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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 women’s struggle for recognition and freedom in his compelling play, “Lalla J’mila”, revealing a long history of resistance to the patriarchal system.
In 2004, feminist group Réseau espace de Citoyenneté 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 J’mila”, 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 other’s company. Through those two women, called Lalla J’mila 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 J’mila 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 J’mila was raised by a violent step father, and was married by force to an old man,
The following lightings take us back and forth in time. She teaches local women how to read and write. Throughout the play. before being raped. feminine space. as well as the Girls’ Rock. is a fqiha. At the same time. Baker writes that “ women participated in active. The setting of the play. and display strength and courage. 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. those women are given a voice. men-centred environments. especially Berber women in the Rif mountains. a self-educated woman who organizes meetings in the hammam and writes songs criticizing the colonial powers. both have strong evocations: they represent a liminal. a space to discuss their plight. 2007: 167). resistance against the colonizers from the very beginning of the protectorate. social and spiritual life in various times in the past. is thus a crucial element of the story. The women described in the play are thus far from being exceptions: they represent a long trend of politically active women. It thus uncovers a ‘women’s history’.while Itto’s arrest is an incredibly traumatic experience: she is married off to her step brother in a fake ceremony. devoted to natural energies. often features the city in his plays: Amine describes his work as “placespecific material”. rather than acts. women actively fought the settlers: A. where “Moroccan women can momentarily subvert deeply rooted patriarchal violence. 1998: 18). who invested all parts of society. She further says: “What is striking in this brief summary of Moroccan women’s roles in myth and history is the extent to which it provides direct precedents for women’s activities in the nationalist movements and armed resistance” (1998: 19). Her cave on the seaside. the colonial history of the city under Spanish rule is mentioned several times. with each part focusing on a character or on locus. From the beginning of colonization. and a “theatrical articulation of the space of Tangier as a practiced place. the resistance organized by Lalla Yennou…It focuses on individual stories of Moroccan women trying to define a place for themselves in a patriarchal. In this play. and is subsequently abandoned by her fiancé. describing Lalla J’mila’s difficult childhood. becomes a soothing element. the Middle Atlas. in “Lalla J’mila” on the opposite. Tangiers. The locus of the performance. Although it is not often acknowledged. played out mainly in this cave where Itto comes to look for her sister. plays such an important part in the play that it almost becomes a character. which Tangier overlooks. ignored by history books and by society. Itto’s adopted mother. even armed. 2007: 168). a mythical site. we are introduced to the stories of other women: a long history of feminine resistance is uncovered. Itto’s arrest and rape.( Amine. himself a native of Tangiers. . Ben Bouchta. Lalla Yennou for example. fighting against both colonialism and patriarchy The play is divided in “lightings”. both women are resistant’s in their own way.” (Amine. and the Anti-Atlas and Sahara in the south” (Baker. used by Lalla J’mila in her spiritual rituals. and the Mediterranean Sea. empowering them through education: she thus resists both on a political and a social level.
