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Ben Bouchtas Lalla Jmila : Genderizing Moroccos history of resistance

In the last century, the status of women in Morocco has evolved greatly: the country went from being under French protectorate, with conservative laws, to earning its freedom in 1956 after a long resistance in which women played an important role. Under the reign of King Hassan II, Moroccans lived under the lead years, threatened by jail, torture or exile if they dared opposing the power. Yet again, women were part of the resistance, and they paid a heavy price: many were raped in detention, although few were recognized for their courage. In the last decade though, new King Mohammed VI has introduced several reforms destined to liberalize the country and restore trust between the population and its government. One of his first moves was to call for a reform to the Mudawana, the Moroccan Family Law Code. This move led to intense debates on the role of women in a modern Muslim country: Feminist associations on one side called for a complete overhaul of the system, while religious groups opposed what they saw as an attempt against Islam. A reformed Mudawana was introduced in 2004, but years after it is still far from being universally accepted. The case of the Mudawana is very interesting because it occurs in a wider context of change, with the government pushing for reforms on economic, social and religious levels, but many question its efficiency to lead the country towards a more democratic and liberal system. Writer Zoubeir Ben Bouchta explores Moroccan womens struggle for recognition and freedom in his compelling play, Lalla Jmila, revealing a long history of resistance to the patriarchal system.

In 2004, feminist group Rseau espace de Citoyennet commissioned Ben Bouchta to write a play reflecting the lives of women in contemporary Morocco, at the same time as the new family code was introduced. The result, Lalla Jmila, set in Tangiers during the lead years, is a moving tale of two long lost sisters fleeing a repressive political system and patriarchal society, and find solace in each others company. Through those two women, called Lalla Jmila and Itto, we are introduced to decades of feminine resistance, of oppression, and of violence. At the same time, womanhood is presented as a subversive force, a positive energy through which the two sisters manage to survive and carve a space for themselves. The story takes place in Tangier during the lead years; Lalla Jmila has settled in a cave on the seaside, working as a spiritual healer and receiving women who have trouble finding a husband and conceiving. Her half sister Itto, whom she has never met, comes looking for her, after a traumatic experience: she has been arrested by the police and raped for taking part in student demonstrations, and is now ostracized by society. Both sisters have a long history of suffering at the hands of men: Lalla Jmila was raised by a violent step father, and was married by force to an old man,

while Ittos arrest is an incredibly traumatic experience: she is married off to her step brother in a fake ceremony, before being raped, and is subsequently abandoned by her fianc. At the same time, both women are resistants in their own way, and display strength and courage. Throughout the play, we are introduced to the stories of other women: a long history of feminine resistance is uncovered. Lalla Yennou for example, Ittos adopted mother, is a fqiha, a self-educated woman who organizes meetings in the hammam and writes songs criticizing the colonial powers. She teaches local women how to read and write, empowering them through education: she thus resists both on a political and a social level, fighting against both colonialism and patriarchy The play is divided in lightings, rather than acts, with each part focusing on a character or on locus. The setting of the play, Tangiers, plays such an important part in the play that it almost becomes a character. Ben Bouchta, himself a native of Tangiers, often features the city in his plays: Amine describes his work as placespecific material, and a theatrical articulation of the space of Tangier as a practiced place.( Amine, 2007: 167). In this play, the colonial history of the city under Spanish rule is mentioned several times, and the Mediterranean Sea, which Tangier overlooks, becomes a soothing element, used by Lalla Jmila in her spiritual rituals. Her cave on the seaside, as well as the Girls Rock, a mythical site, both have strong evocations: they represent a liminal, feminine space, devoted to natural energies, where Moroccan women can momentarily subvert deeply rooted patriarchal violence. (Amine, 2007: 168). The locus of the performance, played out mainly in this cave where Itto comes to look for her sister, is thus a crucial element of the story. The following lightings take us back and forth in time, describing Lalla Jmilas difficult childhood, Ittos arrest and rape, the resistance organized by Lalla YennouIt focuses on individual stories of Moroccan women trying to define a place for themselves in a patriarchal, men-centred environments. It thus uncovers a womens history, ignored by history books and by society; in Lalla Jmila on the opposite, those women are given a voice, a space to discuss their plight. Although it is not often acknowledged, resistant women like Lalla Yennou are a constant fixture in Moroccan history: there are countless accounts of women taking part in battles or having important roles in the political, social and spiritual life in various times in the past. From the beginning of colonization, women actively fought the settlers: A. Baker writes that women participated in active, even armed, resistance against the colonizers from the very beginning of the protectorate, especially Berber women in the Rif mountains, the Middle Atlas, and the Anti-Atlas and Sahara in the south (Baker, 1998: 18). She further says: What is striking in this brief summary of Moroccan womens roles in myth and history is the extent to which it provides direct precedents for womens activities in the nationalist movements and armed resistance (1998: 19). The women described in the play are thus far from being exceptions: they represent a long trend of politically active women, who invested all parts of society.

