“It was like meeting a new person when my mother praised my volunteer work for the first time. She opened up and showed me a completely new side of herself. She came out as a champion for women’s rights – as if it was me that had ignited her feminist instinct,” says the 23-year-old Abdellatif El-Kanbech.
The young Moroccan man has a bachelor’s degree in sociology, but he earns his living with a job as a warehouse worker at a paper mill. He is the youngest of 11 siblings, and his mother has been a widow for several years.
“My mother is illiterate, and she and her sisters were not allowed to go to school. That’s not fair,” says Abdellatif as he attempts to illustrate women’s living conditions in some parts of Morocco.
According to Abdellatif, his mother’s situation was exploited by her uncles, who refused to give her and her sisters access to their rightful” inheritance. “If my mother had had a brother, her uncles would not have been able to claim her inheritance.”
A UN report from 2017 shows that at least 62 per cent of Moroccan men believe that women should tolerate violence in order to keep the family together. Abdellatif is not one of them. And he sees the uncles’ withholding of his mother’s share of the estate as a type of aggression.
“I’ve taken up this work to create a better society for future generations. We need to treat women more fairly in our country.”Abdellatif El-Kanbech
“It pains me to see my mother in this situation. But I can’t do anything apart from try to inform her about her rights. She fears the authorities, and she sees them as intimidating rather than protective. That is why she has not filed a claim against her brothers.”
Injustice was the spark
Abdellatif’s mother is not a special case in Morocco. Four out of ten Moroccan women cannot read and write. And the numbers are even higher outside the country’s major cities. This group of illiterate women makes up a large proportion of the statistics on female victims of violence, according to a new report published on 25 November 2018.
The injustice that these figures illustrate was the spark that ignited Abdellatif: “I have thrown myself into this work to create a better society for future generations. There is a need for a more just treatment of women in our country,” he says clearly in fluent Fusha (standard Arabic). His speech reveals a passionate and articulate young man who knows how to state his views clearly despite only being in the feminist environment for a relatively short period of time.
It was in 2014, when he started university in the town of Mohammédia to study sociology, that he first became aware of feminist ideas and thoughts.
“When I started at university, I was frankly quite influenced by my upbringing in the slum districts north of Casablanca. My attitudes were marked by stereotypes and old-fashioned ideas. I glorified our traditions as something that had to be safeguarded and protected against change,” says Abdellatif with a glint in his eye.
During the first semesters at university, Abdellatif had access to contemporary literature and books that he had not previously encountered. He made new acquaintances and entered new environments. In the same period, the women’s organisation LDDF-Injad was running a course on cooperation with the Faculty of Social Sciences at the university. The focus here was on violence against women and sexual harassment through lectures and workshops.
The new setting and surroundings have had a remarkable impact on the young man: “After the first few months I had got a larger conceptual framework, and it helped expand my horizons. I was more sure of myself and my thoughts. I saw things from new perspectives.”
His student days were crucial in shaping Abdellatif’s identity. He chose to fight for feminist principles and go against the most common perceptions of gender in Moroccan society.
“I’ve been through a kind of feminist awakening. When talking about feminist thoughts and ideas, most people think that women and female organisations have a monopoly on putting them into words. But for me, they are universal human values, which everyone, regardless of gender, should subscribe to.”
The struggle and the dialogue in the family
Abdellatif is not afraid to get involved in a debate, whether it is at the factory, on the street, or at home in the district of Sidi Bernoussi. He gesticulates with self-assurance, awareness and pride as he emphasises first one anecdote and then another during the course of the interview.
“It is important to fight on different fronts to challenge the patriarchal gender power system which permeates Moroccan society. We do not hold back in engaging in this debate and presenting our point of view,” emphasises Abdellatif, and points to his relationship with his strongly religious older brother Mustafa.
“At mealtimes at home, we always discuss the issues of the day. I try to influence the conversation with my ideas and thoughts. In the beginning there was considerable scepticism and resistance, especially from Mustafa. He rejected me. But lately, he has begun to give me time to talk, and he listens to my arguments. I see this as a step forward.”
The struggle against hopelessness and unemployment
The organisation LDDF-Injad has a partnership with the Danish Women’s Council under the Danish–Arabic Partnership Programme (DAPP), which carries out activities that aim to improve conditions for women in Morocco. One of the activities is a caravan that drives to areas far away from the cities to inform women about their rights. In the spring, Abdellatif joined a caravan that went 200 km south. And the experience made a strong impression on the young man, who has become more committed – but also more concerned about the future.
“When we knocked on the doors in a village in the middle of the day, we were met by very young girls. They had clearly dropped out of school. And to our astonishment, their mothers were out in the fields at work, while the fathers sat in the cafés sipping tea.”
Things are going downhill for Abdellatif’s generation in the labour market, where the official figures show an unemployment rate of 22.2 per cent among academics and up to 26 per cent in the age group 18–24 years. But the young man has no intention of giving up. Instead, Abdellatif insists on keeping his spirits up while he works in the paper mill and dreams of being allowed to use his master’s degree in gender studies.
“I believe that change comes gradually, and it needs to take both men and women into account.”
Abdellatif finds inspiration for his involvement in what he calls the golden epoch for Moroccan women in 1960. “The more I hear about what women’s status in society was just 60 years ago and about Fatima Mernissis’ struggle, the more I want to be a part of the group that can push forward development in this area. We do not need more of the setbacks that occurred at the beginning of this century.”
Abdellatif also tries to find inspiration and role models outside Morocco. “I have great admiration for the Egyptian author Qasim Amine, who for me is the first champion of the feminist movement in the Arab world – especially his eagerness and his perseverance despite opposition. The same applies to Nawal al-Saadawi. For me, she is a beacon of hope.”
Ready for a long and intense debate
In recent years, the Moroccan debate on women’s rights has been intense. Battle lines have been drawn, and the numbers in the statistics are discouraging. Last summer, the hashtag #Kounrajel (‘be a man’) enraged women’s organisations. The hashtag was started by a group that wants men to keep women on a tight leash.
At the beginning of October, a new hashtag started trending on social media in Morocco. Under the tag #masaktach (which in Arabic means ‘I don’t want to keep quiet’), young women stood up against violence and sexual harassment.
“I’m probably a part of the minority in terms of the struggle for gender equality. Saying anything else would be naive. But my consolation is that it is a growing minority.”Abdellatif El-Kanbech
Abdellatif follows the debates closely: “I see #masaktach as a much-needed attempt to break the conspiracy of silence. It is important to talk about the challenges that women encounter in society.”
Abdellatif believes that a pervasive populist discourse is being boosted by a lack of knowledge and by the misuse of religion. This means that awareness campaigns are facing tough resistance.
“I’m probably a part of the minority in terms of the struggle for gender equality. Saying anything else would be naive. But my consolation is that it is a growing minority. I feel that more people are starting to listen and hear the arguments. And there is now more visibility concerning this topic. And even my mother is on the bandwagon.”