CASABLANCA, Morocco (AP) — The polls have just closed. In a room decorated with posters and leftist slogans, Nabila Mounib is surrounded by activists who take selfies with her and wish her luck.
She’s keenly aware of the stakes. Mounib, a 56-year-old endocrinology professor, is Morocco’s most high-profile female politician, and this election marks her debut on the national stage as a party leader. After two weeks of campaigning across the country in a cramped mini-bus, she will find out the next day if she has succeeded in getting her party into parliament and winning a seat herself.
It’s a moment she’s worked for all her adult life, while raising three children. Even now, in the anxiety-tinged bustle, she’s caught in the push-pull of a working mother. She excuses herself to rush home and help her 16-year-old son Haroune with his science homework.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series of profiles of Arab women fighting for change in different countries and areas of life.
Mounib is still a rarity in the Arab world – a female politician in a leadership position. When it comes to the gender gap in politics, Morocco ranks 97th out of 145 countries, according to the World Economic Forum. Many Arab countries score even lower.
Despite her relatively privileged upbringing as the daughter of a diplomat, Mounib says she learned early on that women have to outperform men to prove their worth. She is guarded about her personal life, but speaks passionately about the role of women.
“Women have to struggle extra hard in every aspect of what they do,” she says. “The main reason I decided to pursue politics was to reach these heights, to reach these ceilings, and to shatter them for other women…I want to create an example, a historic example, a successful example.”
ON THE TRAIL
Despite the hopes raised by the Arab Spring five years ago, women in the region still hold only 17.6 percent of seats in parliament. That’s the second lowest regional score in the world, although still not far from the global average of 22.8 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
In Morocco, it’s 20.5 percent, mainly because of a women’s quota.
In this election, Mounib’s Unified Socialist Party is allied with two others to form the Federation of the Democratic Left. The alliance is a first for a notoriously fractured progressive movement that presents itself as an alternative to pro-monarchy and Islamist parties.
The campaign kicks off in Marrakesh, the country’s fourth largest city. Mounib is accompanied by four young volunteers, including her 25-year-old daughter Dounia. The white bus is covered with large posters of Mounib smiling confidently.
Her work ethic shows, with meetings often running late into the night because she won’t turn away supporters. During long rides, she conducts phone interviews with Moroccan and French media outlets.
The mood is casual. Mounib insists that the driver eat with the team. He is almost instantly transformed from a random stranger into an ardent supporter, sitting in the front row when she delivers her daily stump speech.
During stops, a smiling Mounib – often dressed casually in jeans, a white campaign T-shirt and orange sneakers – steps off the bus for photos. The crowd, almost all men, respectfully call her “ustada,” or professor. She calls women to the front.
Her calm only rarely gives way to flashes of irritation, such as a raised voice, mostly over planning mishaps. Mounib routinely runs late to meetings or rallies because of bad roads and unforeseen stops. “Honestly, I do feel this pressure,” she later says about leading a national campaign.
Success is far from a shoo-in. The Federation has struggled to extend its appeal beyond urban, educated Moroccans. It can’t rely on the patronage networks of the pro-monarchy parties and lacks the Islamists’ deep roots in poorer urban areas.
Mounib tries to reach rural audiences with demands for social justice –narrow the wealth gap, fight nepotism, improve education.
In Guelmim, a town of more than 100,000 people near the Western Sahara, the crowd of about 200 – mostly men – listens without heckling or interruptions, a display of politeness fairly typical at such rallies in Morocco. The audience bursts into applause when she alludes to sex scandals involving senior members of another party.
The husky-voiced Mounib is lively and confident, gesturing as she delivers her speeches in earthy Darija, Morocco’s colloquial language. In years of public speaking, she’s learned to slip in a joke or jab at an opponent to reel back a drifting audience. She took up karate when she was younger – a sport she says helped with concentration and public speaking.
“Our society teaches us to be shy and keep to ourselves,” she says of women in Morocco. “I’ve always been outspoken.”
IN THE FAMILY
Mounib grew up in Casablanca as the seventh of nine children.
When she was 14, her father was assigned to a diplomatic posting in neighboring Algeria. There, she studied civics in school for the first time, a subject then not taught in Morocco.
The six oldest siblings remained in Morocco to continue their studies. In Algeria, Mounib was now the oldest.
It was a turning point. Her father encouraged her interest in politics, answering questions and giving her books. He also invited her to his office, where he received dignitaries. In a patriarchy, a supportive father is the key to a girl’s confidence, she says.
Her world view began to take shape. Mounib embraced socialism as a vehicle for change.
After high school, she studied geology and biology in Morocco, and earned a doctorate in endocrinology at Montpellier University in France.
After her return to Casablanca in the 1980s, she became a university lecturer, eventually rising to the leadership of the regional chapter of the professors’ union. She also became active in leftist politics, joining precursors of what eventually became the PSU and the Federation.
