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Women’s rights have improved in North Africa, but the struggle continues

By Maro Youssef, Meriem Aissa, and Suzie Abdou

It has been a decade since the Arab Spring uprisings and the subsequent calls for reform that resonated across North Africa and the Middle East. But how has life changed for women in the Maghreb in the years since?

In efforts to answer that question, we used survey data, field observations and interviews with women’s rights organisations and political parties to paint a clear picture of women’s rights in the region. Here’s what we found.

Algerian women take to the streets

Algeria is known for women’s participation as combatants in the War of Independence, which began in 1954 and ended with the nation’s independence in 1962.

But despite women’s efforts, in 1984 the state adopted a conservative family code that restricted their rights: requiring a male marriage guardian, barring Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, and restricting grounds for divorce for women.

Despite these challenges, however, women continued to resist – and have in recent years marked important milestones.

After Algeria adopted a gender quota to increase women’s political participation, women were in 2012 elected to 31.6% of the seats in parliament – the highest representation in the Arab world at the time. Currently, women hold 26% of seats in parliament.

Three years later, the nation adopted a comprehensive law prohibiting violence against women. Yet such violence continues to be a problem – and has worsened since the global COVID-19 pandemic, leading prominent Algerian actresses to launch a campaign against feminicides in October 2020.

Then when Algeria witnessed the start of a historic revolution in February 2019, women’s and youth participation were particularly notable. For more than a year, large protests took place across the country – including on 8 March 2019 and on the same day in 2020, when thousands of Algerian women from all sectors of society participated in demonstrations in celebration of International Women’s Day.

A new Moroccan feminism

In Morocco, the women’s movement was a key player in the 2004 family law reforms, which granted women the rights to self-guardianship, to divorce, and to child custody.

Moroccan women were also instrumental during the country’s 2011 mass protests, which became known as the ‘20 February Movement’. This movement produced a new form of feminism, which calls for democratic reforms pertaining to all Moroccans.

It was thanks in part to these feminists, that in 2019, after ten years of fighting for their rights, rural Soulalyat women – who are often poor, unskilled and uneducated – won equal access to communal land. The women had mobilised to form groups to confront their tribes and local authorities, and some have since been appointed to the boards of such land.

Another major legislative change brought about by women was the 2014 amendment to Article 475 of the Penal Code, which allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.

Other recent legal gains for women include the raising of the minimum marriage age to 18; a law granting a woman the ability to divorce her husband in case of violence; and another requiring a man to have the permission of his first wife to marry a second woman, which has reduced polygamy.

But even now, many laws passed in support of women’s rights are not implemented by the courts or enforced by the police – and there’s a lack of political will by the Islamist government to follow Article 19 of the constitution, which states: “The man and the woman enjoy, in equality, the rights and freedoms of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and environmental character.”

Inheritance reform remains a key concern for feminists, with daughters currently entitled to inherit half of what their male relatives receive. Rape is still categorised as public indecency and marital rape is still not recognised as a crime.

What’s more, the country still has a long way to go on political representation. Only one woman minister was appointed after the 2011 elections that followed the 20 February Movement. But while women make up only 12% of local government, their numbers in parliament rose to 21% in the 2016 elections, up from 17% in 2011.

In Tunisia, women drive gender reform

No country in the region has made as many advances in women’s rights in the past decade as Tunisia. Women activists have worked closely with politicians to pass progressive gender reforms and served as watchdogs throughout the democratic transition. But many of them remain deeply concerned about potential backsliding on their rights.

Women were at the forefront of Tunisia’s revolution in 2010-11. Since then, they have been increasingly active in civil society and created between 183 and 300 new women’s organisations – including Islamists for the first time. (Before the revolution there were just two secularist organisations.)

Tunisian women activists pressured the state to commit to legal reform and provided input on all gender-related legislation especially the constitution and electoral quotas.

In 2011, Tunisia passed a gender quota that required political parties to alternate between women and men on their candidate lists. As a result, the same year, women secured 27% of seats in the constitutional drafting body, which helped women secularist activists and previously marginalised Islamists enter politics.

