For most of her life, Saida Soukat's days were filled with the routines of the farm, working the fields and minding the cattle. A recent Tuesday found her doing something far different, though, speaking before a group of women during their biweekly protests to demand a halt in the state-sanctioned privatisation of traditional tribal collectives, called the Sulaliyyate lands.
“One foot up, one foot down. For my land, my blood will shed,” she chanted in a megaphone. The Sulaliyyates, as the women are known, began their protests 10 years ago and have since assembled a powerful grass-roots organisation fighting not only for the tribal lands but also for equal ownership rights in a country where women, by law, inherit less than men.
“This is really the first movement that is shaking the patriarchal foundation of the society,” says Zakia Salime, an associate professor at Rutgers University who has extensively studied the movement. “They are saying no, you cannot give land to men, and they are asking also that, in case you privatise the land, we need to have our equal share.”
This is all happening against a backdrop of economic and social change in Morocco that figures prominently in the women’s movement.
After King Mohammed VI succeeded his father in 1999, one of his hallmark achievements was the promotion of women's rights, as the country has tried to position itself as a regional leader.
In 2004, a new family code guaranteed women more rights in marriage and divorce, raising the minimum age for marriage and restricting polygamy. In 2011, after the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the country adopted a new constitution that established gender equality. Even so, women’s rights advocates say, women are significantly absent from the workforce and, in legal matters, often at a strong disadvantage to men.
While Morocco has been liberalising its economy since the 1990s, selling off government assets and reducing barriers to foreign investment, the threat to the communal lands intensified in 2004 when it signed the Morocco Free Trade Agreement with the United States. The agreement increased the economic incentive to privatise and develop traditional lands.
About 35 percent of Morocco’s land is designated as Sulaliyyate, the Interior Ministry says. In 1919, while Morocco was still a French protectorate, management of the land was transferred to the ministry from tribal authorities, with the idea of discouraging migration from rural areas to the cities. Under this system, while people did not own the land, they were given the right to work designated plots and take their share of the harvest. Shares in the communal lands could be passed only from fathers to sons older than 16.
According to tribal law, single women, widows, divorcées and those without sons could not inherit the land, which meant that the state could confiscate it without compensation. Over the years, thousands of women – no one really knows how many – were forced from their homes and into slums in surrounding towns and cities.
The nationwide movement began in 2007 when a woman in the city of Kenitra, close to the capital, Rabat, demanded equality in land ownership. Saida Idrissi, president of the Rabat bureau of the Moroccan Association for Women’s Rights, helped the women to organise, training them in constitutional law and guiding them in negotiations with the Interior Ministry.
“Most of them are illiterate women from the rural world who were scared to talk, so we had to put in place a strategy very specific to this category of women,” she said. Soon after, women living on these parcels began organizing, and in 2009 about 500 from all over the country protested in front of Parliament to demand equal rights to ownership, and compensation if land was expropriated. Since then, hundreds more have joined the movement.
In response, the Interior Ministry has issued several circulars stating that women should benefit from selling the communal lands and should be a part of the negotiation process. But the circulars are nonbinding, and delegates designated by the tribes as the residents’ representatives can choose to ignore them.
The imminence of the threat is visible from the top of a hill just behind Soukat’s house: a sprawling development of condos wrapped around a golf course, built by a major real estate developer, Addoha. She said a delegate sold the land in 2007 without consulting or involving villagers. “We aren’t against development projects, but we demand our rights to be respected,” said Soukat, 27, a mother of two, who left school at a young age and was married when she was 16.
At first, the protests were led by men, but women quickly became involved. “In our traditions, it was shameful for women to leave the house,” she said. “But the men would get arrested, so women took over. We left our children behind.”
Souad Eddouada, a professor at the University of Kenitra who specialises in gender studies, said: “All over the country, women are at the forefront because they are less vulnerable to police brutality and incarceration. They became very successful in their fight. They had to leave their homes and were supported by the men.” While the women have made some gains, the fight is far from over, as they still cannot pass on the rights to their share of the land to their children.
“Now we are demanding a law that guarantees these rights. This circular for now is very fragile,” Idrissi said. “Women must become a full part of the managing of the collective lands.” Neither the development company, Addoha nor the Interior Ministry returned calls seeking comment.
In December 2015, the king issued a letter calling for a change in the legal status of the communal lands and for an end to the current practises. “We must fix the Sulaliyyate lands so they can contribute to development efforts,” he wrote, “by integrating the beneficiaries into this national dynamic within the framework of the principles of law and social justice.”
Lawmakers in Morocco, a constitutional monarchy, have yet to act on the request. So the protests rumble on, and twice a week, Fatima Soukat, a relative of Saida Soukat’s, takes a taxi to join the protest. Fatima Soukat is not exactly sure how old she is, but she thinks she’s around 93. She was born when Morocco was ruled by France, celebrated when the country gained independence in 1956 and cheered when women gained significant rights under the new family code in 2004.
When many took to the streets in prodemocracy protests in 2011, she joined them. And today she is still fighting for the right to the land where she was born and raised eight children. “I demand the land of my grandfathers,” she said at one recent protest. “We are beaten. We are oppressed.”
Saida Soukat said she had faced threats and intimidation for her role in the movement. In February, she was badly beaten by a man as she was walking alone on a road. But her greatest worry, she said, is that she and her family will be forced off the land and out of their home. “I am scared for my children, but not for myself,” she said, sitting in her living room, sipping mint tea under a picture of the last three Moroccan kings. “The only thing that is scary is a court decision to vacate. I lose sleep over it at night.”