On the first day of classes here in Rabat, Morocco, my Gender and Society class professor told us about her experience growing up in Morocco. She is a native of Fez and grew up amongst brothers in a fairly traditional Moroccan household. When she was a teenager, she remembers the first time that her father pressured her to wear the veil. He said that he was embarrassed to see his daughter as one of the only girls walking around the medina uncovered.
Having read every page of the Qur’an multiple times, my professor told her father that if he could find the passage in the Qur’an where it is specifically written that women are required to wear the veil, she would oblige. They sat down together to read through it, and her father was ultimately proven wrong—the passage didn’t exist in the Qur’an (a fact that, of course, my professor had known all along).
For a country in the Middle Eastern and North African region, Morocco is miles ahead of its neighbors in terms of wealth and development. Its proximity to Europe combined with its rich history, beautiful art, and vibrant culture attracts thousands of tourists annually, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue for both the Moroccan government and the informal economic sector that thrives within the souks and at the street food stands.
For such a comparatively developed and wealthy country, Morocco’s literacy rate is shockingly low—particularly amongst women. A 2015 statistic put the literacy rate in Morocco at 68.5 percent, with the rate of literate women hovering a full 10 percent lower than the population average. This is lower than the literacy rate in Botswana, the Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda, as well as in all of its neighboring North African countries.
The literacy rate statistic is troubling for more than one reason. Not only is it representative of a greater issue of education in Morocco, but it is also a source of imprisonment for women in the country. Women in Morocco are often denied the opportunity of education past a middle school level, hindering their ability to advance in society and their ability to read even simple street signs. Instead of pursuing an education past the age of 12, women marry young, thus transferring their autonomy from their fathers to their husbands—and rendering them unable to make informed decisions and access unbiased information.
This is an enormous feminist issue in Morocco, especially when it intersects with the country’s overarching tradition of Islam: if women cannot read the Qur’an, Islam’s most significant text, how can they possibly form an opinion on the rules to which they are obliged to adhere? If they cannot physically read the hadith, how can they interpret for themselves whether or not their religion requires them to wear the hijab or niqab? If they cannot read for themselves the nuances of polygamy in the Qur’an or understand the historical context in which they were written, how can they protest against their injustice?
By lacking the opportunity to pursue an education, women are dependent on the educated men in their lives to determine how they should conduct themselves in accordance with their religion. This is obviously problematic—it solidifies men’s position of power and allows them to make decisions for women.
Ultimately, this oppression is not about the Qur’an; it is not about the teachings of the prophet, nor is it about the written interpretation of his word. It is about the patriarchal society in which male dominance is perpetuated systemically by inequitable access to education, rendering women unable to make their own informed decisions.
Feminism in the Muslim world is not going to mirror Western feminism—that’s for sure. But what is consistent across all different types of feminism is that women must have a choice—a choice of whether or not to wear the veil, of whether or not to be a stay-at-home mom, of whether or not to get married—like my professor had. The longer that women are held captive by their own illiteracy, however, the longer their subordinate status in the Muslim world will persist.