Perceived Norms and the Politics of Women's Rights in Morocco

Why do formal, legal advances for women’s rights often fail to translate into concrete improvements in gender equality? Existing research on advances in women’s rights has focused on the limitations of institutions and the constraints of individual attitudes to explain disappointing de facto outcomes after de jure gains. The dissertation on which this book project is based draws attention to the need to examine the relationship between such policy action and perceived norms, or beliefs about others’ attitudes. I argue that overestimating others’ embrace of patriarchal norms (conservatism) is likely where women’s rights have advanced rapidly in recent decades. Common paths to reform—in response to targeted feminist activism and international pressure, and often by autocrats for instrumental reasons—do not credibly signal that broader public opinion has evolved, while they often also raise the salience of conservative opposition to women’s rights. Empirically, the project draws on elite interviews, focus groups, and two original surveys from Morocco, a substantively important case of multifaceted and extensive policy change in women’s rights. Qualitative evidence shows that while women’s activism has been important for reforms in Morocco, many view the reforms as deriving ultimately from geopolitical incentives and the will of the country’s monarch, not public opinion. Key moments leading up to landmark reforms also highlighted, for many, the strength of conservative social movements. Narratives of the dominance and persistence of conservative ``mindsets’’ pervade discussions of women’s rights. Yet Moroccans overestimate the extent to which conservative views prevail. I present the first survey evidence on the mismatch between attitudes and perceived norms around gender in Morocco to show that across a range of issues, many Moroccans (and especially men) overestimate others’ agreement with conservative positions. I then demonstrate three consequences of perceived conservatism. Qualitative evidence shows that perceived conservatism leaves street-level bureaucrats hesitant to fully apply or enforce the law and motivates activist strategies prioritizing attitude change as a goal. Using a behavioral experiment, I show that perceived conservatism also causes men and conservatives to engage in more norm-policing behavior. The findings have important implications for understanding the impact egalitarian legal reforms have in practice.