The Uncertain Joy of Getting Married in Morocco

Al-Safir‘s Mohamed Benaziz recounts the Kafka-esque maze a young woman in urban Morocco has to navigate in order to get the state’s permission to marry.

Newly engaged, a young local woman goes to the state notary to have her marriage certificate drawn up. We’ll need your certificate of engagement, he tells her. And to obtain that document, she will need to file certain other documents, starting with an original copy of her birth certificate, which can only be issued at her place of birth. Also, an affidavit of marriageability. And to obtain an affidavit of marriageability? Well, it starts with a sworn statement by the young lady. But that is just the beginning. Next, the minor interior ministry bureaucrat will need to carry out a field investigation to be sure that she has never been married before. After that, the final step called for by Interior Ministry guidelines before the marriage can be officially registered is for the prospective bride to provide two witnesses to testify that she has never been married. Two adult witnesses. Men. And naturally, not related to her. She will with these witnesses demonstrate to the ministry of the interior that she has never been married before, that she is, as it were, socially a virgin. After which a doctor will demonstrate with his fingers that she is biologically a virgin.

She wears herself out searching for a pair of legally acceptable witnesses among her neighbors, finally finding two men whom she can bring before the bureaucrat to swear affidavits that she had never been married.

He inspects their identification cards, and discovers that they do not live in the same building as the prospective bride. Furthermore, one of her witnesses is carrying an identification card which has expired; worse still, he apparently has not even bothered to submit a renewal form for it! There will be a fine of course. The bureaucrat explains to the would-be witness that by law, everyone must renew their identity card whenever a correction is needed for place of birth, civil status, surname or change of address. Any change to the identity card costs nine dollars, and tardiness incurs an additional fine of $25.

The bride is miserable; he has only come along to help her out, and now her witness is in trouble. She tries to explain things to the bureaucrat. He may not live in her apartment building, but the witness does live in the building next door. And even over in France, that bureaucracy par excellence, where the long arm of the state reaches deep into the everyday lives of its citizens, even there, citizens are not forced to change their identity cards every time they move. They merely file a form at the municipal office to register their address for voting records (Morocco does not fine people for omitting to change voter registrations).

Stymied here, she tries to resolve the situation with his chief, the boss-lady for this neighborhood (in the larger cities, the Interior Ministry has been appointing women to this role for the last five years or so. I would guess that throughout the country, there are around 1,000 men in charge of neighborhoods, and around 50 women). “Why does everything have to be so complicated?” she asks the neighborhood boss. “Why do ID cards have to bear the owner’s city, district, neighborhood, and street, if the state is always shuffling those around anyway? I have a computerized ID, and the law says that bearers are exempt from showing birth certificates, certificates of residence, certificates of life, and nationality certificates in all bureaucratic procedures which call for these documents. So why do the authorities insist on complicating our lives by making us submit these documents?”

“To control internal migration,” the neighborhood boss answers her.

So, a policy goal. But what does that have to do with couples who want to get married? Why should they have to suffer?

A moment of uncomfortable silence falls between them. The neighborhood boss is new on the job, and realizes that she has let slip a piece of information that a more experienced bureaucrat would never have disclosed to a member of the public. The bride stares at the sign posted in the office with its official slogan, “Bribery-Free Zone.”

She leaves in a rage. Driving away, she commits a traffic violation and gets pulled over by a policewoman, who confiscates her license. The policewoman looks her over, noting the new clothes, the ritual henna tattoos on her hands. “Yes,” the young woman says, apologizing. “I was in a rush to collect my marriage documents.” She asks the policewoman if she is married yet. “No.” “Come here so I can give you a good-luck pinch,” the bride tells her.

The policewoman sticks her arm in the window and the bride gives her a pinch for luck. And so in the end the policewoman gives her back her license.

On with the search for two new witnesses. She knocks on the doors of the other apartments in her building; it is 11 o’clock in the morning. No answer at one door; at others, the response is, “there are only women at home here, invalid as legal witnesses.” One man is home and refuses to act as a witness. Another agrees, but when she asks if the address on his identity card is the same as his address in the building, he says no.

And so a simple journey to pick up a document transforms into a journey to hell.

Where do we get these laws from?

They originate in tribal customs, according to which a couple wanting to marry just need to produce a pair of witnesses. In the tribe, people know each other, and a man’s word is better than any certified document. But in the anonymous apartment blocks of a city, even neighbors do not know each other, people move in and move away, and of course city dwellers do not simply have the free time to go and act as witnesses in courts and before the authorities at will.

Moving to the cities, people adopt urban ways of life, but the state continues to impose the law of the village on them.

That is why our bride is asked to bring witnesses from her own building, with its 20 apartments full of residents who do not know each other; why they must all share the same address on their identity cards. Unable to produce a pair of permissible witnesses, she goes back to yell at the first bureaucrat. “And what about the address on your own identity card?” he asks her.”Does it match where you live?”

And she suddenly realizes that her identity card, more than five years old, does not actually match the address of her building: she is going to have to change her own address. And how is she to do that? Her father is to draw up a declaration stating that she is his daughter, and that she lives with him. “But my father is dead,” she says. The bureaucrat asks her to produce a death certificate.

She stares up at the sign on the wall with its government slogan. The sentence blurs before her eyes, leaving only the single word: “BRIBERY.”

Mohamed Benaziz