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Women's Rights Group Opens Chapter in Morocco

A French women's rights group that led major marches to denounce violence to women in France's immigrant heavy suburbs is opening its first formal chapter in the Muslim world - in Morocco. But the reception is mixed for the group, with some finding its name - as well as its existence, offensive.

Five years after it was launched, the rights group, Ni Putes Ni Soumises, or Neither Whores nor Submissive, has become a household name in France. It has fought hard against forced marriages and other abuses against women here, particularly immigrant women - many of whom live in poor income neighborhoods in cities and suburbs.

Now, it is taking its cause across the Mediterranean - to Morocco, which five years ago passed a widely praised family law. Among other things, the legislation legally recognized equality between men and women.

But the association's president, Sihem Habchi believes there is still plenty of work to be done in Morocco and other Muslim countries before women's rights are fully recognized - and she believes her group can help.

"I just went to Morocco ...two weeks ago and I met two women who need help. They have been forced to marry in Morocco. They were born in France. So Ni Putes Ni Soumises is close to them," Habchi explained. "They ask me how I can help them come back to France or have a peaceful life in Morocco and run away from harassment of their family."

Although Morocco will be the first opening of a chapter in the Muslim world, Habchi's group works with other women's rights groups in Algeria, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. She notes the Muslim world is beginning to change - pointing, for example, to Saudi Arabia's first female minister. And she dreams of linking European groups with those of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Not everyone appears to be happy with the French association's future presence in Morocco. There are reports that some in Morocco are offended by its name, Neither Whores Nor Submissive, and believe it does not fit in with local culture. But Habchi believes the fact that some members of her association come from these backgrounds - Habchi is of Algerian descent - can help.

"We talk about forced marriage that happens in our country of origin," Habchi said. "Perhaps we can use that - the fact that I'm also Algerian and other women in our movement are also Moroccan, French and Moroccan, European and Moroccan. We can use that to work in the country of origin."

The group still has plenty of work left to do in France, as well. The association's current vice president carries the scars of ongoing abuses here - she says her former boyfriend set her on fire in 2005 because she refused to marry him. A court sentenced him to 20 years in prison this month.