First, it is helpful to note that there is no such thing as "the Muslim woman" writ large, since religious beliefs concerning women, cultural practices, and family economies/structures will vary enormously even within the same city or region. Moreover, there isn't a single, clear "Islamic position" on women as far as I can tell. Every Muslim has his/her own preferred source of information on this subject. Others might say that what is written in the Qur'an is the definitive "Islamic position" on the matter, but textual literalism in this case might preclude many rights that most moderate believers would take to be fundamental, such as the complete equality of the genders in matters religious, economic, and familial.
Another useful starting point in navigating this territory is to note that the popular Orientalist view of "the Muslim woman" needs to be tempered by reflections on this facile mode of historical reconstruction, which Edward Said has famously problematized. The interesting thing about Orientalist-style writings on the position of women in Muslim societies is that they describe Muslim "practices" as enigmatic, primitive, and so on, simultaneously eschewing discussion of any gender inequality that exists in the West. For example, a 2001 report on "honor" killings in Jordan accounting for 1/4 of all homicides of women in that country resulted in Western outrage. However, this sensation obscured the fact that 1/3 of the women killed in the US are murdered by their boyfriends or husbands. The point here is definitely not to condone or "excuse" honor killings, but to make sure we understand that insidious gender norms persist even in our own progressive and secular society.
The Orientalist position also frequently exhibits a confusing stance on Muslim sexuality: in brief, that the Muslim world as a whole is at once deeply sexually repressed and appallingly licentious, open, and carnal. The binary opposition between sexual indulgence and sexual reticence is either evidence of cognitive dissonance on the part of Orientalists or an example of the paradoxes of conservative society. Another familiar and dangerous Orientalist trope is the beautiful, exoticized Oriental woman, who needs to be "rescued" from an ugly, depraved harem-lord. No doubt the function of this latter story is to make the Oriental woman more sexually available to westerners and to simultaneously demonize the Oriental man, indirectly justifying a forceful overthrow of his heavy-handed and unjust rule.
In sum, it is always a good idea to be aware of these Orientalist constructions and reconstructions. But how can cultural sensitivity be balanced with honest reflection on the situation of women in many Muslim countries, or in Morocco in particular? Any thinker sympathetic with local culture but also informed about feminist critiques and orientalist pitfalls will feel pulled in many different directions at once.
Perhaps people should be left alone, and their social structures viewed as inviolable? Yet, a shocking literacy gap exists between the genders, especially in rural Moroccan villages (22 points difference for adult literacy in the country as a whole). Surely education is consistent with any reasonable belief system? On the other hand, what if any attempt to "improve the situation of the Moroccan women" is really just a veiled missionary project that imposes western modes of behavior that don't really have anything to do with fundamental human rights. Take the veil, for example, which by itself is neither implicitly good or bad for the social equality of women. Some insist that (Sarkozy, etc) the veil effectively banishes the woman from the public sphere, making her a social non-entity that cannot engage on equal grounds with men, effectively abolishing any of her economic and individual rights. Others insist that the veil is a symbol in the fight against the sexual objectification of woman, and that, to the contrary, the veil is a affirmation of the positive role for women in public because it forces men to engage women as personalities and not as sexual objects or as bodies available for sexual pleasure.
My only decisive view on women in Morocco (and in Muslim societies as a whole) is that anyone who has a decisive view ("women are free to do what they want!" or "women are oppressed!") is either naive, poorly informed or overly simplistic in their outlook. This is not a clear-cut issue folks!
Evidently, I'm beginning to get lost in my own writing, so I will conclude with a thought-provoking passage from existentialist and feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir about "patriarchal times" in the distant and not-so-distant past. Although the excerpt below focus on the "Arab people," de Beauvoir also discusses in the second division of her work the Neanderthal, Greek, Babylonian, ancient Egyptian, and 13th-18th century European views on the role of women in society. (Note to crazy opinionated people: I am not supporting or refuting anything she says on this blog, I'm just putting something up for discussion and thought!).
I'd welcome any comments below. Do you think de Beauvoir has a point, or is she simply another Orientalist hack when it comes to her research on the so called "Arab-world"? Does her portrayal of the lives of Arab women have any bearing to the lives of contemporary women in Morocco, or is it all romanticized nonsense? Or perhaps more nuance is required in understanding the import of this passage?