Women In My Community
Despite gender relations being a huge issue here in Morocco, I haven’t really written about it much. I guess that I wanted to wait until I got a better understanding of what’s going on. That’s not to say that I completely understand now, I’m sure I’ll be updating this post a few months down the line. Also, while I’m writing about gender relations in my community, I think that many of the things are easily generalized to other rural communities in Morocco. In fact, from speaking with other volunteers and visiting other communities, I believe that women in my community have it relatively good. One hedge before I get into it: as a man, my view towards the issue is obviously limited. I’m sure there are some aspects to this topic that I am ignorant of.
It’s hard to know where to start with this issue. It’s also hard not to be really negative. Generally speaking, women in my community are treated as sub-humans. There are exceptions, which I will try to speak to, but mostly it’s really difficult to witness (and be complicit in) the everyday oppression that they are subjected to.
When I first arrived in my community, my host mom and I walked down to the spring to collect water. We walked past some other women and I said the standard greeting: ‘Salaam u walaykum’ (peace be upon you) to the women. Once we had passed by the other women, my host mom told me, “You don’t say salaam u walaykum to girls and women here. You say llayawn.” ‘Llayawn’ basically means God help you. For a couple weeks I continued to say ‘salaam u walaykum’ to women in my site; I felt like having a different greeting for women and men was kind of degrading. But women didn’t really respond to that greeting or were clearly uncomfortable, so I’ve switched to saying ‘llayawn.’ I don’t like to say it because it just enforces differences between genders, but people respect it a lot more.
Another thing that is easily noticed is women’s dress. Women wear as many layers of loose fitting clothing as they’re able to. The headscarf is worn by any girl over 14 or 15 and many small girls wear it as well. When women leave the house, they normally wrap a bed sheet around their whole body to completely cover themselves. There is one woman in my community who is about 18 years old who doesn’t wear a headscarf all the time. I asked my host mom about it and she was definitely ashamed to talk about it.
Before moving onto more subtle things, it’s important to note that there are strict gender lines and roles in other cultures as well. As a liberal Westerner, I don’t really like that, but it’s easier to understand. But there’s a big difference between defined gender roles and oppressing an entire gender.
All right, so the most distressing way that women are treated is the general disregard for their health and well-being. There is little expectation that time or resources will be used in order to improve a woman’s health. For example, my host mom has chronic stomach issues (probably due to her diet). She goes to the local health clinic (which is free) frequently to ask for medicine (which is free). The medicine they have at the health clinic isn’t going to solve her problems, so the nurses often prescribe her something that would require her to travel to our souq town and buy the medicine from the pharmacy. Going to the pharmacy is not big hassle since my host dad has to go souq every week to buy food anyways. The medicine prescribed for her costs 30 dirhams (about 4 dollars). Now, I know my host family has enough money to afford 30 dirhams for medicine because Peace Corps has paid them between 6,000 and 7,000 dirhams over the past 3 months to host me. And hosting me didn’t cost anywhere near that much, so they have money left over. But when I asked if she was going to get the prescription filled, she said it was too much money. I don’t know if there was an a discussion with my host dad about the medicine or what, but she was pretty sure she wasn’t going to get the medicine. (I bought the medicine for my host mom). Meanwhile, a month ago my host dad spent what must have been a considerable amount of money for a veterinarian to come to our house (from the souq town) to look at our sick cow.
I don’t think that women expect to be healthy here. The expectation is that they will work all day long, care for the children, cook the food, and not complain. At meal times, women give themselves the worst portions. Like the example with medicine, this is even the case in families where there is enough money to afford decent food for everyone. Plus, women spend so much time during meals serving the men that I’m not sure when they eat.
When I go and eat at other people’s houses, it’s always interesting to see whether or not I will eat with the women of the house. Women often eat in another room. When this happens, I wonder whether or not it’s being done purely for my benefit and the women normally eat with the men. It’s hard to tell.
