Throughout the world women face pervasive discrimination. While there are many causes for discrimination against women, laws or more specifically the lack of laws, to protect women from violence and discrimination play a major role in determining whether women will live safe and fair lives, or not. Whether it is discriminatory laws that deliberately deny women from having rights to own land, the right to choose to divorce or rights over their children the legal system remains a pervasive barrier in affirming women's rights throughout the world. Thus, an integral part of the battle for women's rights is ensuring that laws that protect women are an entrenched part of the legal system. It involves ensuring that the police force and the judicial system are in compliance with those laws and making sure that women know that there are laws there to protect them.
Morocco, like many of the countries within the region, have struggled to bring women's rights to the forefront of their laws. However, as with everything, progress can only be made when people push for it and this is exactly what a small group of women in the country's capital, Rabat are doing. Along with two female Moroccan engineers from Casablanca, I travelled to meet with Najat Oukaya and Saliha Boulakjam to learn more about how they are working hard to promote women's rights in Moroccan law and how they're are using Islam to justify it.
After being warmly greeted we settled down to discuss their work. Leaning back in their chairs both women began by explaining how Islam protects women from violence and discrimination and is therefore essential in explaining Moroccan laws. Making the legal system more protective of women and girls therefore begins with making people aware of the differences between tradition and religion. 'Religion does not promote violence against women, cultures and traditions do,' said Najat.
Religion should therefore not be used as an excuse to justify violence against women. The main principle of Islam is justice,' explains Najat.
There are however, they caution, a lot of religious extremists who promote laws that have nothing to do with the religion.
For example, Morocco previously had a law that allowed a rapist to escape punishment by marrying his victim. They were successful however in having this law over turned and rapists now face severe punishment. They are also now advocating to adopt chemical castration as punishment for criminals who have repeatedly raped minors, as practiced in several other countries.
They are also advocating for women to have equal rights in divorce. Previously only men had the right to choose to divorce however in 2004 they were also successful in changing this law. 'The religion does not say that only a man can divorce,' says Saliha.
In the case of adultery, Moroccan law says if a man has been unfaithful to his wife but she forgives him, there is no punishment. However, if a woman has been unfaithful and she is forgiven by her husband, she is still punished. They are calling for the equality of punishment in adultery.
They have also had success with implementing a new law against sexual harassment on the street. Now men who harass women will be punished, with no exceptions.
'There is no excuse for sexual harassment,' says Najat.
I ask about cases in other parts of the Islamic world where women and girls are put in prison for being raped. Both women shake their heads, 'women are blamed for rape because of traditions and because of ignorance,' says Najat. There is nothing in Islam that says women should be punished for being raped. Religion should protect women and girls from sexual violence.'
For Najat and Saliha part of making the legal system more inclusive of women's rights involves more women getting involved in the public sphere. They are encouraging women to leave their traditional roles of staying in the home and instead move into the public sphere and get involved in politics.
'Islam does not tell a woman to stay in the home,' explains Najat.
For both Najat and Saliha the movement for women's rights in Morocco has to begin in the family. They believe that Moroccans need to teach their children to grow up so that they see equality as being something normal. Both women said that growing up with strong women in their family played a strong role in their passion to fight for women's rights in Morocco. For them strong and powerful women is something normal. This is something that they want to teach to all Moroccan women.