The Moudawana Syndrome: Discourse and Popular Culture in Zakia Tahri’s Number One (2004)

By Angelica Maria DeAngelis
Submitted to Session P5737 (Gender Trials in MENA I, 2019 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In a country with an adult female literacy rate of approximately 35% (overall 48%) when the most recent Moudawana reforms were passed in 2004, it is no surprise that popular culture such as cinema has played a key role in the nation’s political discourse. This can be seen in films of the 1990s, such as Saâd Chraïbi’s 1999 Femmes…et femmes, Hakim Noury’s 1998 Destin des femmes and Farida Benlyazid’s 1999 Ruses des femmes, which helped the country focus on gender issues such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and divorce, adding to conversations otherwise driven primarily by women’s NGOs and CSOs (civil society organizations).

The focus of this presentation will be to consider what role popular culture plays in the post-reform period, specifically Zakia Tahri’s comedic film Number One (2008), exploring how this film engages in and contributes to popular and political discourse about changes to the Moudawana. On the surface this film seems to be a simple, even simplistic, battle-of-the-sexes comedy in which the misogynistic director of a company is, through the use of magic obtained by his suffering wife, transformed into an exaggerated and even emasculated feminist.

This transformation is identified in the film (by a medical doctor) as the “Moudawana Syndrome” – one which results in the director’s ability to empathize with his female employees and his wife, and also in feelings of happiness. When patriarchal society surrounding him has difficulty accepting his transformation, it is his female employees and other women who come to his rescue, staging a strike in his support. And when given the choice of changing back to his former self, he chooses instead to remain in this “reformed” version, encouraging his friends to do the same, and in the end is named Morocco’s “Man of the Year.”

I argue that the film plays an important role in the post-reform period, just as the films above did in the years leading up to the 2004 reforms, interrogating and challenging commonly held gender stereotypes and anxieties, while simultaneously working to increase local knowledge and acceptance of the reforms to the Moudawana or Personal Status Laws. The discussion will draw on Foucault’s conceptualization of the term discourse (a historically contingent social system that produces knowledge/meaning and which simultaneously constructs subjects and the worlds of which they speak), arguing that this female-directed comedy draws on indigenous beliefs and biases to construct new “regimes of truth” for gender relations in Moroccan society.