To further increase women’s presence in politics, Tunisia also passed one of the most progressive gender parity laws in the world in 2018, which requires political parties to alternate between women and men (vertical parity), but also requires that half of party lists are led by women (horizontal equality). As a result, women held 47% of seats in local assemblies after the 2018 local elections. After the 2019 legislative elections, women now hold 25% of seats in the national legislature.

In addition to gender quotas, in 2014 Tunisia passed one of the most progressive constitutions in the region, ensuring gender equality. Three years later it also passed Organic Law No. 58, which recognises marital rape and political violence.

Despite historical gains, the fight is not over. Women continue to suffer from violence, especially since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and street harassment and domestic violence have also both increased since the revolution.

Political violence has also worsened, especially during elections, particularly against secularists who speak out about women’s rights, such as the politician Bochra Belhaj Hmida, gender studies professor Amel Grami, and former spokesperson for the Presidency Saida Garrache.

Secularist activists are also concerned about inheritance inequality. In 2018, President Beji Caid Essebsi presented parliament with a draft inheritance law that gives families the right to choose between the existing inheritance law rooted in Islam or civil law, which would grant women equal inheritance.

Islamists reject the bill since it would divorce women’s inheritance from Islamic codes. Islamist party Ennahda called for a referendum and national dialogue instead of legal reform. This inheritance stalemate captures how women’s rights remain contested in Tunisia today.

The way forward

If Tunisia’s goal is to become a consolidated democracy, it must prevent backsliding on women’s rights and conservative backlash against women.

Both Tunisia and Algeria must fully implement their gender-based violence laws and take political violence against outspoken feminists and women politicians seriously. Morocco must implement and enforce recent legislations, otherwise any current or future legal reform will be nothing but a symbolic one.

Governments and civil society in the Maghreb have a responsibility to continue to educate all segments of the population on women’s rights. They must run comprehensive national awareness campaigns that include tribal leaders, community leaders and religious leaders – to reach all demographics. A diversity of partners lends legitimacy to a campaign and builds trust within communities.

Such campaigns can shift cultural and societal attitudes towards women. Governments and public education systems can work together with support from foreign donors, to reform education curricula in order to challenge gender norms. In this way, future generations can then transform their countries and families into more equitable structures.

Real change cannot be achieved with new laws alone, it requires practical implementation of all legal reforms by governments. It also requires the judiciary to prioritise appointing women judges to the higher courts, and especially those who practice ijtihad, or (re)interpretation of Islamic Jurisprudence. Ijtihad can increase women’s rights when it comes to issues based on Islam, including inheritance, polygamy and child marriage.

Protecting women also requires an increase in the number of women police officers or the establishment of units within the police that deal only with women’s safety. Foreign donors can support this through police or Ministry of Interior reform initiatives. This creates a safe space for women who suffer from domestic violence to come forward to report their abusers.

Despite these challenges, women will likely continue to draw on universal human rights standards and local and religious sources to fight for gender equality, whether it is within a monarchy or in a budding democracy.

This op-Ed was recently published in Opendemocracy.

Melissa Wilde on “Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion”

By: Katarina Huss

As the US approaches the 2020 presidential election and the Senate clashes over a new Supreme Court appointment, issues of reproductive justice are vitally important to US politics. Political conversations about reproductive rights are greatly influenced by religion, and religion seemingly has come to define conservative and progressive groups. However, even within religion, conservative and progressive religious groups are divided on issues of sex, gender, and reproductive rights. For religious groups that are progressive on issues related to reproductive justice, what does it mean to be progressive in conservative spaces? When and why did religious groups in America become divided on reproductive justice?

