Moroccan Women’s Integration of Family and Religion

Donna Lee Bowen

Donna Lee Bowen, “Moroccan Women’s Integration of Family and Religion,” in Mormons and Muslims: Spiritual Foundations and Modern Manifestations, ed. Spencer J. Palmer (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University 2002), 195–203.

Donna Lee Bowen was a professor of political science and Middle East studies at Brigham Young University when this was published. A graduate of the University of Utah with a BA in political science, she received her MA and PhD in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from the University of Chicago. Professor Bowen has conducted research in Morocco, Tunisia, Iran, and Egypt under the auspices of the Ford Foundation, a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship, Bourguiba Institute of Modern Languages, and NDFL Title VI Language Fellowships. Her research and publications have concentrated on aspects of women and family planning in Middle Eastern countries.

My view of Muslim women came as I sat with them, talked with them, and shared their generous hospitality and happy humor in the Middle East and North Africa. Specifically I have drawn my material from Morocco. I seek to make two points: First, that although the Muslim family system is somewhat different from that to which we are accustomed in the West, it is nevertheless a coherent system. Moreover, women work, are cared for, and are valued as an integral part of that system. Although the system may be discriminatory in parts, as all systems generally are, as a whole all pieces fit well together. Second, within the Muslim context, for most women the family is their working ground for the application of their religion. Therefore, what is beneficial for the family is of necessity good for Islam because Islam safeguards the welfare of the family and of its members. Women perceive their role in society as being ordained by Islam; they work within a Muslim context. Specifically they will define that which is Islamic as an action that benefits their relationship. An action which is not Islamic or opposed to Islam is an action that would harm their family.

It is important to realize that Islam is not simply a religion of prayer but rather is a way of life wherein every aspect of life is part of worship. Islam applies to every action, to areas of faith, that which is unseen, and to action, that which is seen. Thus the way one prays or calls to God is Islam; also the manner in which one washes before prayer is Islam. Fasting for Ramadan, tithing for the welfare of the poor, making contracts in business, dividing booty after war, marriage, raising a family—all are done in accordance with Islam.

Marriage is the basic contract organizing interpersonal relationships, and the family which results from the contract is the basic unit of the community. The Islamic community is constituted to safeguard the welfare of the family and of the society which arises from the association of numerous families. Each part of the family has an outlined role. The father is to provide sustenance for the family; the mother is to bear, raise, and educate the children. The children are to be obedient to their parents and to care for them in their old age. Each part of the family fits together as in a mosaic, and each familial role is equally important in the community.

A contrast to this is found in Western theory. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a thoughtful American feminist writing in the nineteenth century, took up the interests of women as separate from family interests. She examined marriage and family to determine why women in the United States were inherently unequal, why they did not have the right to vote, why they were not allowed to take their place in society beside men. She determined that the basic problem was that of the marriage relationship.

We are in the midst of a social revolution to determine whether man and woman are equal . . . or whether they were eternally ordained, one to be sovereign, the other slave . . .John Stuart Mill says the generality of the male sex cannot yet tolerate the idea of living with an equal at the fireside; and here is the secret of the opposition to woman’s equality in the state and the church-men are not ready to recognize it in the home. [1]

She also felt that organized religion was a prime instigator of the concept of man’s “headship,” and she worked to lessen the influence religion has on women. Close to the end of her life, in a speech entitled “The Solitude of the Self,” she emphasized the need for female individualism and self-reliance, the culmination of all her thought over a long period of concern with feminist issues:

The strongest reason for giving woman all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body . . . is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life. The strongest reason why we ask for woman a voice in the government under which she lives; in the religion she is asked to believe; equality in social life, where she is the chief factor; a place in the trades and professions, where she may earn her bread, is because of her birthright to self-sovereignty; because, as an individual she must rely upon herself, no matter how much women prefer to lean, to be protected and supported, nor how much men desire to have them do so. They must make the voyage of life alone. . . . Seeing, then, that life must ever be a march and a battle, that each soldier must be equipped for his own protection, it is the height of cruelty to rob the individual of a single natural right. [2]

While many Muslim women would not argue with Mrs. Stanton’s analysis, particularly with the fact that women are equal to men in the spheres outlined, they would phrase their own social and personal imperatives differently. Women need to be well-trained, educated, self-reliant, and able to take up places in public spheres as well as family spheres. However, women and family members share a relationship of mutual reciprocity whereby all share in a common cause, the well-being of their family. Thus, a family member sacrifices in one area to help someone else succeed in another. In fact, a common contemporary fear is that the Western processes of industrialization, secularization, and unrestrained capitalism assailing the Orient might corrupt their family life. They feel no desire for the Western family life as they see it.