Lalla Jmila is very successful in juxtaposing several generations of women, resisting both colonialism and patriarchy. Through the stories shared by the two sisters, we discover a history of oppression, imposed both by the patriarchal system and the Spanish and French colonizers. Women thus suffer a double discrimination: they become colonized subjects, and although they have active roles in the resistance and are often tortured and raped for their involvement, they dont gain a heroic resistant status. Their actions are dismissed as simple help, although they risk their lives for their cause. Furthermore, when they come out of jail, they are often rejected by society: it is not acceptable for a woman to become a resistant. This injustice is highlighted in the play, when Ittos fianc ElMehdi abandons her, under pressure from his mother: A prison, my son, is for men, she says, and later If a woman enters a prison, she remains in it (Ben Bouchta, 2007:66). This dialogue between this mother and her son is very revealing because although she seems to be proud of her sons involvement in resistance, she cannot accept a daughter-in-law such as Itto: she is thus, as a woman, reproducing gender discrimination upon other women. She thus makes it clear that although women also suffered from political oppression, both under colonialism and later under the lead years, it is not acceptable for them to speak out and participate in any kind of resistance: a womans place is in her house. Amine writes that the performance unlocks histories of Moroccan sexual politics within an extreme situation marked by colonial hegemony on the one hand, and the deeply rooted local patriarchal mindset on the other hand (Amine, 2007: 168). Women are thus stuck in an impossible situation: from neither side are they able to find relief and confort. The play also demonstrates the cruelty with which women daring to challenge mens authority were punished: in several part, the women describe the abuse they have suffered at the hands of their fathers, brothers or the police. A telling event is when Lalla Jmila and her mother are obliged by her step father BaHaddo to thread thorns bare feet, as a punishment for going to the protests organized by Lalla Yennou. Demonstrating the movements in a sort of dance, she sings Thorns have grown in the heart, so we, threshed all of it, feet are bleeding, and the well has dried (Bouchta, 2007: 38). The forced marriage scene, in which BaHaddo marries off young Lalla Jmila to an old man who already has three wives, leads to an interesting subversion of masculine symbols: the young woman dresses up as a man to escape her marriage unrecognized, and realizing that life is much easier under her disguise, she decides to live as a man, taking up work in a new city. After this comic episode, in which Lalla Jmila is forced to abandon her new life because her employers daughter is falling in love with her, the story of younger Itto appears very tragic, on several levels. The rape of Itto, also recreated on stage and leading her to faint after a hysterical fit, is probably the climax of the play, a very powerful scene through which Itto tries to exorcise her demons. Encouraged by Lalla Jmila, she recalls the events, and the travesty of wedding that took place, marrying her to

her half brother Ould Lglassa. The rape is highly symbolic: what worse could be done to a woman, especially in a society in which a womans chastity is so sacred? Amine writes that it is the ultimate evil that can be inflicted upon the female body, particularly in a strict Muslim society such as Morocco where the loss of virginity or, even worse, being spurned as a wife, is considered great shame and disgrace.(Amine, 2007: 171). It could be read as a metaphor for the constant humiliation of women at the hands of men, which is constantly ignored by the state: in fact, in this scene, it is the state that is responsible for the rape, since it is a form of secret police that obliges Ould Lglassa to commit incest and rape his sister. What is striking in Lalla Jmila is the generational conflict that emerges between the various women mentioned, who belong to different eras. The strategies they use to resist are very different, and sometimes conflicting: Lalla Yennou emancipates women through education, encouraging them to take their place in public and political life. On the other side, Lalla Jmila attitude is much more personal: she doesnt resist the patriarchal system directly, but works around it, by establishing herself at the periphery of society, and by subverting masculine codes, as she does when she dresses up as a man. There is also here an important gap between the two sisters: Itto is younger, educated, and desperately unable to accept her fate; Lalla Jmila on the other side, is from a very simple, rural background, but the years have made her wiser. While Itto is dedicated to change, Lalla Jmila has accepted her position and has earned a status through her activity as a spiritual healer, gaining the respect of the local women. Several times she tries to advice her younger sister, teaching her that a woman also is winged; she only needs to know how to fly (Ben Bouchta, 2007: 69), but Itto belongs to a generation of women who cannot settle in traditional gender roles anymore, especially after being given responsibilities as a resistant: as she jumps into the sea at the end of the play, she says I am tired of sleeping; today I want to soar (Ben Bouchta, 2007: 82).

