Morocco Stories: Part 2

Morocco Stories: Part 2 July 24, 2019

Traveling in Morocco as a woman was definitely interesting; it was probably for the best that I was in a group and not by myself, given that I was obviously an outsider.

A balcony in the Hassan II mosque to allow women to pray in privacy and modesty.

In Part 1 of this post series, I explained why I was in Morocco in the first place (yay professional development) and talked a bit about the religion. This post is dedicated to my observations about gender, and the next post to power and politics.

When I teach (American) students about feminism and gender in the Middle East, we always have to talk about the veil or hijab. I usually show this excellent TED talk by Samina Ali about the meaning of the word hijab in the context of the Quran, and I assign an essay by anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod called “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” (there’s a snippet of her talking about the main premise of her essay here). I try to guide my students into a framework that balances cultural relativism – evaluating a culture on its own terms – and a basic human rights moral stance.

So, upon traveling to Morocco I was aware that I bring with me a very Western feminist lens. The evolution of feminism here has been framed in a very different way than in other parts of the world, with a focus on voting and property and education rights in the first wave of feminism, up through a focus on reproductive rights and justice in the second and third waves, as well as a dedication to ending sexual harassment and violence, closing the gender pay gap, and all that good stuff (not to mention becoming more intersectional in how we pay attention to who’s made most vulnerable by overlapping power structures such as white supremacy, ableism, and so on).

I wasn’t expecting to roll in and have a more enlightened or woke approach to gender roles; I wasn’t thinking that it was up to me to “save” anybody. I may not understand why people accept the gender roles dictated by their religion, but that goes for Christians and Jews as well as Muslims, people “here” as well as “there.” Mostly, I tried to go with an open mind and a sense of curiosity about how people live their lives, which is a super anthropological way to go about things.

Most women in public spaces wore head coverings, which did not come as a big surprise. I don’t recall seeing any street harassment, though I’m given to understand that it happens sometimes there (as it does here). After the final prayer each night (since we were traveling during Ramadan), empty streets would suddenly fill with families, and people of all genders and ages would be bustling around, visiting with friends and relatives, chatting and enjoying the cooling-off air. Women were extremely visible in public spaces during these times when groups filled the streets.

Women were less visible in the groups of people we saw praying outside mosques during the evening prayer, at least in Marrakech. I’m not sure if that had to do with the notion that women should protect their modesty and pray separately from men where possible, or if it had to do with many of the women being at home preparing the meals that everyone would eat to break their daily fasts.

The one thing that detracted from my enjoyment of the otherwise beautiful Hassan II mosque was the ornately decorated railing (at the top of this post) that existed so women could come pray as well and not be seen by men. Which I get is an attempt to protect their privacy and modesty, but it still rankles me to see men and women treated so differently, and to see women granted less access to holy places (since there’s less space on the balconies to accommodate women than there is space on the ground floor for men). Ah well, I guess I will always be a cranky feminist when it comes to some issues.

One of the decorated stairways that leads to a women’s only space in the Hassan II mosque.

We visited a handful of non-profits devoted to helping women find their feet, since Morocco apparently does not have much of a social safety net for people in poverty. And, because of strict beliefs about gender roles – what has been named the honor-shame system, as in, a woman’s modesty or sexual shame being linked to her family’s and particularly male kin’s honor – it is especially easy for women to slip through the cracks. Women who are single mothers, who have been raped, who are divorced, who are widowed: these women are more vulnerable than most to poverty in Morocco. If their natal families kick them out for besmirching their honor and/or if there’s no marital family to take them in and keep them there, it could spell trouble (UN’s Women Watch site has a number of stories about women’s issues in Morocco along these lines).

At the Amal Center in Marrakech, we met needy women who were receiving job training in the culinary arts so that they could have an income and thus support themselves (and often, their families, who might include small children). The literacy rate in Morocco is on the low side, around 50% from what I heard, and women tend to be particularly impacted by intersection of education and poverty issues. In learning vocational skills, many of the women at Amal also increase their linguistic skills, both reading and speaking, and thus better their chances of landing stable work.

From our lunch at Amal.

In Tangier, we visited Darna, a non-profit with branches devoted to women and children, respectively. The children’s house provides a safe place for kids to hang out before and after school, as well as providing supplies and low-key training for all kinds of crafts: embroidery, sewing, woodworking, and more (notably, kids of all gender participate in all the crafts regardless of how a particular craft might be perceived as gendered). Being at Darna reminded me of being at the high school where my mom taught special education for most of her career; it felt very warm and welcoming, with tons of art on the walls and bunches of kids both running around and sitting still to learn and make things.

One view of Darna.
A painting made by one of the kids at Darna.
A mixed-media piece from Darna. It says, “Art Darna.” Of course I love it because it’s a dancer.
My next-favorite piece from Darna.

At the women’s branch of Darna, much like at Amal, women receive vocational training so they can support themselves as needed. But where Amal is devoted to the culinary arts, Darna is devoted to the textile arts (though, we also had lunch at a branch of their organization, so maybe they do food training too!). We met women learning to weave, to sew, to embroider, and so on. Many of their products were available at the gift shop, and given that there’s a market for handcrafted Moroccan goods as souvenirs, that seems like a smart move on their part.

Amal means “hope” in Arabic. Darna means “my house.” I thought both were nice names. Both places felt very home-y to me, which again, is not surprising given that my mom was an art teacher, and given that I’ve had a pretty progressive upbringing focused on uplifting those less fortunate than us.

A female colleague and I went out walking in Tangier, once we’d been there enough days to get our bearings. I imagine that as Westerners we got some odd looks, but everyone was nice to us, with the exception of two boys who offered to guide us to the casbah, then (probably) cursed us out when we didn’t want to give them money.

Would I have felt safe going on that walk by myself? Maybe, maybe not. Obviously I could spend another few months immersing myself in the research on gender in Morocco, but my sense right now is that the public:private::male:female divide remains pretty strongly in place. Women’s traditional crafts seem highly valued, but then, women still seem to be burdened with the bulk of the (unpaid) domestic and family labor. Also, women seem to have decent rights in Morocco at least on the books, but those rights are not always equally implemented or easily accessible. I got the impression that contraceptives are not widely discussed and that there’s no sex education curriculum in schools.

I wish I’d had the chance to speak to some more regular women about their life experiences, but our schedule was pretty packed, and obviously there was a language barrier. Maybe next time. As always, I might have my own thoughts and impressions as a Western feminist, but I’m keenly interested to hear what women all over the world have to say about their own lives, and I’d love to offer assistance in whichever ways are most appropriate and needed, which goes counter to the “we need to save those Muslim women” narratives that are often spun in the Western media.

Since the trip, I’ve read Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi, who grew up in Morocco in the 1940s and 50s. It seems that many women were (are?) expected to content themselves with ornamental lives if upper class, and domestically-oriented working lives if middle or lower class. I enjoyed Mernissi’s ruminations on shifting gender roles in the last century, and I’d recommend the book to others as well.

Traditional Moroccan-Jewish women’s dress, from a museum exhibit in Tangier.

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