also recreated on stage and leading her to faint after a hysterical fit. and realizing that life is much easier under her disguise. threshed all of it. she says. as a punishment for going to the protests organized by Lalla Yennou. both under colonialism and later under the lead years. is probably the climax of the play. they are often rejected by society: it is not acceptable for a woman to become a resistant. Furthermore. feet are bleeding. Encouraged by Lalla J’mila. The rape of Itto. 2007: 168). and the deeply rooted local patriarchal mindset on the other hand” (Amine. The forced marriage scene. under pressure from his mother: “A prison. reproducing gender discrimination upon other women. she remains in it” (Ben Bouchta. leads to an interesting subversion of masculine symbols: the young woman dresses up as a man to escape her marriage unrecognized. on several levels. the women describe the abuse they have suffered at the hands of their fathers. Amine writes that the performance “unlocks histories of Moroccan sexual politics within an extreme situation marked by colonial hegemony on the one hand. A telling event is when Lalla J’mila and her mother are obliged by her step father Ba’Haddo to thread thorns bare feet. so we. in which Lalla J’mila is forced to abandon her new life because her employer’s daughter is falling in love with her. This injustice is highlighted in the play. and the well has dried” (Bouchta. and although they have active roles in the resistance and are often tortured and raped for their involvement. marrying her to . The play also demonstrates the cruelty with which women daring to challenge men’s authority were punished: in several part. she sings “Thorns have grown in the heart. 2007: 38). the story of younger Itto appears very tragic. and the travesty of wedding that took place. is for men”. She thus makes it clear that although women also suffered from political oppression. she decides to live as a man. when they come out of jail. in which Ba’Haddo marries off young Lalla J’mila to an old man who already has three wives. imposed both by the patriarchal system and the Spanish and French colonizers. we discover a history of oppression. when Itto’s fiancé El’Mehdi abandons her. This dialogue between this mother and her son is very revealing because although she seems to be proud of her son’s involvement in resistance.“Lalla J’mila” is very successful in juxtaposing several generations of women. 2007:66). and later “If a woman enters a prison. a very powerful scene through which Itto tries to exorcise her demons. although they risk their lives for their cause. brothers or the police. Women are thus stuck in an impossible situation: from neither side are they able to find relief and confort. Their actions are dismissed as simple help. resisting both colonialism and patriarchy. Demonstrating the movements in a sort of dance. she recalls the events. Through the stories shared by the two sisters. as a woman. my son. After this comic episode. taking up work in a new city. she cannot accept a daughter-in-law such as Itto: she is thus. it is not acceptable for them to speak out and participate in any kind of resistance: a woman’s place is in her house. they don’t gain a heroic ‘resistant’ status. Women thus suffer a double discrimination: they become colonized subjects.
her half brother Ould Lglassa. teaching her that “a woman also is winged. 2007: 171). during which many men and women were tortured. There is also here an important gap between the two sisters: Itto is younger. educated. gaining the respect of the local women. although they . particularly in a strict Muslim society such as Morocco where the loss of virginity or. who belong to different eras. What is striking in “Lalla J’mila” is the generational conflict that emerges between the various women mentioned. Ben Bouchta’s account of Itto’s story is especially important in the current context. but Itto belongs to a generation of women who cannot settle in traditional gender roles anymore. encouraging them to take their place in public and political life. he set up the Equity and Reconciliation Commission. she only needs to know how to fly” (Ben Bouchta. and sometimes conflicting: Lalla Yennou emancipates women through education. and by subverting masculine codes. and desperately unable to accept her fate. even worse. Victims of those abuses were then invited to speak out and were offered compensation. Several times she tries to advice her younger sister. Few women however have obtained the recognition of their status as former political detainee. Lalla J’mila on the other side. especially after being given responsibilities as a resistant: as she jumps into the sea at the end of the play. but the years have made her wiser. as she does when she dresses up as a man. especially in a society in which a woman’s chastity is so sacred? Amine writes that it is “the ultimate evil that can be inflicted upon the female body. being spurned as a wife. although the perpetuators were never named nor prosecuted. today I want to soar” (Ben Bouchta. which is often ignored. by establishing herself at the periphery of society. 2007: 69). 2007: 82). since it is a form of “secret police” that obliges Ould Lglassa to commit incest and rape his sister.”(Amine. While Itto is dedicated to change. or simply disappeared. Lalla J’mila has accepted her position and has earned a status through her activity as a spiritual healer. The rape is highly symbolic: what worse could be done to a woman. in which the years of human rights abuse under Hassan II are being reviewed and investigated. On the other side. is considered great shame and disgrace. but works around it. it is the state that is responsible for the rape. a unique move destined to shed light on the decades of human rights violation under the reign of his father. in this scene. which is constantly ignored by the state: in fact. rural background. exiled. “Lalla J’mila” is one of the first texts to explore the plight of resistant women during the lead years. It could be read as a metaphor for the constant humiliation of women at the hands of men. The strategies they use to resist are very different. Lalla J’mila attitude is much more personal: she doesn’t resist the patriarchal system directly. she says “I am tired of sleeping. is from a very simple. When King Mohammed VI took the power in 1999 after the death of his father.
