Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 10 May 2011 14.00 BST
Left in the shadows ... women in Morocco want constitutional reform to bring gender equality at every level of the law. Photograph: Abdelhak Senna/Getty
The number on the corrugated iron door is 184. It belongs to the first house in the shanty town beside the road leading out of Kenitra, about 40
km north of Rabat, Morocco. Saddia Znaïdi, a divorcee, lives here with her five children including her eldest daughter, married and a mother. The mattresses are stacked against a wall and the beaten-earth yard is awash with water spilt while the family was washing on this chilly March morning. At some distance we can hear the thunder of fighter-jet engines warming up on the nearby airbase.
Znaïdi is a Soulaliyate, a member of one of the ethnic groups with a stake in Morocco's commons, or "collective lands". She is one of the women battling tradition and male greed, which are depriving them of any form of inheritance. For the past three years they have been campaigning as the Soulaliyate Women's Movement to obtain compensation. Retrospectively they were one of the forerunners of the wave of social and political protest that has shaken Morocco since February, forcing King Mohammed VI to promise constitutional reform.
"The women's organisations launched the democratic process in our country by engaging for the first time in proper two-sided debate," says Amina Lotfi, the head of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM). "With reform of the constitution, equality between men and women must now become part of the law at every level." The ad hoc committee convened in March by the king to discuss reform completed its hearings of political parties and trade unions in April. Some 30 women's organisations gathered to form the Feminist Movement for Democracy and Equality and have a say in the process.
The Soulaliyates, who were sidelined during reform of family law in 2004, are waiting nervously. They belong to Morocco's 4,631 tribes, amounting to about 10 million people. The tribes are governed by laws that go back to before the introduction of Islam to Morocco in the seventh century. Under these rules they are not entitled to own land, with tenure passing from father to son.
The sharing out of an inheritance is decided by an assembly of delegates, under state supervision. A royal decree issued in April 1919 transferred overall responsibility for land held by ethnic groups to the interior ministry. Although in theory such lands can neither be seized nor sold, they can in practice be transferred, but only to men over 16 (except in areas under irrigation).
The women's predicament deteriorated further in the 1990s when the sale of land was authorised. Collective property was sold to local authorities for a pittance, then resold to developers who promptly pushed up prices, sometimes selling property for 60 times its original price. In exchange the men were given a home or financial compensation. On the other hand, women who had no male descendants and were divorced, widowed or married to an outsider – a Moroccan belonging to another tribe – could do nothing to avoid being expropriated. Many were forced to move to one of the shanty towns adjoining former collective lands. Adding insult to injury, some resettlement schemes enable outsiders living in a shanty town to purchase a 60-square-metre plot for $2,400.
The division of the spoils in Kenitra, the country's fourth-largest industrial centre, is abundantly clear. Overlooking the airbase are properly built homes for the well-off, then red-brick houses, still unfinished, for those who have been resettled, and finally off to one side a collection of shacks made of corrugated iron and cardboard, occupied by dispossessed Soulaliyate women.
The Soulaliyate Women's Movement was Rkia Bellot's idea. Now retired, she used to work at the finance ministry and is married to an outsider, a soldier. She too belongs to the Haddada tribe and has no chance of an inheritance. "I have eight brothers. I'm the only one not to have received anything when our father died and the discrimination got even worse when they started selling land as compensation or handing out plots for building," she explains, in tears.
She was particularly upset by the humiliation she suffered when she tried to stand up for her rights. "The male members of the tribe said: 'You're just a woman', and when I appealed to the officials, they told me I didn't have 'the requisite status', which is exactly the same thing, in more diplomatic terms," Bellot adds.
The first demonstration in 2007 was a surprise for many Moroccans, who knew nothing about the Soulaliyates and less still about their rules on inheritance. But the Soulaliyates have a growing audience. On 20 March demonstrations were held all over Morocco with thousands of people in the streets, despite a speech by the king announcing constitutional reform. But Bellot was not marching. She was typing out manifestos on her computer.