Morocco’s inheritance laws are hurting women and must be reformed

Gender equality is slowly growing in Morocco - but not when it comes to inheritance law. ABDELHAK SENNA/EPA

One hundred Moroccan intellectuals have signed a petition demanding that the country’s sexist inheritance rule be repealed. I am among the signatories. This rule, ta'sib, is enshrined in the Moroccan family code, a document that outlines laws and rules related to family matters. It is, overall, a fairly progressive document – but not when it comes to inheritance.

Ta'sib decrees that “female orphans who do not have a brother must share the inheritance with the male relative closest to the deceased … even if unknown and [has] never been part of the family”. As I’ve argued in my research on the subject, this inequality in inheritance law is another form of violence against Moroccan women.

Men are economically privileged and have access to property, land, industry and commerce. Women, meanwhile, are left on the margins. They cannot even benefit from their rightful inheritance when a father, brother or husband dies.

The push for gender equality in the North African nation has strengthened over the past few years. Morocco’s Constitution, which was amended in 2011, emphasised equality between the sexes as a priority. But conservative segments of society, which use a patriarchal reading of the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, have stymied moves that would allow women to benefit from inheritance.

In Morocco, as in other countries in the Maghreb like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania, unlocking patriarchy and oppression may take years of debate and social democracy. The region’s economic, social and political development has been constantly hindered by social injustice. Its progress depends on women taking on a larger role in the economy.

Women who enjoy equal inheritance rights feel empowered; their agency is enhanced and they’re able to raise their own and their families’ living standards. This has huge benefits for the country at large.

Changing times

Morocco’s inheritance laws date back hundreds of years. They state that women should inherit half as much as men, and were written when only men headed households or contributed to household income. In practice, even this is not adhered to. Many women inherit nothing at all, especially in the country’s rural areas.

But times change. Today more than a third of Moroccan households are headed by women or rely largely on contributions by women to their income.

Civil society groups and some political parties have been calling for legal reforms around inheritance for the past five years or so. The ruling Islamic Justice and Development Party is having none of it, calling such proposals “an irresponsible manoeuvre” and a “flagrant violation” of the Moroccan constitution.

Most religious scholars are vehemently opposed to any reform of ta'sib. Nouzha Skalli, a former minister of women’s rights, said in an interview in 2017 that:

As soon as we pronounced the word inheritance [to clerics], we were accused of blasphemy.

Preacher Mohamed Abdelouahab Rafiki is one of the few liberal religious voices on the matter. He has said that the issue should be open to ijtihad, a process in Islam of interpretation by religious scholars. Rafiki said:

the question of inheritance must be consistent with the evolution of society.

Morocco is a conservative society. A national survey conducted by the country’s planning commission in 2016 found that 87% of citizens, both men and women, are opposed to gender equality in inheritance.

But inheritance laws shouldn’t be viewed merely through a religious lens. As historian Abdallah Laroui has recently said, the state must approach this question from an objective point of view and from the point of view of human rights.

Economic violence

The issue of inheritance is fundamentally economic. By denying women access to inheritance – property and money – the law is helping to keep them financially dependent on men and vulnerable to male violence.

Women are among Morocco’s most disadvantaged social groups. There have been cases of women who do not inherit being forced to leave their homes and beg for help from their families. Some women, left destitute when a father or husband dies, must turn to prostitution to support themselves.

Morocco has an opportunity to match its inheritance laws to the values outlined in its Constitution. It should stop seeing women merely as man’s property. Women can be owners, administrators and decision makers. They can be heirs, too. How could Morocco reach its full potential if half of the population is systematically prevented from contributing?