On October 1, Dr. Melissa Wilde, Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, posed these questions during her presentation for the UT Austin Department of Sociology’s Colloquium Series. During the colloquium, Dr. Wilde presented findings from her recently published book “Birth Control Battles: How Race and Class Divided American Religion.” The book examines the history of American religious liberalization on contraception in the 1930s and the effects of this liberalization. Through this research, Wilde demonstrates that despite the modern centering of women’s rights in the reproductive rights conversation, religious groups’ support for contraception was historically linked to white supremeist views on race and immigration. Wilde uses this research to urge sociologists to consider religion alongside inequality and social structures, a concept Wilde terms complex religion.

Below are a few takeaways from Dr. Wilde’s presentation:

1. Early religious liberalization on contraception was linked to religious group support for eugenics, fear of race suicide, and belief in the social gospel movement. Wilde studied 31 religious groups that composed 90% of American religious membership in the 1920s and found that nine religious groups broke from the existing religious consensus on contraception and liberalized their stance between 1929 and 1931. The liberalized groups did not have the highest birth rate nor was their memberships’ use of contraceptives a major religious concern prior to this moment. Half of the groups that liberalized were not feminist and not all of the progressive religious groups of the time period liberalized.

Through extensive archival research, Wilde found that the nine religious groups chose to liberalize due to racialized concerns. At the time of liberalization, there was a large birth rate differential between native white women and immigrant women, specifically Catholic and Jewish women. While many religious groups were concerned about the birth rate differential and race in America, Wilde argues the nine early liberalizers all supported eugenics, feared race suicide, and believed in the social gospel movement. The combination of all three elements explains why only the nine groups were part of early liberalization.

Wilde explains that at the time of liberalization, the American Eugenics Society promoted the idea that Americans could “engineer” a better race by encouraging desirable parents to have children and discouraging undesirables from having children. Eugenicist groups in America were pursuing policy that forced involuntary sterilization of Catholic women as a strategy to limit Catholic births. The eugenicists soon realized they could not get the legislation to sterilize every Catholic woman. Eugenicists turned to contraception as a way of discouraging “undesirable” women from having more children.

Supporting eugenics alone was not enough to prompt religious groups to change their stance on contraception. In addition to eugenics, some religious groups feared that native white women were not having enough children to support their population, thus creating race suicide. Wilde found documents stating that “every marriage must have a minimum of three children to fulfill social obligation to maintain the population.” Among groups that believed in both race suicide and eugenics, liberalization on contraception seemed to be a way to limit birth for some women rather than convincing congregations to have more children. In addition to eugenics and race suicide, the religious groups that were early liberalizers also believed in the social gospel movement. This movement, broadly, believed it was the duty of all Christians to decrease class inequality. Gospelers saw contraceptives as a way to alleviate poverty for poor immigrants. The theory easily merged with ideas about eugenics and race suicide.

Based on this understanding, Wilde broadly sorted religious groups during the time of early liberalization into four categories: early liberalizers, silent supporters, critics, and the silent, based on their belief in eugenics, race suicide, and the social gospel movement. Early liberalizers, the nine that liberalized by 1931, all supported eugenics, feared race suicide, and believed in social gospel. These beliefs explain why the groups would choose to liberalize on contraceptives. Wilde classifies religious groups that believed in the social gospel movement but did not fear race suicide as silent supporters of liberalization. These groups never officially liberalized but supported the decision. Religious groups that did not believe in the social gospel and did not fear race suicide were critics of liberalization. Finally, religious groups that did not fear race suicide, but believed in the social gospel movement were silent. These groups were reluctant to identify the racism implicit in the social gospel movement.

Wilde’s findings show how religion is historically connected to issues of race and class in America so profoundly that the history of contraceptive liberalization is explained by eugenics, race suicide, and the social gospel movement, all of which are racialized perspectives on society.

