Originally posted May 2010

The concepts of “justice,” “equity,” “democracy,” and “identity” are more and more recurrent in the Euro-Mediterranean and global rhetoric on migration; yet, these are very seldom applied with a gender dimension in mind. This is a serious deficiency in a region where power is unbalanced not only among countries but also among sexes. Identity is a matter of choice - a choice that is linked to the freedom to choose. In general, women have less freedom to choose because more women than men are poor, illiterate, and culturally marginalized. In a world where political and economic events are moving faster everyday with the advent of globalization, it is urgently necessary to take gender issues into consideration when dealing with migration. A gender approach to migration can help to foster a “win-win” approach to North/South migration. In this essay I focus on Morocco and deal with two relevant aspects: 1) the overall situation of women in Morocco and 2) the ways to achieve a “win-win” approach to migration.

The Overall Situation of Women in Morocco

Moroccan culture is characterized by a gendered superstructure. The larger factors that influence gender perception and gender role assignment are linked to the social organization where women are largely disadvantaged. But these women do not constitute a socially homogeneous group. The social variables that explain Moroccan women’s heterogeneity are: 1) geographical origin, 2) class, 3) educational level, 4) job opportunities, 5) language skills, and 6) marital status.[1] These variables are obtained on the basis of social oppositions and have a direct influence on gender perception, political awareness, self-awareness, independence, critical assessment, and fashioning modes of resistance. Social variables carry significant social meanings and attest to the fact that in Moroccan society, women are not given the same social choices. The choices given to women depend on their positioning within each social variable: urban, rich, educated, working, married women have more social choices in Moroccan society than rural, poor, non-working, illiterate, and unmarried women.

The biggest problem facing Moroccan women is illiteracy, a fact attested statistically and sociologically. Statistically, women constitute the largest illiterate portion of the Moroccan population. The illiteracy rate among Moroccan women in general is 60%[2] (48% in urban areas and 95% in rural areas).[3] The rural population represents around 48.6% of the Moroccan population according to the latest official statistics.[4] About 37% of girls attend school. The percentage of women who are economically active is 27%.[5] This figure applies to formal employment which is why it is fairly low in world terms. These data are good for showing the nature of social change. Sociologically, women’s illiteracy is basically due to their low-income socioeconomic status. Moroccan women’s illiteracy is also a result of a trans-cultural inequality whereby men’s educational achievement is privileged over women’s. Morocco’s illiterate women are aware of this condition of subordination and resent it, but the patriarchy has offered them few alternatives.

Illiteracy is prevalent in both cities and rural areas, but it is in the latter where it is most blatant. In the Moroccan countryside, access to education is not always easy for girls, as they are less likely to be permitted to travel to school (even on foot or by public transport) or to attend public boarding schools, especially in rural, mountainous, and semi-desert areas. Illiteracy excludes a large portion of Moroccan women, especially in rural areas, from positions of decision-making, the written media, and similarly powerful domains.

Given these facts, men benefit more than women from the positive aspects of migration, such as resources, enterprise, housing, investments, and education. Women, on the other hand, are hit harder by negative aspects of migration, such as the disintegration of the family nucleus and traditions, poverty, and illiteracy.

In the case of very young couples, it is often the case that women push their husbands to emigrate in the hope of joining them later. Such young wives are often left behind with the husband’s family which is assumed to “keep an eye” on them. It is often the case that the parents-in-law assume full control of the remittances sent by the emigrant husband. The first phases of marriage are often phases where the struggle between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law over ‘control’ of the husband is at its highest. In the case of older wives with children, the wife usually benefits from the remittances if she lives in an urban area, a fact which gives her a new function in the family: the management of financial resources. Thus, the migrant’s remittances increase the direct resources available in different ways and according to the status of the woman in the family.

Another type of migration which has an effect on women is circulatory migration. This particular migration includes the return of migrants or their descendants during holidays. These circulatory migrants have had a complex effect on young women in Morocco since the 1980s. In fact, while their “motivating” effect is very apparent (young and less young Moroccans are impressed by the cars and other commodities they bring), the Islamophobia which characterizes the milieus in which they live in Europe has the effect of importing increasingly conservative views of Islam. In other words, the fact that these migrants approve of the veil and Islamic practices contributes to making religion more conservative in the country. As a result, the apparent “emancipator” aspect of the female migrants does not always coincide with feminist ideals in Morocco.

Moroccan women who migrate also experience the negative impact of migration. In addition to those who migrate to join their husbands or other family members, more and more single women are migrating. Female migration must always have existed alongside male migration, although no official figures relating to it are available. It is important to note in this respect that the Moroccan national media (TV, newspapers, etc.) occasionally report that one or more young Moroccan women are among the dead when small boats carrying clandestine migrants from Morocco to Spain sink. These women are, in general, very young, unemployed, and single. Further, the media also reports on the abominable conditions of clandestine migrants and shows pictures of young men and women living in shantytowns around agricultural areas in Spain. The women who spoke to the reporters often said that they migrated because they wanted to support their aging parents and younger siblings. Research in this particular area is sorely needed.

Ways of Achieving a Win-Win Approach to Moroccan Migration

Win-win strategies are of two types: those that relate to migration and those that deal more with the “superstructure” of gender relations.

Win-Win Strategies Related to Migration

The win-win strategies that relate to migration mainly include calling upon the media to provide documentation. There is a real deadlock at the level of mentalities on both sides of the Mediterranean and the media is still party-affiliated and largely perceived as male public space in this region of the world. As a result, women are not, generally speaking, depicted as agents. They neither own the media nor are they decision-makers in it. All this translates into the fact that women migrants are still neglected.

Offering more documentation on the interface between women and migration in Morocco is important. It promotes communication between the two shores of the Mediterranean Sea and informs researchers and policymakers of the places where the problems exist and suggests ways to address these problems. There is indeed a terrible lack of information on this topic in the sending and receiving countries. This renders the problems associated with migration more complex and the remedies more complicated. These may be obtained through the creation of mobile units and agents of development to implement field work.

Another issue that the media needs to address is religion in its relation to migration. More work is needed on images of Islam, women and Islam, Islam and human rights, and gender and human rights.

Win-Win Strategies Related to the “Superstructure” of Gender Relations

Giving voice to all women broadens their choices and democratizes approaches to alleviate the problems of migration. The illiteracy problem needs to be considered. For example, we need more use of TV as a means to reach all women, especially the illiterate. All women, especially those who are illiterate (who happen to be the poorest), need to have access to useful information. Radio and TV commentaries, sketches, and comedies can be helpful. Also badly needed is documentation in the field of women, migration, and the media.


The gender dimension cannot and should not be omitted from any serious analysis of migration in the Mediterranean region. Integrating gender issues into such analysis can help pave the way for ameliorating some of the migration-related and deeper structural problems in the Mediterranean region.

[1]. See Fatima Sadiqi, Women, Gender, and Language in Morocco (Leiden and Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003).


[2]. Cf. Bureau des Statistiques, Rabat, Morocco, 1999.


[3]. Cf. Bureau des Statistiques, Rabat, 1994.


[4]. Cf. Bureau des Statistiques, Rabat, 1994.


[5]. International Labour Organization, Key Indicators of the Labour Market, 2008.