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Women who have shaped SSGR – Jamila Sayouri defending women’s right in Morocco


Jamila Sayouri has been a leading figure in the defence of human and women's rights and justice reform in Morocco for almost forty years. A lawyer by profession, she has been President of the Adala association in Morocco since 2011, which defends the right to fair trials and justice. 

Sayouri was introduced to activism at a very early age by her father, who fought for Morocco's independence. She was impressed by his commitment. After independence, he opened a school in his village to ensure young people's right to education. 

But Sayouri's youth was also marked by the suffering of her mother, who, as was common at those days, married at the age of eleven and raised eight children. Thanks to her education and reading of the books of Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian writer and activist, Sayouri began to question local traditions that discriminated against women, blocking their right to dignity, equality, emancipation, education, health and many other things. In short, their fundamental human rights. 

I wanted to be free in mind and body.

As a law student, she joined the association "L'Union d'Action Féministe" (UAF), which promoted gender equality. She helped launch the first monthly public newspaper written by women tackling a range of social issues that were considered taboo and prompting national debate.

During her studies, she realised that women did not have fair and equal access to justice because of their gender. They didn’t have the means to protect themselves or defend themselves from the violence they suffered. The laws were against them. 

Beyond the doors of their homes, there are women who suffer and are beaten every day. They look after their children like slaves in their own homes, even if they are teachers, lawyers or even judges.

With the UAF, her struggle focused on reforming discriminatory laws, including the Moudawana, the law on personal status, which at the time did not consider women as persons in their own right under the law. In 1992, the association successfully gathered over a million signatures in favour of women’s rights. The next year, King Hassan II agreed to amend the law. 

Following this change, numerous women’s associations were set up to continue the reforms and expand and protect women's rights.

In 1996, with the UAF, Sayouri set up the first centre in Morocco to support women who have experienced violence. It provided them with legal, judicial, social, and psychological assistance. 

There are laws, but there are no mechanisms. There is a public policy, but there is no budget. Security is there to fight terrorism, not violence against women.

Unfortunately, many women didn't dare come to the centre, and the ones who did just wanted to talk, but were too afraid to lodge a complaint for fear of reprisals. The centre couldn't, for example, house the women to protect them. It was only in 2002 that the first shelter was opened for the women, with the support of several international organisations.

Despite the changes in the law, there was still a huge problem in terms of enforcing the law. Women who mobilised and protested were targeted pressured and, in some cases, denied opportunities at work and lost their jobs.   

To raise attention to the lack of justice for women Sayouri organised mock trials. The first trial was held on the symbolic date of 8 March 1999, the International Women's Day. She invited many crucial actors: the government, judges, political parties, students, and many others. The session was broadcast on Moroccan television. 

Women began to speak out and change public opinion, even if it meant the wrath of anti-feminist movements and the necessity of police protection. 

We suffered a lot. But in the end, we succeeded in transferring this debate from the conference rooms to public opinion. 

Sayouri during the official opening of the "justice for all" legal clinic in March 2018. The clinic
provides the most vulnerable groups, particularly Moroccan and migrant women, with
improved access to justice and protection of their human rights. Photo: Jamila Sayouri

In 2011, Sayouri became the President of Adala. She gave new impetus to the association by obtaining consultative status with ECOSOC (the United Nations Economic and Social Council), enabling the association to take part in international debates. The Moroccan government then called on Adala to submit recommendations and demands that would be taken into consideration in justice reform initiative. 

“That was the trigger for us to realize we can be a force for change and opened up debate and dialogue with government security actors," recalls Sayouri. 

Adala can take part in discussions with national security, the gendarmerie, judges, and lawyers. It is recognized as an association fighting for justice and security reforms. This enables it to work with international partners such as DCAF.  For example, Adala and DCAF developed recommendations for improved policy, practices and implementation of the law 103.13 on combatting violence against women.  

Sayouri at a training session for civil society organisations on how to work with women
who are victims of violence, funded by the Swedish human rights organization, Civil Right
Defenders. Photo: Jamila Sayouri

Sayouri continues to extend her expertise, and now sits on the International Bureau of the Mediterranean Human Rights Network, which brings together some 70 human rights organizations based in 30 countries in the Mediterranean region.

In the years to come, she would like to dedicate more of her time to the profession she started out in: human rights lawyer, while continuing to advocate for better security and justice reforms.

Jamila Sayouri's advice to women defending women's rights:  :
•    Join any political or civil society groups where your voice can be heard; you have the right to be part of them
•    Take a stand to break down patriarchal stereotypes.
•    Help each other to do a lot with a little
•    Prepare for the long term by starting small

•    Sorcha MacLeod, an academic expert on private security and human rights
•    Being the first women in the Togolese army