I recently had a conversation with a man in a neighboring village that was especially depressing. He told me that he hated the king (which, by the way, was a total surprise – people never criticize the king because a) they genuinely like him or b) they’re afraid to). When I asked why he went into this long tirade about the king’s wife. She appears on television and does a lot of public appearances with important people. He said that a woman’s place is in the house and that the king was disgracing Morocco by letting his wife out in public like that. Furthermore, he was angry about how she dressed (often in pants). It’s important to note that the man was angry with the king for letting his wife do these things.
As for how women relate with me, there’s a whole range of reactions to my presence. Some women (mostly younger ones) are so ashamed that they won’t respond to my greetings. On the other hand, others (mostly older) greet me and talk to me in a totally comfortable way. The women that I’ve gotten to know through my host mom tend to be much more comfortable around me as well. Also, women who are apart of my host family have more normal relations with me. Part of women’s quietness around me is due to my own reticence; I never know how friendly to be with women because I’m afraid of crossing the line and offending someone.
There are a whole slew of other examples that just further the same points that I’ve been making. Oh, one important one to note is the age at girls get married here. 12 years old is acceptable, but I’d guess the norm is probably 15 or 16. This is despite a recent law that made marriage under the age of 18 illegal.
Now for some counter-examples. Like I said, there are women who I have pretty decent relations with and who are comfortable, especially my host mom. They tend to be women who couldn’t possibly feel threatened by me, sexually. There are men here who treat their wives in a reasonable way. Some women joke around with their husbands and disagree and argue with them. There are families who invite me into their house and where it’s appropriate to talk to women and girls in a pretty normal way. Another refreshing thing was the open, happy way that women act at weddings. They wear nicer clothes (often without the sheet) and some of them dance. It’s important to note these examples because it’s easy for me to overstate the oppression of women due to how it makes me feel.
Why does this happen? Well the guy who went on a tirade about the king’s wife said that letting women act like that was against Islam. The religious explanation is a frequent one for the disparities between men and women, but I don’t think it tells nearly the whole story. Many of the men who treat their wives like shit are bad Muslims. They don’t pray, they smoke, they drink, etc. I don’t buy the religious argument from someone who picks and chooses which part of a religion he wants to follow. I believe they’re using a religious excuse to enforce their dominance over women. A lot of men in my village are illiterate and even more of them have never read the Qu’ran. Furthermore, two men who treat their wives very well are two of the most devout men in the village. The Qu’ran may have some passages that prescribe inequality between men and women, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t say anything about working your wife into the ground and ignoring her needs for basic health care.
I often wonder what it would be like to be a woman volunteer in this country; I don’t think my previous post where I mused on the issue was very fair. It seems like there is a choice for women volunteers. One option is to try and act as you would in the states and be accepted for who you are. Of course, the problem with this choice is that the men in the community are never going to accept a woman as their equal. Another option is to try and integrate completely into your community and act as a Moroccan woman would. First of all, this seems extremely depressing. Additionally, you would lose any access to working with the powerful men in your community, which is often critical for the kind of work that we’re trying to do here. Many women probably choose the middle ground. But honestly, I can’t accurately imagine what that experience would be like.
Despite the extremely negative tone of this post, I’m doing pretty well. Ramadan is coming to an end – the day of celebration is either Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the moon. I’m getting used to fasting and it’s not such a big deal anymore, although I’ll be happy when it ends. My next post will be a retrospective on Ramadan.
Work in my site is going well. I did a bunch of tooth brushing lessons in my school today. I’ve been talking with a local leader and he is going to help me talk to adults about dental hygiene as well. We’ve broken the community up into six groups and he’s going to organize discussion times for each group. I’m nervous about telling grown adults about the importance of brushing teeth (it feels condescending), but health education is my job here. Plus, I’m going to frame the discussion about dental hygiene as something that the parents need to help their children with.