The issue of the “Soulalyates women” erupted when dozens of rural women took to the streets, breaking their silence about customs and “laws” governing large neglected areas of Morocco. These customs which remained taboo until recently, deprived a large segment of women of their share of land exploitation, in what is called: “the Soulalyates women issue." [Soulalyates are traditional communities in Morocco that own land collectively based on ancestral ties or kinship]


Soulalyates Lands Definition


Soulalyates or collective lands are a property of the tribe rather than individuals. Originally, these lands had been used by the “community” as a regulatory tool for the benefit of the tribe’s constituent families and in accordance with its own ancient traditions and customs. At a later stage, the state interfered in the management of this type of land by creating a department at the Ministry of Interior that would replace the “community" as the guardian of this land.


Soulalyates groups in Morocco have long deprived their women of their share of land inheritance. According to official statistics, there is an estimated 4,563 Soulalyates communities spread over 55 regions. The total area of collective lands is estimated at 15 million hectares.  Over 85% is pastoral land, exploited collectively by the rights-holders, while the remainder is exploited in agricultural activity.[1] As a result of recent urban expansion, some of these lands become part of urban areas, while others are irrigated lands and quarries for stones and sand. This development has led to a rise in the real estate and financial value of these lands, without affecting the legal framework of property rights governing them that dated back to the colonial period.


Regulation of Soulalyates Lands


Regulation of Soulalyates territories goes back to the colonial period. Following French colonization of Morocco, French authorities got a hold of the collective lands by introducing the 1919 Law[2] which reorganized rural territories, allowing the state to interfere in their management. According to this law, collective lands are the property of Soulalyates groups and under the tutelage of the Ministry of Interior. The 1919 Law gives the agent, or Na’ib, the right to distribute these lands after making a list of the rights-holders. The Na’ib also resolves the conflicts that might arise among the rights-holders and ensures implementation of the decisions of the Trusteeship Council. This law allowed the possibility to sell some collective lands for investment purposes within the framework of what was called selling for perpetual usufruct.


Later on, the March 19, 1951 Law was issued in relation to collective lands located within the urban orbits or on the outskirts of cities, where they were allowed for sale after the Trusteeship Council’s approval of the sale price. The sale was made provided that half of the proceeds of the sale be allocated to buy real estate that would benefit the community, or would complement the agricultural character of the remaining land.


The 25 July, 1969 Law was then issued on agricultural investment, in the context of expanding irrigated areas and intensifying investment in these sectors. The law resulted in a significant change in the ways collective lands were distributed in order to raise profitability. An indivisible form of individual property was established where collective lands were distributed to the rights-holders. This law stipulated that upon the death of the beneficiary, their share shall not be distributed but assigned to one of the heirs, provided that the rest of the heirs are compensated; and, should a conflict arise, the Trusteeship Council shall adjudicate.


The Soulalyates lands issue resurfaced following the large urban expansion in Morocco during the 70s and 80s. The Ministry of Interior issued Circular No. 333, which regulated how public institutions or local groups acquired Soulalyates land in order to carry out economic or social projects thereon. The circular outlined the protocol to sell these lands, stipulating the need to allot plots of land or housing units to the rights-holders. The circular also determined the price per square meter.


Despite the consecutive issuance of laws governing the status of Soulalyates lands, the winds of change did not affect the prevailing traditions that deprived women from their right to the proceeds of these lands. Thousands of Soulalyates women continued to be excluded and discriminated against when the lands they worked on were sold. Males are granted their share while females are denied theirs.


In some mountainous areas, according to traditions, men inherit a share of their father’s holding, while women are given half of the men’s share for residence,while bare land is alloted entirely to men in the family. In the eastern and southern regions, traditions entitle the male to benefit from these lands when he gets married and has a family, and deprive female providers, except in limited cases when the women are over 48 years of age. In the western areas, collective lands are sold to construction companies, and beneficiaries are limited to males over the age of 16.

The ostensible logic behind this tradition [depriving women of their share] is the tribe’s aim to preserve the collective ownership within the same tribe, denying women their right to land for fear of marrying from outside the tribe.