Daughter Dounia says there was no need to preach gender equality in her home because her parents lived it. Her father, 58-year-old Youssef Hajji, who works in insurance, often fixed meals as her mother dashed off to meetings. Some of her girlfriends, even in their upscale Anfa district, would often be asked to serve their brothers, Dounia says.
Her older sister Imane, 30, also works in insurance, but Dounia caught the political bug. She ran in local elections last year and lost. Now the lanky, confident young woman in aviator glasses is in graduate school, studying political communication.
Her mother is a role model, even if there’s some friction. At one point on the trail, Mounib snaps at Dounia when she criticizes a decision on a social media post. The tension quickly dissipates.
“Just the fact that you see this woman being in charge of something this big makes you believe in anything,” says Dounia. “You see yourself in her.”
A JOLT OF HOPE
It’s eight days until the election, and Mounib is campaigning in Outat Elhaj, a town of 20,000. Morocco does not allow polling during campaigns, so she has no idea how she is doing.
In rural communities like this, where men control the public space, Mounib’s presence gives a jolt of hope to women. She steps onto a stage overlooking a market street lined by male-only coffee shops.
Chenna Hadhoum, a 38-year-old municipal clerk, watches from the sidelines. Many women in this community still have to ask their husbands for permission to leave the house, she says. She can come and go freely since her husband is educated and a PSU supporter, but she keeps her head down in public to avoid gossip, taking detours to stay clear of the coffee shops.
Mounib “gives strength to women because she is capable and equal to a man,” Hadhoum says.
After the rally, Hadhoum wrestles with her shyness, and then walks up to Mounib and asks for a photo. Later, she waits near the campaign bus to catch another glimpse of Mounib. She says it’s been a day she will remember for a long time.
Mounib says she has encountered sexism even in a progressive movement like her own, with a relatively high number of female activists.
“Just because we were in the party as women, it does not mean they laid down the red carpet for us,” she says.
In her first year as party leader, she faced repeated challenges, mostly from male colleagues, and at times considered resigning. At one point, they tried to override her decision to consult the rank and file on a key issue, but she stood firm. At another time, they suggested she let one of the ostensibly more experienced men handle media interviews.
Her standing improved after her first appearance on national media, which gave her higher visibility. She says she is no longer challenged, but the possibility of failure is clearly on her mind. She resolves not to seek re-election as party leader if the Federation does poorly.
“If we fail, I’m going to go back and put on my sneakers, and get back to the grassroots,” she says.
She believes it’s rare to see men willing to step aside voluntarily.
“Men have made so many mistakes, and they have made disastrous decisions, and you still find them in the same positions,” she says.
Female lawmakers in the ruling Islamist party argue that it’s been a more effective champion for women’s advancement than secular groups, including by getting more women into parliament. Emna Ma Al Ainaine, an Islamist candidate and former high school philosophy teacher, dismisses the Federation as marginal and claims Mounib comes off as elitist.
“We had debates,” she says. “Me, I am open, I am ready to listen to everyone …. But with Nabila, she believes she has the truth, just her, in Morocco.”
Dounia says her mother has been skewered on Facebook for owning a pair of expensive sunglasses. And a French publication noted in a recent profile that Mounib drove to the interview in a Volvo.
Campaign manager Nada Harif says such criticism reflects widespread misogyny.
“She will be attacked because she has sunglasses and a good car, to avoid talking about the real subjects,” Harif says. She adds that Mounib takes the sunglasses off when talking in poorer communities.
It’s early on Oct. 8th, and the election results are starting to come in.
At first, euphoria erupts at campaign headquarters, because the federation has secured two of 305 seats in district races. An additional 90 seats for women and candidates under 40 are chosen in a national vote, and those results won’t be known for a few more hours.
Mounib stands beside Mustapha Chennaoui, the winner in a Casablanca district, who has tears of joy in his eyes. She joins him in a victory chant: “I’m neither sold nor bought. I’m a leftist and proud!”
But the two seats fall far short of the 10 to 12 Mounib had hoped for.
And a few hours later, she hears on television that the federation did not cross the 3 percent threshold for the national vote. This means she won’t get into parliament. The Islamists are once again the largest party in parliament, followed by a pro-monarchy faction.
Mounib takes a few days to deal with the disappointment. She suspects widespread election fraud but cannot prove it.
A week after the election, she’s back at party headquarters. She won’t resign from the party, but also – as promised – won’t seek re-election as its leader.
She hopes Morocco will one day be a parliamentary democracy that celebrates diversity.
“I want a Morocco where equality between a man and a woman means that a woman can walk outside in a hijab or in shorts,” she says, “and be happy about being a woman.”
by Karin Laub and Samia Errazzouki (AP)