2. Later religious group liberalization on contraception was still informed by racialized beliefs, but the early liberalizers are distinct from later liberalizing groups. After World War II, there was less conversation around liberalizing contraception in religious groups and a shift away from eugenics. Some other religious groups that did not liberalize maintained that it was not their place as religious institutions to endorse or recommend contraceptives. Wilde found that religious groups that chose to liberalize on contraception after WWII, especially in the 1960s, were still informed by racialized ideas about demographics. However, these religious groups were more concerned about population explosion outside of the US. The groups focused on the necessity for contraception in “third world” countries. This further supports Wilde’s claims about religion and race and class in America, but there is also a difference, even in modern politics between these later liberalizers and the nine early liberalizers. There is a lasting legacy for early liberalizers in the U.S. The early liberalizers and their unofficial supporters, as classified by Wilde’s research, are the religious progressives of modern politics. Wilde states that the United Church of Christ, for example, advocates for contraception as a right and has been advocating for contraception in the U.S. for nearly a century. It is significant that these groups remain the seeming progressive religious groups in conservative spaces on topics of sex, gender, and reproductive rights. It is also important that while we understand them as progressive, there is a history of these progressive religious groups that is not about women’s rights or justice.

3. Religion should not be taken for granted as a social fact. Rather, sociologists must recognize the ways religion is linked to race and class.
Wilde’s book and other research makes an important contribution to the field of sociology. Wilde argues, as a sociologist of religion, that religion has been taken for granted as a social fact and sociologists have misunderstood how it still intersects with class and religion. Wilde’s research suggests that complex religion reveals the effects of religion on sex, gender, and politics. Complex religion recognizes the way that religious institutions are intertwined with inequality and intersect with social structures of race and class. As Wilde’s research exemplifies, religion is historically linked to whiteness and class in America and remains highly segregated. She argues that religion can be used as proxy for class in America, and in different historical contexts religion can be either whitening or darkening for religious and ethnic groups in America. She argues that the importance of her research is in how it theoretically highlights an understanding of religion as it intersects with class and race in ways that are important to modern politics. The research does not necessarily map onto all modern religious debates about reproductive rights and religion, but it should exemplify the important role that religion still plays in the US and how religion is connected to other issues in society.

Katarina Huss is a graduate student in the UT Austin Sociology Department

Rashawn Ray on Bad Apples and Rotten Trees in Policing

By Derek Sandoval, UT Austin Sociology Graduate Program

Popular police reform often takes the form of body worn cameras and implicit bias training. These strategies focus on the individual, with the implication that there are just a few bad apples in need of reformation. However, these reforms fail to address the rotten tree—the very institution of policing—that produces the fruit.

Through his research, Dr. Rashawn Ray, Professor of Sociology and Executive Director of the Lab for Applied Social Science Research at the University of Maryland at College Park and a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution, indicates the shortcomings of such reforms and addresses the mechanisms tied to the core of policing that perpetuate racial and social inequality. Dr. Ray’s work also emphasizes the power of racial uplift activism and social policy to combat inequality.

On September 17, Dr. Ray presented his work, “Systematic Racism in Policing: How Bad Apples Come from Rotten Trees” for the UT Austin Department of Sociology’s Colloquium Series. Within his presentation, Dr. Ray discussed the evolution of #BlackLivesMatter, racializing the criminal justice system, the social psychology of criminalization, police views on BLM, his results from an extensive police-civilian body camera study, implicit bias and virtual reality decision-making training, and policies aimed to improve relationships between police and civilians.

Dr. Ray demonstrated that the police operate on split-second decision-making informed by biases regarding race, and a lack of communication from the dispatcher. He reminded us of the immense impact social media has in exposing police brutality and state-sanctioned violence against Black people to the public and how it motivated mobilization through protests and policy advocacy work. He warned us of the lack of accountability police departments face for their violence, and what can be done for a better future.

Below are just a few takeaways from Dr. Ray’s presentation:

  1. Social media analysis is crucial for studying social movements and effecting policy changes.

Dr. Ray stresses that the United States is currently experiencing not one, but two pandemics, the first being COVID-19, and the second, an awakening that, mostly white Americans, as many Black communities were already forced to confront this reality—are facing, as they are confronted with massive exposure to a hostile and racist society through the police and other forms of structural violence against Black communities: Racism in the United States is a problem. Social media such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc., are the primary vehicles that carry this exposure through images and videos and stories capturing state-sanctioned violence of the police that targets Black people and Black communities.

