Women and the Right to Land in Morocco: The Sulaliyyates Movement

By Zakia Salime, Rutgers University

*This essay was prepared for the Women and gender in Middle East politics workshop, March 11, 2016.

“They destroyed my shack and called me crazy.” “Where do I go now?” “I have nowhere to go.” These fragments of a life account reached us through a YouTube video recorded with a cell phone camera of a bystander as Fadwa Laroui set herself on fire on February 21, 2011. Laroui, the 25-year-old single mother of two, immolated herself in front of the town hall of Souk Sebt, a small town in central Morocco, to protest her exclusion from a social housing project. After demolishing the shack in which she lived with her two children and parents, the town hall denied her access to a plot of land she had formerly been promised, as a part of state sponsored relocation project. Laroui, the first woman to immolate herself in the Arab region in the midst of the Arab Spring, confronted the state bureaucracy and laws regarding urban marginality, land distribution and displacement. Though Laroui was not part of a formalized movement, her last scream resonated in a context in which women’s mobilization for land rights and housing reached a tipping point in Morocco. Rural women, known as Sulaliyyates, are at the forefront of struggles over land rights, housing, and political representation in Morocco.

Politics, Agency and Identity

No women’s movement has marked the political debate in Morocco, after the North African uprisings as much as the Sulaliyyates. The term Sulaliyyates derives from the Arabic root, sulala (ethnic genealogy). It refers to “tribal” women, from both Arabic and Tamazight speaking collectivities that are demanding an equal share compared to men, when their land is privatized or divided. In Morocco, the term al-aradi al-sulaliyya, points to a dominant mode of land tenure in which members of an “ethnic” collectivity hold communal rights on the land they inhabit and/or exploit. Although communal land could in the past neither be seized nor sold, it could be transferred from fathers to sons over the age of sixteen. According to hegemonic understanding of ,‘urf (customary law), women can only benefit through male relatives. Unmarried women, widows, divorcees — and those with no sons — often face expropriation and become destitute. Many end up living in slums surrounding their communal land.

The marginal status of women with regard to land tenure does not reflect the importance of their labor force and knowledge in farming. Women’s labor represents 50.6 percent of agricultural production in Morocco; of these women, 92 percent are involved in farming.[1] Therefore, women’s lack of access to land is certainly the most challenging facet of rural poverty, and the biggest obstacle to sustainable development in the countryside. The urgency to liberalize larger portions of the rural economy through land privatization and division, put land at the heart of political struggles over competing notions of development and rights.

Postcolonial Legacy and Neoliberal Encounters

Morocco became a French Protectorate in 1912. The 1919 Decree transferred overall responsibility for communal land from tribal authorities to the state, facilitating its appropriation by French settlers and inclusion into capitalist modes of production.[2] In order to control land transactions, the independent state kept the same structures established by the French colonial regime and instituted committees of nuwabs (male representatives), to speak on behalf of their rural communities. It also created an office inside the Ministry of Interior, majlis al wissaya, a Tutelary Council to centralize decision making, supervise transactions, treat disputes, and distribute compensations. Other mediations take place at the local level in town halls, city and rural councils, all involving a large network of male-centered interest, profit and privilege. From selected constituencies in the 1960s, the nuwabs have become the inescapable brokers, and gatekeepers, while remaining key to all the transactions around privatization, land distribution and monetary compensation. Notably missing are the Sulaliyyates.

Competition among nation states over the global investment map put land at the forefront of economic transactions. In the 1990s, the World Bank-mandated privatization policies accelerated the liberalization of land and the uniformity of legal frameworks regulating various modes of land tenure.[3] Morocco signed the Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2004 and won advanced status as an economic partner of the European Union in October 2008. Land acquisition is the means through which Free Trade Zones, touristic activities, and real estate development materialize. Communal land is thus a gold mine, and covers about 42 percent of Morocco’s land, as is held collectively by tribes.

The Mobilization

The Sulaliyyates movement is the first nationwide grassroots mobilization for land rights led by rural women in contemporary Morocco. The movement puts communal land at the heart of struggles over economic liberalization, development projects, and political representation. The Sulaliyyates question the deep structures of corruption linked to the process of liberalization of land, the sexism embedded in the everyday exchange with state bureaucrats supervising land transactions, and the legacy of the colonial legal regime and customary practices that put tribal men at the center of these transactions, while excluding women. Their demands for equal rights for land and political representation underline the material struggles around land exploitation, the gendered underpinning of the laws regulating land tenure, and the social cost of privatization that dismiss women as holders of rights.

In March 2009, 500 Sulaliayyates — coming from all over the country — stood in front of the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat to attract media attention to their fight. It all started when in 2007 Rkia Bellout, a Sulaliayya from the Haddada tribe in the Kénitra region, questioned her exclusion from the transactions taking place on her ancestral land. She contacted several women’s organizations in Casablanca and Rabat, and succeeded to attract support from the ADFM, the Democratic Association for Moroccan Women. Thousands of women have since joined the ADFM as members, and have mobilized other women in their rural communities across the Arabic and Tamazight speaking regions. The Sulaliyyates want equal rights to access land by virtue of their kinship ties. They want the right to housing when the state changes their land into real estate, and claim equal monetary compensation when the state privatizes the land and bloc any transaction on the land when their names are not published on the lists of the rightful land holders established by men.