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. although more educated and for an urban background. Itto. and their struggle to provide for themselves and their family. its citizens clearly haven’t: simply for taking part in student protest. Itto is raped and taken to jail. as the play cleverly demonstrates. For her. The women who actively took part in the fight for freedom had hoped for some kind of recognition.were submitted to the same treatment as men. but their hopes were squashed. Independence didn’t fulfil its promises: Moroccans. unmarried women. the women’s courage was never recognized. Ironically. postIndependence. Barker notes that. Barker writes about the “marginal status of women without men”(Barker. There has been a huge failure in post-colonial Morocco to ensure justice and democracy to its citizens. 2007:79). made worse by rapes and sexual harassment. she lost her sanity. Lalla J’mila survives on the outskirts of the city. she sees no other escape than death. or for women’s rights to be made a priority. Itto’s story highlights this injustice. as well as exposes the psychological implications of her detainment and rape: several times she breaks down. and although a first step has been made by the launch of the Commission. 2009: 213). In the recent years since Mohamed VI came into power. “ the only women who got some real benefits from the new government were the widows of martyrs” (Barker. the play highlights the plight of lone. and women in particular. “Lalla J’mila” thus gives a voice to generations of women whose struggle went unnoticed and dismissed as insignificant. In fact. On many levels. living in a cave and presumably fed by what her customers bring her as payment and gifts. there’s no possibility to get closure: because of her ordeal. 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. cast out for refusing. 1998:10). although the increase of women joining the workforce and living independently is slowly changing mentalities. In the play. Furthermore. her fiancé and her place in society. Itto is arrested by a secret agent on “Liberty Avenue”: if the country has earned its freedom from French and Spanish colonialism. Although the reformed Mudawana tries to make women more independent. The status of a “woman without a man” is hardly enviable. or not being able to conform to the norm. 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. the very high level of unemployment and poverty has in fact obliged them to rely on men’s work more than before. 1998: 34). constantly repeating that her rapist has “escaped with the bird and stunted her” (Ben Bouchta. and they were rejected by society. is . writing “an allencompassing economic and educational reform has to go hand in hand with social changes” (Zvan Elliott. the play highlights its shortcomings and limitations. still lived under an oppressive regime.
walk with her head high. as if no justice was possible for women in a society dominated by men. highly controversial: feminist groups have criticized it for not being applicable in practice: no training has been provided for judges. Furthermore. is immediately suspected and rejected. corruption is common within the judicial system. the new family Code was introduced in 2004. Notably. Although Islam guarantees equality between men and women. and women had little say in the political and social life of the country. she is quickly offered work. polygamy has been restricted. The part in which Lalla J’mila describes her life under a man’s disguise is particularly striking. divorce and child custody. making it harder for women to obtain justice. she is suddenly ostracized from society and left without any means of survival. 2009: 221). although only with very minor changes. as she describes her happiness at being able to travel on her own. and there are many misconceptions about what the new Code. After long debates. and a woman to marry. but the story on the ground is different: women for poorer backgrounds have less access to information and advice. since it simply affirmed the existing patriarchal model: women issues were thus simply ignored. the judge is a man and the convict is a woman”(Ben Bouchta. years after. a great step for women’s rights. The Mudawana was received in the West as a liberalization of Morocco. In the play. The new Mudawana is still. making changes to the laws concerning marriage. As a whole. thus without the protection of a father. subject to men in the family” (Barker. 1998: 30). some judges “still refuse to carry it out”(Zwan Elliott. when returning to her city after her ordeal. This discrepancy between genders was replicated in the Mudawana up to very recently. The first Mudawana was issued shortly after Independence. one of the first moves of King Mohammed VI was to call for a review of Women’s rights and changes to the Mudawana. vulnerable to abuse and violence from the authorities and wider society. and children born from Moroccan women and foreign fathers can ask for Moroccan nationality. Both are living precarious lives in a fragile environment. However. a shelter. arriving in a city where she is completely unknown. between 1957 and 1959. and the majority of women actually ignore their new rights: there are important misconceptions about the changes. and the training for judges concerning the change has been inadequate: according to Zvan Elliott. By contrast Itto.also unable to lead a life as a single woman: having lost her fiancé and raised by fqiha Lalla Yennou. women are put in a position of inferiority. Lalla J’mila remembers her mother saying: “Listen my daughter. 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 . Although she travels alone and has no relatives. and as been reviewed a few times since. women are now able to ask for a divorce following an easier procedure. “In Moroccan family law. and be respected as a human being. 2007: 39).