As police departments try to push their own narratives that herald law enforcement as the friendly neighborhood cop, social media can also reveal a different reality (cw: police brutality, gunshots, injuries, violence against minors). Similarly, social media shows the work of activists, protests across the nation, and the formation of a collective identity, such as the growth from #BlackLivesMatter to the social movement of Black Lives Matter. And if utilized correctly, that exposure and identity can open a policy window. That is, as these issues come to the eye of the public, policy solutions can be attempted with majority public support.

2. Police departments are not held accountable for their violence.

There are no fiscal consequences for police departments after an “officer-involved shooting”—a term deployed after an officer shoots a civilian (Durán, 2016). In fact, qualified immunity makes it difficult to hold police legally responsible for many of their misdeeds (Fisher, 2020). Instead, cities use taxpayer money to pay for civil lawsuits against police departments (Ray, 2020). If the family of the deceased lived in the same city as the victim of police violence, that means that if they successfully sued the police department for the death of their family member, some part of that already small payout came out of their pockets.

Those funds that could be going to public libraries, public education, public works, or resources for low-income neighborhoods is instead used when law enforcement kills someone. The police are not held accountable, and do not have an incentive to hold themselves accountable for their actions.

3. Changes aimed at individual officers are ineffective.

Implicit bias training is often suggested in police reform. It is implemented with the goal that officers will recognize and manage their unconscious racial biases through education and discussion (Lee Jackson, 2018). After conducting thorough investigations with the Lab for Applied Social Science Research through leading implicit bias training courses with approximately 2,500 police officers, however, Dr. Ray suggested that officers do not recognize their own prejudices through implicit bias training. And after putting officers through 90 virtual reality scenarios, Dr. Ray concluded that while we can control for explicit bias, implicit bias will remain.

Similarly, Dr. Ray found that body cameras may be ineffective. While the desire of body cameras revolves around accountability, regulations vary, and access to the general public is limited (Ray, 2020; Ray, Marsh, & Powelson, 2017). What do body cameras and implicit bias training have in common? They’re both solutions that attempt to change the individual officer’s behavior, rather than addressing the structure and culture of policing. The goal then becomes to reform the rotten apple, rather than to toss rotten fruit. Or, perhaps, even uproot the rotten tree that produced the fruit (McDowell, & Fernandez, 2018).

Dr. Ray emphasized the importance of action. He works toward policy advocacy and reform, yet doesn’t discourage abolition. Rather, he pointed out in the Q&A portion of the presentation, as abolition is pursued, policies can be as well. Many of these policies are based around increasing accountability for police departments, such as restructuring the civilian payout process in instances of police misconduct from taxpayer money to police departments, and firing police officers who abuse their power.

In a time of two pandemics, in which technology has laid bare to the nation the clear and precedent threat that is the police, Dr. Ray’s presentation is a necessary reminder of what the police are, what we cannot do to change them, and perhaps, how we can begin to hold them accountable.


Durán, R. (2016). NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE: Examining Controversial Officer Involved Shootings. Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, 13(1), 61-83. doi:10.1017/S1742058X16000059

Fisher, J. M. (2020). Shoot at Me Once: Shame on You! Shoot at Me Twice: Qualified Immunity. Qualified Immunity Applies Where Police Target Innocent Bystanders. Mercer Law Review, 71(4), 1171–1190.

Lee Jackson, J. (2018). The Non-Performativity of Implicit Bias Training. Radical Teacher, 112, 46–54.

McDowell, M. G., and Fernandez, L. A. (2018). ‘Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition. Critical Criminology, 26(3), 373–391.

Ray, R. (2020), Restructuring Civilian Payouts for Police Misconduct. Social Forum, 35: 806-812. doi:10.1111/socf.12618

Ray, R., Marsh, K., and Powelson, C. (2017). “Can Cameras Stop the Killings? Racial Differences in Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Body‐Worn Cameras in Police Encounters.” Sociological Forum 32: S1: 1032–1050.