A Feminist-Atheist Walks into a Bar (in Morocco)

A Feminist-Atheist Walks into a Bar (in Morocco) May 14, 2019

For once while traveling I’m not bringing my laptop, so I can’t yet promise to start posting more regularly now that the semester is over. That might actually be a good thing.

Image of the Rabat Medina. From Wikimedia Commons (in public domain).

I’m sure long-time readers of mine know the refrain by now: ugh, this semester kicked my ass, but now I’ll be blogging more regularly! Except that’s not the case.

I teach with a really wonderful and innovative global studies program that is bringing me along on a faculty development trip to Morocco. I’m thrilled to get to explore a country I’ve not yet visited, and I’m actually excited to have an excuse to ditch my laptop and travel light, recording my thoughts in a notebook and getting to know colleagues that I mostly see in passing. This is mostly due to burnout creeping up on me more than I’d thought, given how many unpleasant life surprises there were for me recently and much of an emotionally rough time I had through the end of finals.

So while I hope to be back to blogging more regularly during the summer months, I’m not making any promises because if it doesn’t – as folks on the internet say these days – spark joy, I’m not doing it. Trust me, I want to rediscover the joy of writing in general and blogging specifically, but after the wringer I’ve been put through, I’m not going to force anything (one of the unexpected things I had to deal with was my old car being drowned out in a flash flood that was labeled by insurance “an act of God,” that’s how unexpected and unreal it was, ironically enough for the purposes of this being a blog on a nonreligious channel, if that tells you anything about how my last few weeks have gone).

But I hope to have a few things to say when I’m back in a couple of weeks about Morocco, specifically about my observations on gender issues and religious issues there. I’ve taught a unit on women’s rights in the Middle East and transnational feminisms in one of my college classes for a few years now, so I’m quite excited to have feet on the ground so I can experience a culture for myself.

I expect I will be revisiting many of the questions/issues I raised in If Your Culture Treats Women Like Crap, Maybe Your Culture is Crap: how far do we apply the ideas of cultural relativism when evaluating another culture based on its treatment of women? Is there a point at which we have to assert a universal human rights framework and say “No, I don’t care how you justify it, these gender norms are a legit human rights violation”? Not that I expect a quick trip to provide me with all the answers, but I hope to have more information in order to contribute to the conversation.

The title of this post is a reference both to the joke setup of “A priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…” and a joke itself, by the way. I’ve been told that many public social spaces in Morocco are pretty gender-segregated, so I’m not actually expecting to visit any bars. Still, it’ll be weird for me to be in such a gender-segregated space. Obviously Islamophobia is bigotry, and yet I’m also curious how experiencing a predominantly Muslim culture firsthand will influence my understanding of how Islam and gender interact.

Further, we’ll be in a Muslim-majority nation during Ramadan, which I expect to be fascinating. I’m not sure whether to approach Ramadan more as holiday or as another relevant folklore genre like festival, but it definitely combines elements of customary, verbal, and material culture into one large public display event. As both a folklorist and an atheist I’m curious what it’ll be like experiencing the holiday as an outsider (obviously a respectful one; we know to wear modest attire and not eat in public).

Finally, as someone who’s studied belly dance for over 20 years, I’m keenly interested in whether I’ll actually get to see any sort of belly dance or local folk dance (that may or may not be called belly dance for various reasons, some of them to do with fighting colonialism). I’m intellectually aware that what we see and do in America is quite different than what happens in the Middle East and North Africa, so in a way I’m expecting the unexpected, however that turns out.

So, right now I’m trying to find that balance between “excited for the trip for my own reasons, because I could use a break!” and “excited for the trip because of how it’ll inform my teaching on multiple levels, which is still something I feel excited about despite the terrible burnout/fatigue I’ve been dealing with lately.” As with everything in my life it seems like it’s a tricky balance, but I’ll figure it out eventually.

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