DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's meet a businesswoman now who has risen to prominence in a country in North Africa where women have not exactly had it easy. In Morocco, women are often in poverty and illiterate, and they face a restrictive legal code. The government has over the last decade given women more rights. It raised the marriage age and promoted more women in parliament. And among the educated elite in this Muslim country is a highly accomplished businesswoman and banker named Nezha Hayat. She recently came by our studio.
When you walk into a boardroom now at a bank or at a company in Morocco and look around the table at the faces, how many women do you normally see?
NEZHA HAYAT: In the boards where I sit, there can be two or three out of 10 or 12 men.
GREENE: Hayat was the first woman on the board of a major bank in Morocco. She's involved in running the Casablanca Stock Exchange, and she's pushing for more women to play decision-making roles in the country's economy.
HAYAT: I prefer never to think that an impediment is caused by gender. On the contrary, I have the feeling, at least as far as my country is concerned, that being a woman, of course educated with access to a job, gives you greater opportunities today in certain sectors.
GREENE: I wonder about your upbringing. I mean as you look back, growing up in Morocco, what was the key that sort of put you on a path to the success?
HAYAT: Very easy. Well, I come from a family where there are five girls, two boys.
GREENE: That's quite a troop. And you were the oldest and probably...
HAYAT: I was, yes.
GREENE: ...helping to run the family, I would imagine.
HAYAT: And my father, we had a very comfortable childhood, but he has no fortune. So he wanted his daughters to be financially independent. So we were forced to be good students and to look for a future where would have a job, the freedom to leave a husband if we don't agree with him and - well, to be independent.
GREENE: Was that not the message for many parents in Morocco, that this message of you as a young woman should be financially independent?
HAYAT: Not at the time. You know, I'm 50 years old, so it's probably today the message, at least the message that is being delivered to girls, maybe not in the '60s.
GREENE: Tell me how Morocco compares to other countries in North Africa and the region. Are women in much better position in Morocco? Are the women in Morocco lucky compared to other places?
HAYAT: It's difficult for me to compare. But what I can say is that in my country we are very, very fortunate to have a king who is promoting women. Our legal status have improved also. Thanks to him, we had in 2004, the code of personal status that regulates traditional family laws, issues including marriage, divorce, child custody, and it was changed in a way to protect our rights.
GREENE: One of the family laws in Morocco has made headlines, because it seems to say that if a man rapes a woman, if he is married to her, that's OK. And we read about the case of a young woman who committed suicide after being forced to marry the person who raped her. Is that indicative of a huge problem in your country?
HAYAT: No. I don't know very well the law. But I understand that at the beginning it was made to give a future to a woman who loses, you know, her virginity and who is raped and who could, because of that, be isolated and abandoned by her family. And my understanding is that it was made more to give a solution to a girl rather than letting her abandoned.
GREENE: You're saying the intent of the law might have been to help women even if applications of it have been very different.
HAYAT: Yes. Even if the application. And so I think changes of the law are under the way.
GREENE: There are some women in Morocco who complain that the rights of women are a huge problem, that they don't feel like they have equal rights.
GREENE: And there's the case of this girl who was raped. And knowing that those things are happening, I wonder if you're concerned that you might paint too rosy a picture by talking about your own success at the top level on the board of the bank.
HAYAT: Yes. Well, I'm not trying to paint a rosy picture. You know, media are more distrusted by gloomy things and by dramas, and there are more successful stories. And the idea is not to say well, everything is all right, but to say it can be done.
GREENE: Nezha Hayat, thank you so much for stopping by. We really appreciate you talking to us.
HAYAT: Thank you so much.
GREENE: Nezha Hayat is on the executive board of the Banque Societe Generale in Morocco. She's also founder of Morocco's club of women corporate directors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.