Gender Relations

Moroccan Jewish Women and Men Celebrating the Holiday of Mimouna with their Muslim Friends and Neighbors
by Association Mimouna

Overview of Gender Inequalities

Gender, which is a social construct rather than biological inevitability, has defined Moroccan Jewish male and female roles and status. From a 21st century feminist perspective, inequalities affecting Jewish men and women in Morocco through the end of the 19th century were extreme. They diminished by the time 90% of Jews had emigrated in the 1970s, but still remain. Gender inequalities between Moroccan Jewish men and women were influenced by a patriarchal culture, religious texts, advice and judicial decisions from Moroccan rabbis, and interaction with Muslim Arab and Amazigh peoples. The roles and status of men and women were also affected by changes within Moroccan society, including responses to colonial intervention prior to 1912, the establishment of the French and Spanish protectorates from 1912-1956, and political developments since Morocco became independent in 1956.

Male-Dominated Moroccan Culture

Moroccan culture, from the King to the bottom of society, is male-dominated. Only males can inherit the role of King, reflecting Moroccan society’s view of males as superior. The preference for males over females begins at birth for both Arabs and Amazigh and continues through every stage of life. Moroccan Jews, whether they lived in Amazigh or Arab areas, shared similar perceptions of the superiority of males.

Similarities and Differences between Judaism and Islam regarding Gender

Judaism, like Islam is a patriarchal religion, relying upon males to practice and maintain religious ritual. However, Judaism differs from Islam in that it is matrilineal, where being born to a Jewish mother determines whether a child is Jewish. Islam, on the other hand, is patrilineal, where being born to a Muslim father, regardless of the religion of the mother, determines whether a child is Muslim. These differences affect how Judaism and Islam treat women and men.

Bias of Jewish Religious Texts against Women

Jewish religious texts, including the Bible, the Talmud and collections of laws and practices, focus on living a Jewish life, both ritually and at home. They severely limit the participation of women in religious ritual and require separation of men and women in many areas of public life. Some of the prohibitions for persons of the opposite sex who are not married or closely related include physical contact, isolation with members of the opposite sex, staring at women or any of their body parts or clothes, or conversation for pleasure. They make women primarily responsible for raising children and maintaining a Jewish home, while living a modest life.

Rabbinical Courts’ Enforcement of the Patriarchy

Jewish law and rabbinic rulings focus on preserving a patriarchal system with extreme inequalities between men and women. They sexually contextualize women as a temptation or distraction for men. Morocco, as a Muslim country, allows rabbis to operate a rabbinical court to enforce Jewish family law affecting marriage, divorce, inheritance, child custody and child allowances.

Unequal Expectations for Women at Home

Jews of Fez
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Until the beginning of the European protectorates in 1912, married Jewish women, like their Arab and Amazigh neighbors, rarely appeared in public. Modesty required that they cover their hair, and in Amazigh areas, their faces, when they left their house. Wives were not permitted to leave their homes, even to visit their relatives, without their husband’s consent. A new wife was required by Jewish law to move into the home of her husband’s father, leading to severe crowding in living areas.

Preferences for Boys

The ability to give birth to a large number of children, especially sons, was a major source of a Jewish woman’s status. The main reason the rabbinical courts permitted men to take a second wife was when the first wife did not give birth after ten years of marriage. Infertility was grounds for divorce.

The birth of sons was considered a blessing, while the birth of daughters was considered only a happy occasion. The father was charged with protecting the newborn son from the demon Lilith prior to his circumcision at eight days. Brit milah, the circumcision ceremony, was an important life cycle ritual with singing and prayers that the child was male, while the zeved habat, the naming ceremony for girls, was more of a low-key affair thanking God for a healthy delivery.

Until the French Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU) and other foreign Jewish organizations created networks of schools that taught Jewish and secular subjects, only boys were sent to the traditional Jewish schools. The purpose of these schools was not to prepare the boys for life, but to participate correctly in Jewish rituals, initiate them in Jewish tradition and help them distinguish appropriate practices from sin.