But people are excited about having a woman councillor, because they feel that a rural woman is someone who understands their problems."

When she was 17, Souad el Kohen would periodically exit the rarefied world of the Lycée Descartes, an elite French-run high school in Rabat, and hurry home to Fez to help her father on the campaign trail. "We were coming from a cocoon," said Mrs el Kohen. "Campaigning gave me a desire to engage in helping others." In elections last month she took a step further in that direction by winning a seat on the Casablanca city council as a candidate of the nationalist Istiqlal party.

Mrs el Kohen, 50, grew up in a villa in Fez, a former capital of Morocco that is home to some of the country's most powerful families. Olive trees, cypresses and orange groves filled the garden, and inside were salons where her father hosted gatherings of Istiqlal grandees. "Growing up, I was steeped in politics," Mrs el Kohen said. "All kinds of personalities were always meeting at our house." It was a heady time for the Istiqlal. Having arisen in the 1940s as an underground movement pushing for an end to French colonialism, the Istiqlal swiftly became Morocco's dominant political party after the country gained independence in 1956.

Mrs el Kohen is the eldest of four children born to Bensalem el Kohen, a leading Istiqlal activist. Jailed by the French for distributing leaflets, Dr el Kohen went on to serve as an ambassador to France and was twice mayor of Fez. Mrs el Kohen went to France as well for university studies in the 1970s and '80s. Back in Morocco, the state was busily imprisoning opposition figures during a period of political repression remembered today as the "années de plomb", or "years of lead".

Among leftist Moroccan students clustered in Paris, Mrs el Kohen experienced a political awakening. "When you're a student you're carefree and you want to change the world," she said. Inevitably, studies drew to a close. Mrs el Kohen returned to Morocco in 1986 with her husband, a fellow Moroccan student, and settled in Casablanca, where she has found success as an accountant. This year, her association with the Istiqlal party helped rekindle her passion for politics.

"Politicians have been discredited," she said, citing an electoral law that she said hamstrings parties by preventing any from winning a clear majority. "There's no longer any debate, any engagement. Parties have not played their role." Mrs el Kohen ventured out during campaigning to knock on the doors of ordinary Moroccans and found mixed reactions to her entry into local politics. "Some people call me a child of the bourgeoisie and ask what I'm doing in there," she said. "And it's true that I have a modern, French-leaning style that can be off-putting."

Mrs el Kohen has short hair and dresses in smart western fashions. She and her family live in a modern sandstone house near the Casablanca corniche. Impressionist paintings hang on irregular expanses of wall that are assembled like intersecting planes in a geometric model. An upright piano stands in a corner. Mrs el Kohen has visited Switzerland and been impressed by the strong local government she observed there.

"We need more decentralisation here," she said. Her vision is of a smaller, more nimble government aided by a vibrant civil society. "The idea is to push people to create associations to defend their interests," she said. "Our work is to get people to care about politics again."

When Sophia Zaidi moved to Hay Nahda, a residential suburb of Rabat, she stopped playing her oud. "I studied for four years at conservatory," she said, adding that isolation from her old school sapped her will to play. Mrs Zaidi's street cuts an arc into the hillside overlooking the Bouregreg river, which meets the Atlantic Ocean at Rabat. The residents are packed into white apartment blocks like items in a refrigerator. With no amusements within walking distance, Mrs Zaidi, 27, looks forward to Friday evenings, when she meets other women in the neighbourhood to drink tea and discuss Islam. As of June, she has an additional occupation: a seat on the Rabat city council as a representative of the Justice and Development Party (PJD), an Islamist opposition party that shot to prominence in 2002, when legislative elections quadrupled its parliamentary seats.

The party has since been at the heart of debate over Morocco's future. While many value the country's openness and ties to Europe, others want to emphasise its Islamic identity. Mrs Zaidi's family moved to Hay Nahda two years ago from central Rabat. They miss the street life and intimacy of their old neighbourhood, but coming to Hay Nahda has enabled them to own their flat for the first time. In the salon are sofas with plum-coloured cushions, several potted plants, a television and a leather-bound Quran on a stand. In a cupboard are dozens more books, many of them Qurans and religious commentaries.

When she was a girl, Mrs Zaidi explored the family library, drawn to classics of Islamism such as Sayed Qutb's Milestones and In the Shade of the Quran. At 13, she decided to start wearing a headscarf. "My sisters and I were free to make our own choices, and I realised that I felt good wearing the hijab," she said. A week later, Mrs Zaidi's older sister Houyam donned the headscarf, and soon her mother and younger sister Bouthaina followed suit. Only Fidae, her youngest sister, has chosen to leave her hair uncovered.

"My sister is a model," said Bouthaina, 20, a student at Mohammed V University in Rabat. "Every time I'm in trouble, she's there." After their parents divorced 15 years ago, "my relationship with my father went downhill and I stopped praying", Bouthaina said. "Sophia told me to seek divine help, and now things with my father are better." At school, Sophia Zaidi's interest in Islam led her to join the Unity and Reform Movement (MUR), an Islamist grassroots organisation that joined forces with the PJD in 1996.

It was in the MUR that she met her husband, an energetic young activist named Mohssen Moufidi, 28. Working side by side, the pair hammered out meeting schedules, photo-copied leaflets and planned discussion groups for students at Casablanca's schools and university. "We are part of a social project," she said. "We talked about political reform, ending corruption and narrowing the wealth gap between rich and poor."

Along the way, love blossomed. Mrs Zaidi and Mr Moufidi wed four months ago. At about the same time, she decided to stand for election to the Rabat council. Now, Mrs Zaidi's task will consist largely of going door-to-door to keep up to speed on the concerns of citizens. Like many political figures, she faces a hefty degree of scepticism. "Many people don't have confidence in officials," she said. "We're trying to change that stereotype."

The new difficulties of her job have inspired Mrs Zaidi to resume playing her oud, whose strings have gone slack and discordant since she came to Hay Nahda. "The problem is that I haven't tuned it once," Mrs Zaidi said, gingerly twisting a tuning peg. "But it will help me now with the stress I'm expecting." She favours traditional music evoking the Moroccan culture and Islamic faith that inform her political work - music that she calls "a point of contact with my own soul".

jthorne@thenational.ae