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2 activists (and 2 views) of women's rights in Morocco

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Saida Idrissi and Nadia Yassine have a lot in common in the fight for women's rights in Morocco.

The two advocates battle violence against women while campaigning for their education and the ability to participate in politics. They are nonetheless separated by a divide that, according to both, makes it impossible for them to work together, weakening the drive for equality in the Middle East.

Idrissi, a secular human-rights activist, says Islamic tradition must not be allowed to influence laws governing social issues like marriage and divorce. Islamic militants, she says, "'want to base law on the Koran, something we think will inhibit women."

Yassine, the daughter of a nationally known Islamic opposition leader, counters that Islam, when applied correctly, is the real basis for women's rights. "Secular feminists live in a separate world," she says. "They ape the imperialist West. The fact is, we are Muslims here. How else can women see rights except through Islam?"

 Morocco's dueling feminists are part and parcel of a political struggle taking place across the region. Secular democratic and human-rights activists keep their distance from Islamic activists, arguing that the religion is autocratic and wants to use democratic measures only to impose its rules on marriage, dress, and social and sexual mores.

Islamists counter that religious teachings and human rights aren't at odds. They charge that their adversaries want to suppress their freedoms, effectively putting the secularists in league with dictatorships that rule most of the Middle East.

In effect, Idrissi's path to liberation leaves Islam behind; Yassine's follows a strict Islamic road map.

The conflict spilled into Moroccan feminist issues in 2003, when the country revamped family law after several years of debate and pressure from supporters of women's rights.

The new law established legal procedures for divorce. Previously, a man could dump his wife simply by uttering a few phrases of repudiation - a practice justified by some Islamic scholars - without going to court. Under the reform, women were no longer required to obey their husbands in everything, and, for the first time, were allowed to apply for passports on their own.

The law also lifted the marriage age to 18 from 15, and while not banning polygamy, which Islam allows, it permitted a first wife to veto in a marriage contract future matrimony by her husband.

Women are up against a traditional perception that they are inferior, even diabolical, says Mounia Belafia, 37, a journalist and secular feminist who wrote a book on representations of women in Moroccan proverbs.

Many of the aphorisms are hardly complimentary: "A woman is the belt of a snake wrapped around the devil," says one. Even those meant to flatter somehow come out as a put-down: "A milk's quality is measured by the size of the cow's udder; a woman's quality, by her legs."

Belafia says the Koran fortifies these attitudes by referring to women as "topsoil" to be cultivated by their husbands.

Idrissi agrees. She belongs to the Democratic Association of Women of Morocco, which researches women's issues and provides legal advice. Women come and go from her office in Rabat, the capital, wearing free-flowing hairdos and short-sleeved blouses - marks of the secular, urban Moroccan woman.

Idrissi, 51, says judges intimidate wives who seek divorce by saying their action is un-Islamic. The government's continued toleration of polygamy, even with restrictions, suggests that Islamic law trumps civil rights, she adds.

"The issue is mentality," she says. "Islam is part of the patriarchal mentality that dominates Morocco."

Yassine, 49, opposes some of the family-law measures. She speaks for the women's branch of the Justice and Spirituality Movement, an Islamic opposition group founded by her father, Abdessalam Yassine. Women at her home, just a few kilometers from Idrissi's headquarters, wear tight-fitting scarves around their heads to hide hair and long-sleeve blouses - signs of Islamic-based modesty.

The Justice and Spirituality Movement is banned from politics but provides social aid and education to the poor. Thousands of its members demonstrated against the family law in 2003. In 2005, Nadia Yassine was charged with contempt of "national sacred institutions" for favoring establishment of a republic in Morocco - a no-no under King Mohammed VI's rule. Her trial has been postponed repeatedly.

She contends that raising the marriage age ignores the reality that poverty, not Islamic macho domination, drives women to wed early in Morocco, where 40 percent of the people live in rural areas. Otherwise, undereducated girls turn to prostitution to support themselves, she says.

The secular demand to ban polygamy goes against Moroccan "identity," Yassine adds, noting that the Koran's tolerance for as many as four wives was, in fact, a limitation imposed on men who, before Islam, could have "hundreds."

"These other so-called feminists think only in terms of employment," she says. "It is also a woman's nature to have a maternal role, and they don't talk about that."

Any chance of Islamic-secular sisterhood between Idrissi and Yassine, given their common desire to improve the lot of women?

"Well, we don't really talk," Idrissi says.

"We wouldn't mind," Yassine says. "But they don't want to meet. They're afraid of us."

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