Ben Bouchtas account of Ittos story is especially important in the current context, in which the years of human rights abuse under Hassan II are being reviewed and investigated. Lalla Jmila is one of the first texts to explore the plight of resistant women during the lead years, which is often ignored. When King Mohammed VI took the power in 1999 after the death of his father, he set up the Equity and Reconciliation Commission, a unique move destined to shed light on the decades of human rights violation under the reign of his father, during which many men and women were tortured, exiled, or simply disappeared. Victims of those abuses were then invited to speak out and were offered compensation, although the perpetuators were never named nor prosecuted. Few women however have obtained the recognition of their status as former political detainee, although they

were submitted to the same treatment as men, made worse by rapes and sexual harassment. The testimony of Itto is thus crucial as it gives us a gendered history of the lead years: when men would leave the jails and be hailed by the public as brave heroes of the resistance, the womens courage was never recognized, and they were rejected by society. Ittos story highlights this injustice, as well as exposes the psychological implications of her detainment and rape: several times she breaks down, constantly repeating that her rapist has escaped with the bird and stunted her (Ben Bouchta, 2007:79). For her, theres no possibility to get closure: because of her ordeal, she lost her sanity, her fianc and her place in society; she sees no other escape than death. Lalla Jmila thus gives a voice to generations of women whose struggle went unnoticed and dismissed as insignificant. In fact, Barker notes that, postIndependence, the only women who got some real benefits from the new government were the widows of martyrs (Barker, 1998: 34). The women who actively took part in the fight for freedom had hoped for some kind of recognition, or for womens rights to be made a priority, but their hopes were squashed. In the recent years since Mohamed VI came into power, this injustice seems to be repeated: the Reconciliation Commission has largely omitted the sufferings and tortures to which women were subjected during the lead years. There has been a huge failure in post-colonial Morocco to ensure justice and democracy to its citizens, and although a first step has been made by the launch of the Commission, the play highlights its shortcomings and limitations. Ironically, Itto is arrested by a secret agent on Liberty Avenue: if the country has earned its freedom from French and Spanish colonialism, its citizens clearly havent: simply for taking part in student protest, Itto is raped and taken to jail. On many levels, as the play cleverly demonstrates, Independence didnt fulfil its promises: Moroccans, and women in particular, still lived under an oppressive regime.

Furthermore, the play highlights the plight of lone, unmarried women, cast out for refusing, or not being able to conform to the norm. The status of a woman without a man is hardly enviable, although the increase of women joining the workforce and living independently is slowly changing mentalities. Barker writes about the marginal status of women without men(Barker, 1998:10), and their struggle to provide for themselves and their family. Although the reformed Mudawana tries to make women more independent, the very high level of unemployment and poverty has in fact obliged them to rely on mens work more than before. Zvan Elliott addresses this important problem by stating that no reform to the status of women can be successful without being accompanied by wider reforms, writing an allencompassing economic and educational reform has to go hand in hand with social changes (Zvan Elliott, 2009: 213). In the play, Lalla Jmila survives on the outskirts of the city, living in a cave and presumably fed by what her customers bring her as payment and gifts. Itto, although more educated and for an urban background, is

also unable to lead a life as a single woman: having lost her fianc and raised by fqiha Lalla Yennou, thus without the protection of a father, she is suddenly ostracized from society and left without any means of survival. Both are living precarious lives in a fragile environment, vulnerable to abuse and violence from the authorities and wider society. The part in which Lalla Jmila describes her life under a mans disguise is particularly striking, as she describes her happiness at being able to travel on her own, walk with her head high, and be respected as a human being. Although she travels alone and has no relatives, arriving in a city where she is completely unknown, she is quickly offered work, a shelter, and a woman to marry. By contrast Itto, when returning to her city after her ordeal, is immediately suspected and rejected. This discrepancy between genders was replicated in the Mudawana up to very recently, since it simply affirmed the existing patriarchal model: women issues were thus simply ignored, and women had little say in the political and social life of the country.

