Failures of Solidarity, Failures of the Nation State: Moroccan Women’s NGOs

Rachel Newcomb
Rollins College, U.S.A


In one of the lower-middle class suburbs of the Ville Nouvelle of Fes,1 Morocco, set back from a busy street filled with taxi stands, drygoods stores, and discount clothing shops, the Nawal Belhamr Center was located in a small, two-story apartment building, identical to the other buildings surrounding it.2 Throughout the day, women trickled in. They were lawyers rushing from the courthouse to offer free legal advice sessions, women arriving to ask questions about the type of evidence needed to secure a divorce from an abusive husband, or women coming to find out more about the Center’s initiatives to teach divorced women with few resources a new trade. Frequent visitors to the Center often stopped by just to chat, to update the volunteers on the status of a case they were involved in, or just to share some hot doughnuts purchased from a street vendor outside. The Center boasted notable successes, but there were also many interactions that clients or volunteers deemed as failures. Sometimes clients arrived at the Center assuming volunteers would give them money, intervene in a family dispute, or offer shelter from an abusive husband. Volunteers were frustrated by assumptions that the Center had unlimited resources, and by the fact that clients seemed determined to enact patron-client relationships with the volunteers (a hierarchical interaction common to Moroccan social situations in which petitioners seek to perform some sort of service in exchange for money). Solidarity was ephemeral and momentary, usually accomplished during brief transactions rather than sustained within long-term social relations. Were these failures merely products of entrenched class relations, or did they reveal something more?

Initially opened in 2000 to provide legal advice for women in matters of marriage and divorce, the Center Nawal Belhamr gradually came to deal with issues ranging from domestic abuse Fes,b training. During my dissertation fieldwork in Fes , Morocco from 2001-02, I spent many afternoons at the Center, observing the interactions between the Center’s clients and its volunteers. The first of its kind in Fes, the Center was not directly associated with a political party or religious organization. The volunteers, mostly middle-upper class female professionals and academics,3 perceived their center as existing “outside civil society,” asserting that the term “civil society” had been co-opted by male elites, both secular and religious. They expressed their desire to transcend divisions of social class and forge links among all Moroccan women, hoping that the women who visited the center would also be able to envision this possibility of solidarity. However, clients and volunteers were often at cross-purposes, and efforts to establish links across social classes that might lead to larger structural changes improving the status of women often failed. These failures cannot be attributed to insurmountable class differences but must be considered in the light of the problematic role of the nation-state in an era of globalization.