In Islamic countries, Stanton’s phrase, to “make the voyage of life alone,” is not only unheard of but actually difficult to think of in a Muslim system. Being Muslim, you are part of a community of believers; and it is the purpose of the community, as set forth in the Qur’an, to make sure that every member of the community is provided for. Whether someone is old or young, male or female, he or she has a place within the system. To live separate from it is unimaginable.

In the West, we view certain practices of Islam in regard to women as discriminatory. For example, throughout the complicated and detailed laws on inheritance, wives and daughters are consistently allocated less than husbands and brothers. If a woman dies leaving children, the husband is entitled to one-fourth of her net estate. (A woman in Islam has the total right to her property to be held separately from the property of her husband.) If there are no children, the husband obtains one-half of the net estate. On the other hand, if the husband dies, the wife inherits one-eighth of the estate and one-fourth if there are no children. In the case of plural wives, they share one-eighth or one-fourth equally. If the parents die, sisters generally receive half as much as brothers. [3]

In the West, this would be a clear case of discrimination. However, in Muslim countries the larger context of Islamic law is designed to protect the woman’s welfare. It guarantees a larger share to her children or brothers, assuming that the sons or the woman’s family will continue to care for her. Thus within the context of the family relationship, the woman will be well taken care of. For example, to a Middle Easterner, the concept of a rest home or retirement community is literally foreign. Putting one’s mother, grandmother, grandfather, or old uncle or aunt into an institution far from the heart of the family is unheard of. It would be punishment, a cruelty, to so repay the years spent raising the younger generation.

Many parts of Islamic law are discriminatory. But when examined within its total social context, or within the historical context of legal development and social imperatives, much that seemed inexplicable is explained. The system when followed correctly ensures the welfare of both women and men by a series of elaborate checks, balances, and compromises. To pull pieces out of the system and examine them out of their context is both inaccurate and unfair.

Family law is a major concern of the larger body of Islamic law. Just as the method and times of prayer are discussed, marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws are all set out in the Islamic legal system comprised of the Qur’an, hadith literature, and the fiqh (jurisprudence) works. In the modern Middle East, personal status law or family law is the only shari’a (Islamic) law still in force, since adoption of Western codes and modifications has superseded other areas of traditional Islamic law. Family concerns are clearly discussed in legal theory. Accordingly, family matters are a legitimate area for theological and legal attention.

For women this point is especially pertinent. As the husband, children, and extended family constitute the major part of a woman’s life, the welfare of her family constitutes a major expression of religion for her in everyday life. This point became clear as I researched a project on health and family size in the south of Morocco. I worked with three other researchers in two villages in Tafilalet, located in an oasis river valley far from the urban centers of Morocco. Our purpose was to check the validity of demographic data gathered earlier and also to develop some attitudinal information on the questions of health, the use of health services, and family size. [4] My personal interest was in the area of family planning. I had come to Morocco to study attitudes toward family and religion and had found that the best way to learn about any concept was to examine a force that attacked it. I had interviewed professors, lay religious men, and religious scholars. I saw this research project as a chance to determine how village women felt about the same ideas. So I went into the village prepared to ask women about their families, about the children, and whether or not Islam would permit family planning for them.

We were received very hospitably in the two villages. In the first place, we arrived between two weddings and were the only event of major interest in the village that week. In the second, our questions proved so fascinating that the village women followed us from house to house to help their friends answer questions and discuss the infinitely fascinating topics of children, health, and religion. One of the first questions, after we ascertained the woman’s name and number of children, was her age. Time is often relative in the Middle East, and the village women’s ages proved to be relative as well. Most women would first giggle and indicate that that was an odd question of little import. Often the woman questioned would look at one of the observers and ask, “What did you tell her that you were?” The other would answer, “I told her that I was thirty-four.” “Oh, well,” the first would say, “if you’re thirty-four, then I’m thirty-two.” A third would then interject, “Oh, no, you’re not. You’re thirty-six, because you played with my sister, who is older than I am.” They would remind each other of forgotten miscarriages, ascertain children’s ages, and sometimes give us information on divorces and remarriages that the woman was too shy to give us. Soon the village information system opened wide, and they told us anything that entered their minds as well as what we wanted to know.

After the questions on children, family size and occupation, health conditions, and usage of the local public health services, I would ask my questions about family planning. Some women understood the term family planning; others had never heard about it. Most felt that it was theoretically a good concept, apt to be useful someday although they doubted they’d ever use it. Others, a small percentage, were currently taking birth control pills. Some others had used contraceptive measures in the past.

My final question was whether their religion permitted use of family planning. The answers I received were so diverse that it took me two years to systematize the women’s answers. Some women would answer, “Absolutely not. Islam has nothing to do with family planning. It is a threat to the family; it harms the family.” Other women would say, “If you’ll tell me what bus to take to the dispensary, I’ll go there tomorrow for some birth control pills. It is the best idea I’ve heard of. It means that I can recover from my last pregnancy without fear of becoming pregnant again, that I can recover some of my health.” For some people it meant hope; for others disaster. Some answered it in personal terms, others in religious.

