The Soulaliyate women’s movement, referring to tribal women in Morocco who live on collective land, is the first grassroots nationwide mobilization for land rights in Morocco. The term became publicized in 2007 when, in the context of intense commodification and privatization of land in Morocco, tribal women began demanding equal rights and shares when their collective land is privatized or divided. Although initially minor, over time the Soulaliyate Movement became a nationwide movement that challenges the gendered nature of laws regulating land tenure in Morocco and fights against patriarchal customs regarding access to land. Collective land in Morocco, which represented the biggest percentage of available land and natural resource reserves, started being seized by the State, under its strategy of liberalization and privatization of land, and sold to public or private real estate agencies. In effect, thousands of Soulaliyate women were displaced and denied compensation, particularly affecting women who are unmarried, widowed, or divorced. The women were forced to move to urban slums and live under extreme poverty to make ends meet, unlike the men from the villages who were compensated with either land or money. Despite the contempt and death threats they received from the men in their villages, Soulaliyyate women were able to get recognition of their right to collective land and to influence policy change. Their partnership with civil society, particularly with the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) made the movement cross social divides and create a coalition that is active to this day, reconfiguring power relations between men and women in Morocco.
The women were initially largely ignored by the State, which preferred not to face the resentment of communities still entrenched in patriarchal values, and claimed that it had no legal capacity to act considering the issue was community based and therefore subject to local customs. This discourse was in response to the many complaint letters written by women of different communities to local authorities, referring to their economic situation and intra-familial disputes over collective land. The right to land use is limited to men who are heads of households and have a patrilineal link to the community, directly eliminating women, especially those who are married to men outside the community. While women have indirectly benefited from collective land through male relatives, their access was always dependent on the goodwill of male family members. Although such practices were only based on customs and traditions before French colonial rule, the rigid rules established during their mandate indirectly reinforced gender inequalities, such as when a 1919 decree stated that beneficiaries of collective land are “heads of family”. At first, Soulaliyate women in Western Morocco protested through sit-ins and demonstrations in front of their local authorities, demanding equality in compensation during the sale of collective lands. However, after seeing no results, one of the Soulaliyate women, Rkia Bellot, got fed up with her situation and referred to the ADFM, complaining to them that while her 8 brothers had received compensation for collective land that was sold to real estate companies, she and the other women had received nothing. This was the start of an alliance between the Soulaliyate women and the ADFM, who immediately took up the case, considering it a blatant form of gender discrimination. The first public action of the alliance was a protest of 500 women in front of the Parliament in 2007, which came as a surprise to most Moroccans who knew nothing about the Soulaliayte, let alone their inheritance laws and customs. Their next demonstration, however, drew out thousands of women all over Morocco, despite the king having made a speech promising reforms. Women from different regions suffered from different problems, depending on the norms and customs of each community, as well differences in the value of land depending on the region. As Dr. Berriane explains, the city of Kenitra for example has undergone intense urbanization and land surrounding the city has attracted investors, meanwhile land owned by the community of Errachidia has not attracted any investors. The women of the latter community are not demanding compensation therefore, but rather the right to use parts of the land to develop small economic enterprises. However, the women framed the different local claims into a common movement under a unified discourse and language, and their individual problems were highlighted as a problem faced by all women. The mobilization is still ongoing, and it has already achieved its first significant results. Three administrative circulars were issued by the Ministry of Interior between the years of 2009 and 2012, demanding that the local representatives include women among the beneficiaries of collective land. However, such circulars are not laws, and women consider them insufficient measures, especially since they can be revoked at any time or face opposition by the local representatives. As such, Soulaliyate women are now advocating for a law that will institutionally ensure that the circulars are enforced. The inefficiency of the circulars was evident, for example, when the ethnic group of Rhaouna were being compensated for land sold to Omrane real estate company. During the allocation of new land, men received three times the share of women, and commercial spots were allocated to men only, in direct violation of the Constitution which claims equality between men and women, and in breach of the ministerial circular, showing the gap between the written law and its application. This affected the lives of 267 women from the community as well as their families. Considering that the representatives of the Soulaliyate continued excluding women from the list of rights-holders despite the Ministerial circulars, women took the matter to administrative court, to challenge the decisions on selling collective land and secure women’s rights. On 10 October 2013, there was a historic ruling by the Administrative Court in Rabat, that ruled in favor of the Soulaliyate women and granted them access to collective land, dismissing the arguments of the defense that the decision of the tribal representatives and the traditions of the Soulaliayte community cannot be challenged.
Afterwards, women from Kesbat Mehdia became landowners for the first time, in a moment considered a social revolution in Morocco. After the sale of their collective land to a private company, 867 women were compensated with plots of land, the total of which amounts to 128 hectares.