Nadia Guessous writes for Jadaliyya:
The recent parliamentary elections in Morocco have led to the creation of the first ever elected Islamist government in Morocco’s history. After winning more than forty percent of the votes in the November 25th elections, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) led by Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane formed a coalition government with the socialist Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme (PPS), the nationalist Istiqlal party and the royalist Mouvement Populaire (MP). Benkirane’s first task as Prime Minister was to form the government by appointing ministers. After much speculation and many rumors in the press and social media, Benkirane finally introduced his cabinet on January 3, 2012 at the royal palace in Rabat where he was summoned by King Mohammed VI.
The newly formed government is surprising in some respects but predictable in others. It includes controversial PJD members like Mustapha Ramid, an outspoken activist and critic who was appointed Minister of Justice despite rumors in the press that he was blacklisted by the palace. A polygamous man and the father of six children, Ramid has spoken out against limitations on freedom of the press and has argued in favor of limiting the powers of the king. A lawyer by training, he has expressed his support for the February 20th youth movement, has represented Salafi political prisoners as well as journalists like Rachid Nini, the editor of Almassae newspaper who was sentenced to one year in jail for criticizing the unfair trials of Islamists. However, the government of Benkirane, which had to be approved by the king, also includes the usual technocrats and palace loyalists who will ensure that the new government does not deviate much from the palace line or challenge the interests of the country’s elites.
While there is much that could be said about this new government, including the fact that it is based on a historically unprecedented coalition between the socialist PPS and the Islamist PJD, one noteworthy aspect has received much attention. This is the fact that the new government only includes one woman minister in a cabinet of thirty. This is a sharp drop compared to the recent past, when governments formed by other parties had between two and seven women ministers. An official picture released on January third puts this discrepancy on full display (see top of entry).
Taken at the royal palace with King Mohammed VI in the center, his young son (and heir apparent) on one side and Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane on the other, three rows of men in almost identical blue and black suits and ties stand proudly framed by the ornate pillars and walls of the royal palace. On the right, at the very end of the second row, easily missed if one does not look closely, stands Bassima el-Hakkawi.
An active member of the PJD, former parliamentarian and president of the organization of PJD women, el-Hakkawi is the only woman appointed to the new government. Dressed in a long black manteaux and a colorful headscarf, with touches of turquoise that liven up the monotone suits of the male ministers, her gaze seems serious and solemn. While none of us can know for sure what she was thinking or feeling at that moment, she appears burdened by the weight and implications of her position. She is, after all, the first Islamist and veiled woman to be appointed minister and the only woman in the new government.
As the new Minister of Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development, el-Hakkawi inherits a historically weak ministry endowed with a small budget, limited political clout and the impossible task of providing welfare for children, women, the elderly, the disabled and the poor. This is a ministry that definitely stands at the bottom of the government and political food chain. In the outgoing government, it was headed by Nouzha Skalli, a longtime leftist feminist from the socialist PPS. While this position has historically been assigned to women, under the socialist government of El-Youssoufi (1998-2002), it was given to a man (Said Saadi from the PPS).
In a statement to the press outside of the palace on the day of her appointment, Bassima el-Hakkawi expressed her discomfort and unease at being the only woman in the new government. She said that she had hoped to see more women ministers in the new government and that she knew of many women from the PJD and its coalition partners who were fully capable of assuming ministerial responsibilities. She argued that other parties in the coalition did not work hard enough to make that happen and did not to put forward enough female candidates that could be appointed. “There might have been some objective reasons and some personal reasons, but as usual,” she stated, “one looks for reasons not to appoint a woman while one does not look for reasons when it comes to men. The conditions are always there for appointing men but they are never there for appointing women. And this is something that we need to overcome.” In a subsequent interview, she stated that male political leaders tend to treat women as “intruders” and generally do not tolerate any competition from anyone let alone from women.