Society

Abortion Rights In Morocco - What Does Islam Say?

Morocco was among the first Arab and Muslim countries to approve the birth-control pill. Now women activists are fighting for the right to choose to have an abortion.

Women in Rabat
Women in Rabat
Charlotte Bozonnet

RABAT — Her voice is thick with emotion, the words flowing too fast. Aïcha (not her real name) finds it difficult to talk about herself, to tell her story. In 2012, the young woman was told she was pregnant, again. Her unemployed husband asked her to "get rid of it." The couple, who live in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, were already struggling to raise their three children.

She couldn't find a certified doctor who would agree to perform an abortion, and when she finally decided to turn to a black-market abortionist, she gave up on the idea "out of fear." Today, with her little boy on her lap, the mother of four, now even more burdened by everyday life’s difficulties, doesn’t conceal that she wished she'd had a choice.

A feminist umbrella group called The Dignity Spring has launched a new campaign calling for the decriminalization of abortion and the "right of women to self-determination."

In the media, inside parliamentary groups and associations, the debate is shaking Moroccan society like never before since King Mohammed VI hinted on March 16 that the law should be reformed to stem the tide of dangerous, underground abortions and make safe ones accessible.

Under current Moroccan law, abortion is forbidden, except if there’s a danger to the mother's life or health. Women who abort for other reasons than these risk between six months and two years in prison, and the doctors up to 20 years.

In 2013, gynecologist Aziz Lahlou was sentenced to 10 years in prison, later reduced to five years on appeal. His secretary, his nurse, his anesthesiologist, and even his cleaning lady were also jailed. Though it is severely punished by law, abortion is nevertheless a common reality. "Everybody knows it," says professor Chafik Chraibi, who in 2008 founded the Moroccan association Amlac to fight clandestine and often dangerous abortions.

Women in Rabat — Photo: Zakaria ElQotbi

Exposing a grim reality

Lahlou was the man who started it all. In May 2014, the then-chief at the maternity ward of Rabat's Orangers Hospital opened his department to French investigative journalists. Their report, broadcast the following December on French national television, showed women and young girls being rushed to the hospital after resorting to illegal and unsafe abortions. Soon after that, Lahlou lost his job. The story could have ended there if people hadn't started an online campaign to defend him. And the controversy kept growing until the king's recent announcement, "a historic day," Lahlou says, his voice breaking.

For 30 years, he was a direct witness to the tragedy of black-market abortions.

"With this report, I didn't want to damage Morocco's image but just to show what our daily life is like," he says. "These women arrive in the emergency room with hemorrhaging or infections because they aborted in ghastly conditions, young girls suffering from intoxication because they took whatever product." Not to mention those who show up in the hospital to ask for an abortion "like this 13-year-old victim of incest or another whose mental disease motivated her abuse," Lahlou says. "We can't do anything for them. The law doesn't let us. For a doctor, that's terrible."

According to the Amlac and its often disputed figures, there are between 600 and 800 illegal abortions performed every day in Morocco. "When you're rich, you fly to France and have your abortion safely," Lahlou says. "When you're middle-class, you can afford a doctor in Morocco," who will take the risk. But the poorest have no such choice. Those who can't afford the 300 to 1,500 euros turn to abortionists and their disastrous methods that include knitting needles, toxic plants and drugs.

No sex education

In the 1970s, Morocco was one of the first Arab and Muslim countries to legalize contraception. The pill is still available without prescription, and health centers distribute it for free to married women only, in theory, but in practice more widely. Since 2010, the morning-after pill has also been available. "The problem," says Chraibi, "is that there's no sexual education, no information, and many young girls are scared that their parents will find out they're on the pill."

Walking on the beach in Rabat — Photo: Funky Tee

Asma Lamrabet, a doctor who has been leading the Center for Women's Studies in Islam since 2011, says the debate shows the evolutions and contradictions of Moroccan society. It's a tricky task is to reinterpret the holy scriptures "from a feminine perspective," she says. "We've been told that Islam forbids abortion, but that's not true."

Lamrabet says she’s noticed a conservative evolution in Moroccan society in the last decade. "The society turned to religion as a shield from a Western world it sees as too indulgent. The consequence is that people prefer to bury their heads in the sand and ignore part of the reality."

Nouzha Skalli, a parliament member from the Party of Progress and Socialism, knows this reality only too well. "The average age to marry is 26 for women, 31 for men, but that for the first sexual intercourse is around 18 for both. How long are we going to continue with our ostrich-like approach?"

Their opponents defend "the right to life" and argue that softening the law would only lead to more abortions. But opinions inside the political parties aren't unanimous. Saadeddine El Othmani, the number two official in the ruling Justice and Development Party, favors legalizing abortion in the first seven weeks of pregnancy for cases of rape, incest and severe malformations. But, he admits, "it's my position, not that of the party."

The pro-legalization backers know their biggest challenge is to convince a divided public. "The society won’t accept total legalization," Chraibi says. "Moroccans aren't ready." But, he insists, "We have an historic opportunity to move things forward. Limiting the legislation to rape, incest or malformations will only solve 5% to 10% of the cases."

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Geopolitics

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3

-Analysis-

LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.


Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

commons.wikimedia.org

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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