by LAURIE MOY
Professor Loubna Skalli-Hanna is not a typical Moroccan woman. But then again, she did not come from a typical Moroccan family.
In the traditional Muslim society of Morocco in the 1950s, Skalli-Hanna’s home life was somewhat untraditional. Her grandmother shed the requisite veil, dressed like a man, and snuck out to restaurants. Her parents were also determined that their daughters would be educated.
Photo provided by Loubna Skalli-Hanna
“I grew up hearing: ‘Look, a man comes afterwards, don’t make that your priority. Get your degrees first,’ ” Skalli-Hanna said from her office at American University, where she teaches courses in Women and Development and Cross Cultural Communications.
It was her family that first planted the seed of feminism in her.
“My grandmother did not know how to read, she did not know how to write, but for me, she was the most outspoken feminist I know,” Skalli-Hanna said. She was “very brave, very dignified, not aggressive about her rights, but made sure that her rights were respected.”
It was not until she was an adult that Skalli-Hanna really started studying feminism while getting her master’s in England in 1984. Her first graduate paper was a comparison of feminist readings of the Koran and the Bible.
“I think I had to get that out of my system. I had to confront my own demons, to dare to question what was sacred,” she said. From that moment on she has been involved in women’s issues, regardless of what she studied.
But Skalli-Hanna is careful to define what feminism is. There are many misconceptions about what it means to open up society for women’s full participation. One common misconception is rooted in Moroccan culture.
“I feel like the biggest challenge for Moroccan women is convincing the Moroccan men that empowering women is not disempowering men.”
It is the responsibility of non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, and even educated women to find the right language and approach to win the masses, she said.
“Feminism is not a war,” she said. Instead, it is the development of partnerships between men and women to better the living conditions of the family, the community and the nation.
Another false impression that hinders the development of women’s rights is rooted in American society.
“It is very unfortunate that the knowledge [Moroccan women] get about American women comes from soap operas…Hollywood misrepresents America, point blank,” she said.
The portrayal of women in the United States as beautiful, wealthy and materialistic, with little respect or values, hurts not only the women in America, but it also hinders the women’s movement in Morocco, she said.
“If that is the image of women’s liberation—f that is the image of women’s emancipation and progress—then they don’t want it. That’s not what we want to get at. We don’t want our women running around the beaches, semi-naked…we don’t want that, we have other values,” she said.
The women’s movement in Morocco is making gains, she said. In 2004, a new family law was passed that recognized equality between men and women and protected family and children’s rights. And while changing the law was a huge achievement and triumph for the women’s movement, it is just the beginning, Skalli-Hanna said.
The challenge now is to keep up the momentum of reform.
Moroccan women also need to understand the law, she said. Even educated women do not generally understand legal text—something Skalli-Hanna refers to as “legal illiteracy.”
But actual illiteracy is even more of a problem as 90 percent of rural women cannot read or write, she said. The literacy rate is higher in urban centers with the help of emerging publishing groups.
In her book Through A Local Prism: Gender, Globalization and Identity in Moroccan Women’s Magazines, she examines the vibrant media landscape in Morocco. She was the first to interview magazine producers, editors and journalists, as well as Moroccan readers, both male and female.
“In many ways it was exploratory, and it was really fascinating to me,” she said.