Soulalyates Women Starting Protests


The first protest movements started in the western area, taking the form of stand-in protests and demonstrations in front of the Ministry of Interior's guardianship authorities. The protests demanded equality in the sale of the collective lands. A group of protestors then submitted a complaint to the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM), and a wide-scale advocacy movement was launched to sensitize the public opinion. The movement took the following steps[3]:


  1. Monitoring: As soon as the ADFM received the complaint submitted by the Soulalyates women from the western area, the Association contacted women from other regions who suffer from the same issue, so as to measure the extent of this problem at the national level;


  1. Capacity Building for Women: The ADFM followed up on cases of women in some areas in a systematic way in order to stay informed of the latest developments of the sale processes. It also organized several training courses on women's leadership, advocacy, mobilization, and communication methods;


  1. Mobilization and Establishment of an Alliance: The ADFM mobilized allies from civil society, most prominently the Alternatives Forum in Morocco, the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, and the call-in listening centers operated by the Anaruz Network. The alliance network expanded to include associations and parties covering the entire national territory; and


  1. Sensitization and Accountability: The ADFM addressed the state bodies in charge of this issue, particularly the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate of Rural Affairs, the parliamentary teams and the Advisory Council for Human Rights, and the Ministry of Economic Development, Family, and Solidarity.


These steps have encouraged women from other groups and regions to join the protest movement of Soulalyates women in order to safeguard their rights. Eventually, the matter acquired an international dimension, boosted by the attention of international bodies and human rights organizations of the United Nations.


The Ministry of Interior Responds to the Demands of the Women's Movement


As a result of the Soulalyates women’s movement, the Ministry of Interior issued a first circular[4] decreeing that the Soulalyates women benefit, in the same manner as men, both in cash or kind, from real estate transactions pertaining to collective lands.

Two years later, another circular[5] was issued decreeing that Soulalyates women are granted usufruct right to collective lands in the parceling out process carried out by the decision-making bodies. The circular also stated that these women should enjoy their shares of land inheritance.


Resistance Before the Judiciary


Despite these circulars issued by the Ministry of Interior, most of the deputies of Soulalyates groups continued to reject the inclusion of women on the lists of rights-holders.


With the increase in the pace of collective lands’ selling and the continued exclusion of women from the right to access these lands, the ADFM and the Alternatives Forum in Morocco decided to take a further step. They supported the Soulalyates women’s recourse to the administrative court, in order to challenge the Trusteeship Council’s decisions on selling collective lands. This initiative was aimed at securing a legal precedent that the Soulalyates women in other parts of Morocco can rely on for the restitution of their rights.


On October 10, 2013, the Administrative Court in Rabat issued an initial historic ruling that supported the Soulalyates women and granted them the right to these lands for the very first time. The ruling was based on the principles of the Constitution and international standards which superceded customs and laws. The Administrative Court dismissed the defense of the counselor of Morocco’s claim that decisions by the Trusteeship Council may not be challenged. The court based its argument on Chapter 118 of the Constitution, which stipulates that “Any act of regulatory or individual nature, taken in administrative matters, may be made the object of recourse before the competent administrative jurisdiction”. The Court also rejected the arguments relating to the traditions of the Soulalyates community, on the basis of gender equality provided for in the Constitution (Chapters 6, 19, and 32), as well as religious texts such as Prophet Mohammad’s Hadith: “ women are only the counterparts of men”, and other related  provisions of international law.

 

Perhaps the date of issuance of this historic ruling which marks the celebration of the National Women's Day in Morocco on October 10 of each year, has more than one significance. It suggests that the path towards gender equality is still long, and that the masculine mentality is still deeply-rooted, not only in the prevailing traditions and customs in societies, but also in some of the laws that are no longer in line with logic and history today.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


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[1] See: Data published on the Ministry of Interior’s website at: www.terrescollectives.ma.

[2] The 1919 Law does not include any explicit provision prohibiting women from the right to benefit from the proceeds of these lands.

[3] See: “Moroccan Women and Collective Lands: a statement by the ADFM and the Alternatives Forum in Morocco”, July 2, 2009.

[4] Circular No. 60, October 25, 2010.

[5] Circular No. 17, March 30, 2012.