Cracking the glass ceiling in Arab politics
CASABLANCA, Morocco — The polls have just closed, and 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. 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 the party she leads 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 son with his science homework.
Mounib is still a rarity in the Arab world — a female politician in a leadership position. Morocco ranks 97th out of 145 countries on the gender gap in politics, according to the World Economic Forum. Many Arab countries score even lower.
Mounib says she learned early on that women have to outperform men to prove their worth.
"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."
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, the second lowest score in the world. 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. She is accompanied on the white campaign bus by four young volunteers, including her 25-year-old daughter Dounia.
The mood is casual. Mounib insists that the driver eat with the team. He is almost instantly transformed from a random stranger into a supporter, sitting in the front row when she delivers her daily stump speech.
Her calm only rarely gives way to irritation, mostly over planning mishaps. "Honestly, I do feel this pressure," she later says about leading a national campaign.
Her audiences — mostly men — listen without heckling or interruptions, a display of politeness fairly typical at such rallies in Morocco.
The husky-voiced Mounib is lively and confident. 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."
Mounib grew up in Casablanca as the seventh of nine children. Her father, a diplomat, 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.
She earned her doctorate 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 professors' union, and got involved in politics.
Daughter Dounia says her father, 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, she says.
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," Dounia says. "You see yourself in her."
The Federation has struggled to extend its appeal beyond urban, educated Moroccans. Mounib tries to reach rural audiences with demands for social justice — narrow the wealth gap, fight nepotism, improve education.
Morocco does not allow polling during campaigns, so Mounib has no idea how she is doing. But in some rural communities where men control the public space, her presence gives a jolt of hope to women.
Mounib "gives strength to women because she is capable and equal to a man," says Chenna Hadhoum, a 38-year-old municipal clerk, at one stop. After the rally, Hadhoum wrestles with her shyness, and then walks up to Mounib and asks for a photo. 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.
In her first year as party leader, she faced repeated challenges, mostly from male colleagues, and at times considered resigning. 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.
However, Emna Ma Al Ainaine, an Islamist candidate, 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 — which she takes off when talking in poorer communities. And a French publication noted in a profile that Mounib drove to the interview in a Volvo.
Early on Oct. 8th, the election results start to come in.
Euphoria erupts at campaign headquarters, because the federation has secured two of 305 seats in district races.
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, which determines 90 additional seats reserved for women and younger candidates. This means she won't get into parliament.
Mounib takes a few days to deal with the disappointment. A week later, she's back at party headquarters. She won't seek re-election as party leader, as promised, but she won't resign from the party either.
"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."