Towards Political Representation

In order for women to become visible as rightful land holders, lists and inventories of communal and familial land must be produced. As members of declared tribal configurations, many Sulaliyyates never envisioned themselves as individual political agents, and most have delegated to male relatives the right to manage their livelihood. Listing all the women who have land rights in a particular collectivity may sound simple, but it is not. First, it requires getting women to meeting places and training them in basic writing before, finally, convincing them to put their names on a list that will become public.

Despite women’s involvement in local farming economies, their fear of state institutions, the stigmatization by family members, and their distress about possible alienation in their own communities, slows down this process in several parts of the country. These are real fears. Because of their precarious economic position, women cannot afford to lose the imagined support of a brother, upset a husband, or compete with a son over land rights. Many fear or have been subjected to retaliation, sometimes in violent ways. By allowing their names added to a public list of women claiming land rights, these women stand on opposite sides of male — and even female family members — who mobilize ‘urf (custom) to justify the women’s illegibility to claims over land.

The second most challenging aspect of the Sulaliyyates’ mobilization is the struggle over political representation in the nuwab’s committees. Being elected is not the issue; most of the well-known Sulaliyyates leaders are now respected by women and men in their rural communities. However, the struggle stems from having to engage with local bureaucrats who may approve or reject the presence of women in committees traditionally reserved to men, and who are in most cases, still reluctant to give women their rights. To many women, getting elected to these committees requires engaging with the rules of the political game and financial bargains — which can be challenging for women who have had such limited education that they don’t feel comfortable reading or writing.

As the Moroccan parliament is still failing to implement the gender quotas set in the 2011 Moroccan Constitution, women farmers are trying to implement their quota in rural communities. In Mehdia for instance — the region that triggered the Sulaliyyates movement — has reached the 50 percent quota. Rkia Bellout, the founder of the Sulaliyyates movement, is part of committee of twelve nuwab, half of which are women. When I visited various parts of Morocco in the summer of 2015, other Sulaliyyates were mobilizing and campaigning for quotas in their own nuwab councils, disrupting decades of male predominance.

Argumentation and Gains

The 2004 Family Code remains the main staple of King Mohamed VI’s reign. The new code gave women nearly equal rights with men in marriage, divorce, and child custody. It also gave them equality within family units. Furthermore, the 2011 amended constitution stipulates those rights, and points to gender quotas as a goal. Rural poverty and urban precarity are also stated goals through various programs, including the 2005 National Human Development Initiative (INDH) and the 2004 City Without Slums. They are showcases of the king’s declared desire to create wider access to resources and address redistribution. The Sulaliyyates case is a real challenge, however, to this vision.

The language of rights, poverty reduction, and gender equality is instrumental in the Sulaliyyates movement. Trained by the ADFM members, providing with basic legal literacy, the Sulaliyyates specifically use state language to refer to equality and poverty alleviation. This is a rejection of any reference to the Islamic inheritance laws, and instead a use of the secular language of gender justice and equality already sanctioned by Morocco.

In early responses to their mobilization, the minister of interior issued the 2009 Ministerial Circular to the Governor of the province of Kénitra, asking him to allow women to be listed as land right holders.[4] In November 2009, 792 women from Qasbat Mehdia (in Kénitra) received money leftover from previous transactions with the men of Qasbat Mehdia. Their land was already transferred in a massive government industrialization project to create of a new international port in Kénitra /Mehdia. The symbolic nature of this compensation disrupted the dismissal of women as individual economic agents.

Faced with women’s persistent and growing mobilization, the 2010 Ministerial Circular encouraged all governors across Morocco to consider only lists of land rights beneficiaries if women were also listed. And in March 2012, another circular raised more questions about the process of listing and allocation of resources. While these circulars are not to be taken for laws, they still gave the Sulaliyyates enough leverage for their demands. Their sustained mobilization for rights — despite entrenched interests of state officials, urban representatives and rural elites — points to both the potential and the limitations of policies and decisions that do not disentangle the nexuses of power, and the layers of mediations and profit obstructing poor women’s access to rights and property in the neoliberal era.

Zakia Salime is an Associate Professor at Rutgers University.


[1] Asmae Alaoui Chahid : ‘’Application de la dimension genre au secteur de l’agriculture.’’ Accessed March 29, 2016. https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=Asmae+ALAOUI+CHAHID+%2F+MADRPM%2FDERD Asmae ALAOUI CHAHID / MADRPM/DERD

[2] Bouderbala, Negib. 1996. “Les terres collectives du Maroc dans la première période du protectorat (1912-1930)”. Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée. 79-80: 143-156

[3] World Bank. 2008. Marchés Fonciers Pour la croissance Economique au Maroc. Volume 1- “Héritages et Structure Foncières au Maroc”. Accessed June 30, 2015. http://documents.banquemondiale.org/curated/fr/2008/05/11091110/maroc-marches-fonciers-pour-la-croissance-economique-au-maroc-vol-1-5-heritage-structures-foncieres-au-maroc

[4] For text of the government circulars mentioned in this memo, please refer to the official website of collective land: http://www.terrescollectives.ma/.

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