- Samira Errazzouki
During the beginning of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco was often times described as a regional exception. Through the rise of the February 20 Movement, protests took place – however, unlike their Tunisian and Libyan counterparts, they never culminated into a popular movement that called for the downfall of the regime. This is largely due to King Mohammed VI's swift response to the demands for reform and announcement that a council, which he subsequently appointed himself, would draft a new constitution. The constitution itself was no radical document and did nothing to shift power away from the palace. Instead it put forth measures of liberalisation that introduced language pertaining to human rights, freedom of expression, as well as expanding the definition of ‘national identity’ to include the Amazigh and non-Muslim populations. Parallel to the political response to the February 20 Movement demands, it was also announced just weeks after the first protest that food subsidies and public wages would be increased. In conjunction, these measures collectively quelled what could have become a popular uprising. Additionally, while the regime's initial response to protests was largely peaceful, state violence, torture, and arbitrary arrests were common in the months that followed these measures, especially right before the draft constitution was released to the public for a nationwide referendum.
It remains, however, that a significant core of the February 20 Movement and a source of its momentum came from working-class women. Dubbed the ‘Moroccan Mohammed Bouazizi’ (Lalami 2011), it was the self-immolation of single mother Fadoua Laroui on 21 February 2011, the day after the February 20 Movement's first planned protest, that became a spark and mobilising force for thousands of Moroccans across the country. Throughout the duration of the movement, working-class women were publicly present in demonstrations and international media, as well as playing active roles behind the scenes. Moreover, it was the indirect involvement of working-class women, such as Fadoua Laroui, who had no direct association with the movement, that demonstrates how the policies of the entrenchedmakhzen (Arabic term used to denote the Moroccan authoritarian regime.) have marginalised working-class women. Spanning from the neoliberal economic policies to the personal status code law reforms, these measures drove working-class women to the margins of Moroccan society, triggering drastic responses such as Fadoua Laroui's self-immolation.
During May 2011, just a month before the draft constitution was made public, video footage circulated widely of riot police violently dispersing protests across the country, from Rabat to Casablanca, and other cities in the northern region. One particular video sparked outrage among Moroccans, where a police officer attacked a woman carrying a child in her arms with a truncheon in the working-class Casablanca suburb, Sbata. The violent attack against the woman was caught on video and disseminated across multiple social media platforms and stood as a testament to multiple issues.
This woman's presence stood as a threat to the state in multiple ways: she was, firstly, a woman; secondly, she was quite visibly a working-class woman; and thirdly, her presence in an anti-government protest was an expression of her dissent towards the political and economic order. Most importantly, as she stood there withstanding blows from police truncheons while holding a child, her public presence demonstrated a clear break from the norms of her prescribed class membership in Morocco. As a working-class woman living under an authoritarian system which has institutionalised state patriarchy through placing men at the central point when positioning women, her act of defiance strikes multiple levels of the status quo (Hatem 1987).
The symbolic nature of the police officer charging at her repeatedly resonated not just with members of the February 20 Movement but drew media attention and sympathisers from across the political spectrum. The act of a man violently projecting state authority upon a working-class woman protesting, inscribed gender into the social tensions that unfolded. What the video also illustrates is an example of just one of the entrenched hierarchical spectrums of power that cannot be broken down with mere constitutional reforms or minimal changes in subsidies and public wages – as the Moroccan regime attempted to implement in order to quell an uprising. For this reason, it is necessary to contextualise and revisit the plight of working-class Moroccan women.