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Amazigh New Year in Morocco: a milestone for indigenous rights?

27 February 2024

Last month, Amazigh across North Africa celebrated Yennayer – their new year. In Morocco, this year’s celebrations were the first since its official recognition as a public holiday. For the first time, shops and schools shut their doors to allow people to celebrate with their families. The festival marks the initiation of the Amazigh calendar – a system rooted in agrarian practices, seasonality and a profound connection to the land.

After years of tireless advocacy by Amazigh rights activists, it’s a significant milestone, but their mission extends beyond cultural acknowledgment. It’s a struggle dating back decades: seeking to assert itself as an Arabo-Muslim nation on the world stage, a newly independent Morocco implemented Arabization policies, subjecting indigenous Amazigh communities to assimilation and prolonged marginalization which persist today. All the while, however, the Amazigh rights movement has been steadily gaining influence.

For decades, Amazigh activists have been pushing for more meaningful implementation of Tamazight, their language, fearing its slow disappearance if not met with a strong political will to revive it. In 2011, the movement succeeded in pushing for s recognition as an official national language, thanks to renewed political momentum stemming from the social and political uprisings in Morocco and North Africa at large.

The use of Tamazight was formalized in 2019, with a law providing for its use in governmental administration, local authorities, public services and education. Yet the actual use of the language is falling short. Its use in practice remains limited to official public administrations and institutional signage, far from an equal footing with Arabic.

With only 31 per cent of primary schools across Morocco teaching Tamazight, in June 2023 the government announced its decision to gradually increase that percentage to 50 per cent by the 2025–26 school year: a welcome decision, since the education sector is a vital frontline of cultural survival, and previous initiatives to meaningfully revive the language have failed to match the hopes and energy of Amazigh activists.

Indeed, the question of Tamazight in education is especially poignant since, as Amazigh activist Amina Amharech highlights, the educational system was a key tool of Arabization, contributing to the stigmatization of Amazigh whenever they communicated in their mother tongue.

Amharech adds that these assaults on the language became catalysts for the displacement of the Amazigh from their land and the erosion of their cultural identity. For any indigenous people, land justice is almost always an integral part of the broader struggle for cultural autonomy and political representation, with land often a source of livelihood and the foundation of identity. The Amazigh case is no different.

Customary Amazigh laws guaranteeing rights to land were abolished by the French and never reinstated by the postcolonial regime. The result is that Amazigh have long been subjected to encroachment on or the wholesale appropriation of their ancestral territories, leading to displacement, socioeconomic vulnerability and cultural erosion.

The government justifies its strategy of appropriating Amazigh lands as a means to foster Morocco’s development. According to the state, collective lands are inherently mismanaged and unproductive, while in the words of Amharech, the development plan for Morocco is ‘being carried out at the expense of the majority and the grassroots.’

The Amazigh movement calls for equitable access to and control over their ancestral lands and natural resources. Key demands include the recognition of traditional land management systems, protection against forced evictions, and the establishment of mechanisms that empower Amazigh communities in decisions related to land use and resource management. Such policies are essential to rectify historical injustices and sustain the Amazigh cultural renaissance.

Amazigh women also lead the struggle for land justice. Having been forced to endure most of the consequences of privatization, as women could not inherit collective lands, with single, widowed, divorced or those without sons at a particular disadvantage, the Soulaliyate women movement has emerged as a powerful grassroots force advocating for land rights in Morocco. These women struggle for the recognition and ownership of their ancestral lands, challenging existing legal frameworks and societal norms to assert their right to property.

Initial hard-won successes of this mobilization marked by the issuance of three administrative circulars by the Ministry of Interior between 2009 and 2012. These directives stipulated the inclusion of women as beneficiaries of collective land. Soulaliyate women are now pushing for a law that will institutionally ensure the enforcement of these circulars at the national level.  This law would go far in securing land rights for Soulaliyate women, and in addressing the marginalization of Amazigh women as a whole.

The recent earthquake in Morocco laid bare the systemic nature of that marginalization. Claiming over 2,800 lives and affecting the entire nation, it disproportionately impacted Amazigh, who already withstand the worst of poverty and discrimination. Its aftermath reveals the stark reality that areas inhabited by Amazigh lack essential infrastructure, safe housing and proper access to resources and healthcare. Looking forward to a future where extreme weather events will be increasingly common, addressing these systemic issues and improving the living conditions of remote Amazigh communities will be pivotal. As the dust settles on the 2023 earthquake, the urgent need to confront the exclusion and disadvantage of Amazigh is laid bare.

This year’s Yennayer celebrations propelled Morocco’s Amazigh movement into a new year with renewed commitment to sustaining their cultural identity and securing their rightful place within the nation’s socio-political landscape. Nevertheless, their struggles persist. Cultural recognition is essential, but alone it is not enough. If Morocco is serious about recognizing the Amazigh culture in more than name only, it must follow the path already laid out by the tireless activists and organizations advocating for language justice, land rights, and equitable socio-economic development.

People celebrate Yennayer in Rabat, Morocco. Sunday, 14 January 2024. Credit: Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo.


Sanae Alouazen

Morocco Liaison Officer

Minority Rights Group