I returned to the capital city, Rabat, and pored over the data. Finally I realized that the women who were against family planning and saw it as un-Islamic were women to whom any reduction of family size or the inability to have children threatened their position as wife and mother.

For example, one of the women that I interviewed was the wife of the religious leader of the village. Lalla Amira was a beautiful, healthy, vibrant woman thirty-four years old. She looked years younger and immeasurably healthier than her neighbors. She had been unable to have children. Although barrenness is accepted grounds for divorce, her husband had instead opened negotiations to take a younger wife. Evidently he was very dose to Lalla Amira, because he was educating her himself. When asked about the religious permissibility of family planning, Lalla Amira answered that it was totally un-Islamic, that it is forbidden to take medicine not to give birth. Her husband, when interviewed, held that contraception was forbidden by the prophet Muhammad in the Qur’an; Muslims must have many children.

Lalla Amira accompanied me to her neighbor, Hajja. Although slightly older than Lalla Amira, Hajja was small, thin, and sallow. Her six living children ranged in age from a twenty- year-old son to a two-year-old. Two children had died in infancy, and she had miscarried once. She showed interest as I explained the concept of family planning, and told me that she had been quite ill—hospitalized once for twenty days and again for two months. She felt her health was a major concern and that childbearing was out of the question at this point, although she wouldn’t mind having one more son. When I asked about the religious question she replied that if she were still strong it would be wrong to use contraceptives, but since she was weak, family planning was religiously justified.

Lalla Amira turned to Hajja and burst out, “Women should keep on having children as long as they are young enough, even if they are weak.” Hajja remonstrated, saying that if health doesn’t permit one to have more children, then using contraceptives shouldn’t be forbidden. Lalla Amira paused, confused, then retreated: “If the woman is weak, then she shouldn’t have to bear more children, but if she is strong, then she should.”

Neither woman hesitated to assert her understanding as to the Islamic position on family planning. Lalla Amira took a more conservative approach, due more to her childless state than to her husband’s answer. Almost all husbands gave the same answer, regardless of their wife’s practice or opinion. Still she recognized the validity of Hajja’s position and finally agreed that a woman’s physical condition provided an Islamically valid reason for avoiding childbirth.

Lalla Amira had no children; thus any limitation of what would validate her existence as a woman and secure her position as a wife was un-Islamic. For her, preventing birth was preventing a family and endangering her role in the family and was therefore un-Islamic.

For Hajja the question was entirely different. In order to preserve her health and life, to give her sufficient strength to nurture her younger children, and to enable her to carry out the daily housework, it was mandatory that she be healthy. For her it was not then healthy to be pregnant. Pregnancies in these villages were generally debilitating. Inadequate nutrition, rest, and medical care all took a heavy toll on health. Lalla Amira’s health was a startling contrast to the other women her age. Frequently, for the woman who had completed a good-sized family or who had health problems, another pregnancy was more dangerous to her ability to function as a capable wife and mother than use of contraceptives. In this case, family planning was Islamically permissible because it helped to preserve the family and the home.

In short, that which helped the family was considered Islamic; that which harmed it was not. The women saw their lives and the welfare of their families as a totality, with no separation of husband’s interests, children’s interests, and their interests. Likewise, there was no separation of the religious and the secular. Family planning as introduced to them was seen as being ambiguous, perhaps helpful. Its interpretation depended on what the women needed. Contradictory practices were actually governed by the same principle.

My comments generally describe the system as it should be, but Islam includes an extensive backing system. Interrupting this type of social organization is risky, just as judging certain practices out of context is unfair. Interrupting traditional action can spell disaster if one of the balances or checks is eliminated, leaving the individual unprotected. Any system can be problematic. The point here is that Muslim society is a total system, caring for individuals totally but within its own context.


[1] Ellen Carol DuBois, ed., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony: Correspondence, Writings, Speeches (New York: Schocken Books, 1981), 131–32.

[2] Ibid., 247–48.

[3] For a fuller discussion, see Asaf A. A. Fyzee, Outlines of Muhammadan Law, 4th ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), 405 ff.

[4] My colleagues for this research were Sam and Wanda Notzon of the Centre Pour Les Etudes et Researche Economique Demographique, Bureau of Statistics, Rabat, Morocco, and Ellaia Mohammed, a graduate student in sociology. Two papers on the research have been presented: “Attitudes toward Family and Family Planning, in Pre-Saharan Morocco,” Middle East Studies Association, New York, 1977; “Relation of Religions and Legal Attitudes toward Perception of Family Planning: A Moroccan Case Study,” International Sociological Association, Uppsala, Sweden, 1978.