Faculty in the Field

Training Women to Run for Parliament
Moroccan democratization modernizes politics.
by Eve Sandberg, Associate Professor of Politics

It was our fourth day of training. Forty-four savvy, energetic, and professional women were about to chart a historic course for themselves and the next generation of Moroccan citizens. Come September, each hopes to be among the first females to serve in the 325-member lower house of the Moroccan Parliament, which for decades has been largely off-limits to women. I was a member of the campaign training team invited to help advance their chances of winning a seat.

I asked one of the trainees why, after only three days of working together, were the candidates from the 14 rival parties getting along so well? She patiently explained, "It is wonderful to find other women who want to talk about politics. We are so happy to have found each other, and we are having the best time." Indeed, as each long day of our workshop ended, the women gathered for hours to trade stories, share information, and laugh.

Morocco is an Islamic kingdom in the corner of northwest Africa, a partially desert country that offered me a nice change from the tropical sub-Saharan African countries in which I usually work. My recent research and teaching has focused on democratization issues and the evolving political party systems in southern Africa. I also own a small Oberlin-based consultancy firm that helps U.S. candidates and political organizations with campaigns, advocacy initiatives, and policy research. Yet, despite my sound background, I expected the workshop to be as much a learning experience for me as it would be for the participants. The Islamic component of Moroccan politics made working with the candidates particularly challenging.

Moroccan democratization has evolved during the last two decades, but not until the ascension of King Mohammed VI in 1999 has the government proposed advances in women's rights. In 2000, the modernizing leadership tried to change the laws, allowing a woman to 1) freely choose her husband without her family's consent, 2) require her husband to gain her consent before taking a second wife, and 3) retain custody of her children in the case of divorce or separation. Just as important was a plan to expand the political participation of women, who currently hold just two seats in Parliament.

Staunchly opposed to the reforms, Morocco's conservative party bloc organized massive protests, and the king and Prime Minister Youssoufi temporarily abandoned their plans. Gauging the extent of public support for the reforms, even among women, is difficult; Moroccan practice still allows a husband to instruct his wife how to vote.
But the prime minister revisited the issue. He and party leaders attended the launch of our training workshop last fall, where on national television Youssoufi recommitted himself to expanding the political process for women and agreed to support a quota of 20 percent women on Parliament party lists.

Fourteen of the 17 political parties sent 44 women to our workshop in Rabat, which included, to our surprise, members from two moderate religious parties. Our seven-women training team was led by Seattle consultant Cathy Allen. Each morning, we taught the women campaign strategies such as designing field and media plans, budgeting, and communicating messages. Later, in small groups, we discussed adapting these tactics to Moroccan culture. One challenge was overcoming the women's perception that we, their trainers, couldn't understand the politics of a country with poverty. The U.S., they believed, lacked such a problem.

In the evenings, the women rotated through skill-building activities that strengthened their public speaking abilities, Internet knowledge, and more. After dinner, the candidates met informally on their own while we debriefed and revised. Some of our Arabic-English translators (mostly female university professors) were so energized that they agreed to continue the training with future candidates.

The backdrop to our trip, of course, was the war in Afghanistan. We were prepared for wariness between practitioners of Islam and Westerners, especially from those who opposed the reforms for women. Kabul fell while we were in Rabat, leading to two minor street incidents with citizens who were not enamored with the U.S./Canadian origins of our team. Most Moroccans, however, thanked us for traveling during the difficult time. Through Moroccan television, we were afforded a very different presentation of the war.

The training experience will influence both my future scholarship on the comparative evolution of political party systems and my courses, in which I will now include units on Morocco. The workshop was cosponsored by the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women and the National Democratic Institute, a group funded by the U.S. Congress to advance democratic practices around the world.

Our team returns to Morocco this spring to teach an advanced campaign course, and we also hope to attend the September elections.

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