Kaoutar Belhirech (left) and Fatima Tourari (right) in the Mères en Ligne radio station.
Kaoutar Belhirech (left) and Fatima Tourari (right) in the Mères en Ligne radio station. Molly Keisman

Legal changes gave Moroccan women more rights, but unwed mothers still face prosecution and stigma. A Tangier radio station, Mères en Ligne, gives them a voice.

TANGIER, Morocco— Fatima Tourari, 27, realized she was pregnant during Ramadan. She had been raped a few weeks before the Muslim holy month, but kept it a secret because in Morocco, even rape victims risk blame for having sex outside of marriage, which is illegal. “He did what he did, and I don’t like remembering it,” she says. Tourari finally disclosed the pregnancy to her mother, who cried and told her daughter to leave, saying she’d have nothing to do with her.

Six years later, thanks to the assistance of a social worker, Tourari has a weekly show on Mères en Ligne, a radio station run by single mothers to advocate for their rights. She works at a garment factory in Tangier and shares an apartment with her son Amir—a curious four-year-old who dreams of meeting his extended family, a current impossibility as the family has ceased contact. In Morocco where unwed mothers are often forced to live in shame, Mères en Ligne is an anomaly. The station has committed itself to a monumental task: changing Moroccans’ perceptions of unwed mothers.

The station, based in Tangier, was launched in 2017 by the association 100% Mamans, which has been helping single mothers since 2006. The association, founded by Claire Trichot, offers a daycare, nursery, and housing, as well as vocational training in fields such as catering and jewelry-making. The association covers all costs, including food and hospital expenses. It also provides legal assistance to the women who often don’t even have identification papers because they have fled their homes. The association supports them if they want to sue the father to establish paternity, covering all legal fees.

Trichot, originally from France, created 100% Mamans because there was no other association in Northern Morocco that worked with unwed mothers to support them in their maternity process. “It seemed to be one of the most unfair subjects in Morocco, both from the point of view of the mother and her child,” Trichot explained. Indeed, sex outside of marriage is a crime, but only the mother is considered responsible for her pregnancy, and the biological father usually disappears.

In Morocco, only through the establishment of parentage is a child entitled to his or her rights. A mother cannot deny her parentage to her child as it is established through birth, but kinship to the father is established only when the child is born to married parents. Unwed mothers can prove paternity through a DNA test but not only is the test costly, the legal process to compel the father to take it is too. Moroccan law states that, “Illegitimate filiation to the father does not produce any of the effects of legitimate filiation.” Children born to unwed mothers have difficulty obtaining legal documents, making it hard to attend school, receive healthcare, and partake in other state benefits, both as a child and an adult.

The other obstacle is the social stigma. Often, unwed mothers are viewed as prostitutes, they and their children are alienated from society and often their own families. The stigma is so severe that some doctors will even refuse to treat unmarried pregnant women. Yet, single motherhood isn’t uncommon in Morocco. A 2010 study sponsored by the Institut national de solidarité avec les femmes en détresse, (INSAF) determined that 27,000 unmarried women had given birth the previous year. The study noted that in one year, 8,760 babies had been abandoned. It concluded that 80 percent of those cases were by single mothers.

Mères en Ligne wants to change this. The radio acts as a network for single mothers to support each other, as well as a tool for advocacy. Run by seven single mothers, it features testimonials, citizens’ opinions, debates, and discussions of legal cases.

In an episode of a show titled, “Open Your Heart,” the host Naima discusses the discrimination that unwed mothers face—the relatives who disown them; the biological fathers who change their phone numbers and disappear; the people who think it’s okay to abuse women because they are unwed mothers. In “Knock on the Door,” hosts Aziza and Wahiba argue that men and women should have equal responsibility in raising their children. They want to know why women have to feed the children and do all the chores while men lounge at cafes.

The mothers host the shows, unpaid, because they know it’s important. Kaoutar Belhirech, 26, was impregnated by her fiancé when she was 23. Upon discovering her pregnancy, he blocked her phone number and social media accounts. When she tried to go to the doctor for an ultrasound, no one would see her. She says, “I felt like the only pregnant woman in the world.” Belhirech scoured the internet for organizations that could help her and came across 100% Mamans. Through the association, she received shelter and legal assistance. When an employee at the association suggested she get involved with the new radio station, Belhirech jumped on board.

Mères en Ligne has a limited reach, because, like all Morocco’s community radio, the station is relegated to the internet as Moroccan law prohibits community radio from broadcasting on the air. Mohamed Leghtas is the project coordinator for E-joussour radio, Morocco’s first online community radio, launched in 2013. He advocates for community radio’s right to broadcast on the air, saying, “It is the only way to reach poor and marginalized people who live in the countryside and mountains. These people cannot read or write and probably haven’t got access to internet.”

The station acknowledges these limitations, Sara Lamjamri who handles communications for the station, says that, “web radio isn’t as useful as traditional radio, which reaches people ranging from housewives to men driving to work.” Yet Mères en Ligne still touches the live of millions: since its launch in May of 2017, the Mères en Ligne’s website has received 2,500,000 visitors.

It is difficult to quantify their results, but, the work is worth it to the women whom the station empowers. Stephanie Willman Bordat, a founding partner at a Morocco-based women’s rights organization, Mobilising for Rights Associates, notes a need that, “NGOs move beyond a charity approach when working with unwed mothers to adopt an empowering approach where the mothers speak on behalf of themselves and mobilize collectively.”

However, Aïcha Ech-Chenna, founder of the Association Solidarité Féminine (ASF), cautions against sweeping declarations about Mères en Ligne’s work. Ech-Chenna has been working to promote single mothers’ rights for 59 years. She knows that change is dependent upon society. She says, “Mothers talking about their situation on the radio is positive, but society listening doesn’t mean that they’re changing their mentalities.” While a groundbreaking endeavor, Mères en Ligne is one piece of a huge puzzle and must work with other associations, the government, and younger generations. Above all, people have to recognize that change is slow. “It’s day to day work,” she says.

When Ech-Chenna began crusading for women’s rights more than 50 years ago, unwed mothers had no voice in the public sphere. The reform of the Moroccan family law code, the Moudawana, in 2004 gave women more legal rights, as did a nationality law passed in 2007, but not only are the rights extended to women still limited, enforcement is capricious. Their battle is far from over, but Mères en Ligne signifies just how far Morocco has come.

Belhirech says, “I chose to work for this radio so I can speak for myself and other women like me. This radio gave me the confidence to tell people I have a son, and I’m not married.” Tourari agrees, saying, “When associations were talking about our concerns and struggles, society wasn’t listening, but when we shared our testimonials and stories through this radio, people started to understand.”

Asmaa Bahadi contributed reporting in Morocco. The story was produced in collaboration with Round Earth Media.

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