The first Mudawana was issued shortly after Independence, between 1957 and 1959, and as been reviewed a few times since, although only with very minor changes. Although Islam guarantees equality between men and women, In Moroccan family law, women are put in a position of inferiority, subject to men in the family (Barker, 1998: 30). However, one of the first moves of King Mohammed VI was to call for a review of Womens rights and changes to the Mudawana. After long debates, the new family Code was introduced in 2004, making changes to the laws concerning marriage, divorce and child custody. Notably, women are now able to ask for a divorce following an easier procedure, polygamy has been restricted, and children born from Moroccan women and foreign fathers can ask for Moroccan nationality. The new Mudawana is still, years after, highly controversial: feminist groups have criticized it for not being applicable in practice: no training has been provided for judges, and the majority of women actually ignore their new rights: there are important misconceptions about the changes. The Mudawana was received in the West as a liberalization of Morocco, a great step for womens rights, but the story on the ground is different: women for poorer backgrounds have less access to information and advice, and there are many misconceptions about what the new Code. Furthermore, corruption is common within the judicial system, making it harder for women to obtain justice, and the training for judges concerning the change has been inadequate: according to Zvan Elliott, some judges still refuse to carry it out(Zwan Elliott, 2009: 221). In the play, Lalla Jmila remembers her mother saying: Listen my daughter, the judge is a man and the convict is a woman(Ben Bouchta, 2007: 39), as if no justice was possible for women in a society dominated by men. As a whole, the Moroccan population is not satisfied by the new Code: the New York Times quotes a recent survey which found that 49 percent of respondents aid that the new Moudawana gave too many rights to

women (Erlanger & Mekhennet, 2009), showing that the new code is still far from being accepted, several years after its introduction. On the other side, many women are asking for more radical changes. Ben Bouchta s play also highlights the fact that legal changes are not enough for gender equality to be applied: when Itto is released from jail, she is rejected by the local people, prompting Lalla Jmila to say: They want to bury her before a judge and law. (Ben Bouchta, 2007:67). The new Mudawana encounters exactly the same issues: there are huge gaps between the laws and what is applied in practice: Changing the generally conservative mentality of Moroccans is a more daunting task than changing the law itself (Zwan Elliott, 2009: 221). One of the main criticisms against the new Mudawana is actually its inapplicability and inability to address real problems. Nadia Yassine, daughter of the influential leader Abdessalam Yassine of the Islamist party al Adl wal Ihsan, is quoted as saying in an interview: These reforms have been elaborated in response to the desires of foreigners and the feminist movement, but not to produce any real changes in womens lives(Yassine, 2004). The debates before and after the introduction of the Mudawana also revealed a rise of conservatism, from parts of society deeply opposed to the changes. On the other side, feminist movements are also unsatisfied by the changes: activist Khadijah Rouggany said They are insufficient, because their application is so problematic. There is no real infrastructure to enforce them, and no real education among the judges. Its a question of mentality (Rouggany, 2006). Attitudes have thus only superficially evolved since the time described in Ben Bouchtas play: society, and especially women, are still divided on the direction to take for their future. Although the introduction of the reformed Mudawana is an important first step, Morocco is still very far from achieving full gender equality: profound economic and social reforms are needed in order to give women more independence and self-reliance.

Ben Bouchtas play, commissioned to address issues related to womens status and the new family Code, is very successful in providing us with a background history of gender inequality and feminine resistance. In the current context, it is a precious account, both because it introduces several opinions and attitudes of women towards society, and also because it gives a voice to women like Itto whose struggle for freedom and equality were never acknowledged, neither when they were unfairly arrested, nor now, at a time when human abuse is under review. Lalla Jmila is probably one of Ben Bouchtas best plays, skilfully intertwining personal and political histories. The result is a deeply moving performance, centred around two long suffering women on a quest for self-acceptance and freedom. Lalla Jmila is also an excellent example of the current renewal of the Moroccan theatre scene: although it has been considered to be in crisis for decades, it is gradually introducing new talents, both writers and directors. The protagonists of this young generation of theatre-makers are generally highly aware of the social and political

issues occupying the country, produce works that are very aware of their context, and invite us to reflect and debate around various issues. Ben Bouchta is probably one of the most talented writers of this dynamic movement, having already received several prices for his work: he received a price for Best Text for Lalla Jmila at the 200 National Theatre festival. In a wider context of widespread reforms and liberalization, Lalla Jmila is an excellent example of a politically active piece of art, making us question current issues by linking personal narratives to political changes.

Bibliography: Amine, Khalid, 2007, Performing Gender on the Tremulous Moroccan Body, in The Drama Review, Vol. 51: 4, pp 167- 173 Baker, Alison, 1998, Voices of Resistance, State University of New York Press Ben Bouchta, Zoubeir, 2007, Lalla Jmila, translated by Mustapha Hilal Soussi, ICPS Erlanger & Mekhennet, 2009, Family Code gets nudge, but women seek a push , in the New York Times, 18/09/2009 Rouggany, Khadijah, 2006, quoted in Kramer, J., The Crusader: Letter from Morocco, The New Yorker Yassine, Nadia, 2004, Interview published in Tremlett Zvan Elliott, Katja, 2009, Reforming the Moroccan Personal Status Code: A revolution for Whom? in Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 14: 2, pp213-227