The debates before and after the introduction of the Mudawana also revealed a rise of conservatism. many women are asking for more radical changes. and especially women. Nadia Yassine. The result is a deeply moving performance. and also because it gives a voice to women like Itto whose struggle for freedom and equality were never acknowledged. Although the introduction of the reformed Mudawana is an important first step. but not to produce any real changes in women’s lives”(Yassine. 2009). There is no real infrastructure to enforce them. it is a precious account. One of the main criticisms against the new Mudawana is actually its inapplicability and inability to address real problems.” (Ben Bouchta. prompting Lalla J’mila to say: “ They want to bury her before a judge and law. at a time when human abuse is under review. it is gradually introducing new talents. both because it introduces several opinions and attitudes of women towards society. Attitudes have thus only superficially evolved since the time described in Ben Bouchta’s play: society. showing that the new code is still far from being accepted. The protagonists of this young generation of theatre-makers are generally highly aware of the social and political . neither when they were unfairly arrested. skilfully intertwining personal and political histories. On the other side. 2004). commissioned to address issues related to women’s status and the new family Code. 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. feminist movements are also unsatisfied by the changes: activist Khadijah Rouggany said “ They are insufficient.women” (Erlanger & Mekhennet. In the current context. are still divided on the direction to take for their future. daughter of the influential leader Abdessalam Yassine of the Islamist party al ’Adl wal Ihsan. nor now. 2007:67). centred around two long suffering women on a quest for self-acceptance and freedom. It’s a question of mentality” (Rouggany. 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. she is rejected by the local people. Ben Bouchta’s play. and no real education among the judges. from parts of society deeply opposed to the 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. 2009: 221). both writers and directors. 2006). Lalla J’mila is probably one of Ben Bouchta’s best plays. because their application is so problematic. several years after its introduction. On the other side. is very successful in providing us with a background history of gender inequality and feminine resistance. is quoted as saying in an interview: “These reforms have been elaborated in response to the desires of foreigners and the feminist movement. Lalla J’mila 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.
14: 2. Vol. 2007. Alison. pp213-227 . but women seek a push . The New Yorker Yassine. 51: 4. 2009.173 Baker. Ben Bouchta is probably one of the most talented writers of this dynamic movement. translated by Mustapha Hilal Soussi. and invite us to reflect and debate around various issues. Family Code gets nudge. Katja. Khadijah..issues occupying the country. 2007. 18/09/2009 Rouggany. Performing Gender on the Tremulous Moroccan Body. Voices of Resistance. The Crusader: Letter from Morocco. Interview published in Tremlett Zvan Elliott. State University of New York Press Ben Bouchta. quoted in Kramer. Vol. Bibliography: Amine. Zoubeir. Reforming the Moroccan Personal Status Code: A revolution for Whom? in Mediterranean Politics. pp 167. 2009. having already received several prices for his work: he received a price for Best Text for “Lalla J’mila” at the 200 National Theatre festival. J. Nadia. produce works that are very aware of their context. Khalid. ICPS Erlanger & Mekhennet. In a wider context of widespread reforms and liberalization. 2006. in The Drama Review. 1998. making us question current issues by linking personal narratives to political changes. “Lalla J’mila” is an excellent example of a politically active piece of art. Lalla J’mila. in the New York Times. 2004.
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