Friday, October 9, 2009

Gender In Morocco

I missed last week's posting because I forgot to bring the notebook in which I had hand written it. Without any further delay, here it is:

I keep writing about this topic of gender because I keep learning more about it. And also there's a lot to say.

For the last couple months, I've been helping a local girl with English. She just graduated from high school and is starting college this fall. She's the only girl from my village that I know of who continued her studies past the 6th grade. She just happened to choose English as her concentration; when her father asked me to help her I was happy to do so. I'm glad to be helping her with her English because I get a lot out of it too: we have honest conversations about gender and religion that are illuminating.

Every week she writes a couple essays for me so that I can correct her English and to give us something to talk about. She often writes something about gender.

For Westerners, the symbol of female oppression in the Muslim world is the headscarf. This girl (let's call her Fatima) wrote about when she started wearing the headscarf (which she calls a veil even though it only covers her hair and neck): "The step of the veil was very difficult for me because I wasn't used to covering...As a non-Muslim, the importance of wearing the veil must seem stupid and exaggerated, but I think it is good for every woman." She told me that the hardest part of wearing the headscarf for her was the physical discomfort of wrapping her head. She told me that parents ought to make their little girls wear headscarves from an early age so as to get them used to the feeling.

Ultimately, she made the decision to wear the headscarf because "I know it was a command from God." Dogmatic is a good way to describe her belief (and the belief of many other Moroccans that I have interacted with). Whenever I question a practice of Islam that I find sexist, she says that it is justified because God commanded it.

But that is not to say that she is uncritical of Muslims' behavior. We talk about some of the oppressive practices happening in the community (and in the rest of the Muslim world) and she says that many people distort the word of God - I'm only happy to point out the ways that people do that with Christianity as well. Returning to gender, Fatima has told me that it is silly to pretend that man and woman are equals. She wrote that "menses and pregnancy make women weak." She sees men and women as performing important, but different roles in the community and in the family.

For Fatima, religious rules about relationships between unmarried girls and boys ultimately come down to protecting the "dignity" of girls. She's told me that if a girl's virginity is not intact on her wedding night, there will be lots of trouble for her and her family. I asked her why a man's virginity is not guarded in the same way and she said that that was confusing to her. That it was unfair.

Given that she goes to school in a bigger city, Fatima is exposed to Moroccan girls/women who dress similarly to Western women. She told me that she feels pity for these girls; that they have no self-respect.

This is a crucial point: Fatima believes that sexual and behavioral freedom in the West is a degredation of the women. While Westerners see Muslim women wearing modest clothes and segregating them from men as oppressive, she sees it as the only way to protect their dignity and respect. She thinks that Western men treat their women poorly in a similar way that I think that Moroccans treat their women poorly. Both groups see the the other as oppressors of their women. For Westerners, freedom and choice are important. For Muslims (at least Fatima), modesty is important.

Given the way that some Moroccan men treat women who dress "immodestly," I kind of see her point. Fatima writes, "I don't like the idea of a boy who uses a girl as a tool for gratification of his desires." I have heard many horror stories from female volunteers about harrassment. From my own experience, men in my village talk very disrespectfully about girls. One story stands out (I am not sure if it's good to pass this story on; it's quite upsetting).

About a week ago, a Swarthmore who's doing a Fulbright in Morocco came to stay at my house on her way to the South. After she left, I was in a young-man hangout place and the men brought up the girl. First, they couldn't believe that I didn't sleep with her, despite my insistence. Worse was what they told me I ought to have done. They said I ought to have gotten her drunk so that "she couldn't say 'no'." If that didn't work, I should have gotten a rope and tied her up. There was a group of about 10 young men agreeing with this and chiming in with their own rape strategies. Obviously very upsetting. I said that was wrong, no one agreed with me. (This is one reason that I'm having trouble making real friends here: I don't respect most of the men.)

At least in my community, it is culturally acceptable to think of women as sex objects. Given that, Fatima is right: the only way for a girl to be respectable and to keep men from saying awful things about her is to cover up (although covering up doesn't always work either). Both men and women here have told me that men cannot control their sexual impulses. It is up to women not to stir up these impulses. Talking about women in big cities who dress like Westerners, Fatima told me that any harrassment that they get is their own fault. They invite it.

What to make of all this? Oppression exists in the Muslim world, but after reading the Qu'ran, it is clear that a lot of that oppression is of cultural and not religious origin. However, there are some passages in the Qu'ran that clearly put men in a superior position to women. Fatima sees these passages as a reflection of natural differences between men and women. Ultimately these oppressive measures are necessary to protect the dignity of women. I don't see it that way, but living amongst men in my village allows me to see where she is coming from.

I've been accused by some readers of being too factual and not editorializing enough; so here's what I think: Oppression of women here is awful, but the situation is a lot more complicated that liberating women by allowing them to wear whatever clothes they want. Furthermore, there is a partnership between man and wife in the household and a great deal of respect and love in that partnership.

In some European countries, the issue of the headscarf is a politcally sensitive one. France restricts wearing it in certain public spaces. Certain schools in Belgium have recently banned wearing the headscarf. To me, this is terribly misplaced liberalism. Preventing someone from wearing an article of clothing that they see as central to protecting their dignity?? Crazy. The headscarf is the symbol of female oppression in the West, but women here see it as a way to protect themselves. Treat the disease (male chauvanism), not the symptom. French President Sarkozy called the burka a tool of oppression and sees himself as a savior for liberating women from its shackles. While the burka (a burka is different from the headscarf: it covers the entire face, except for the eyes) is oppressive, forcing a woman to remove it does not address the root of the problem. Worse, it embarrasses Muslim women and makes Western government seem disrespectful in the eyes of the Muslim world, widening the gap between the two civilizations.

Imagine a nation where people do not where shirts. Natives, men and women, walk around topless (some Pacific Island community?). Then suppose that a law was enacted requiring women (targeted at American immigrants to the community) to take of their shirts when they entered public schools. Absolutely ridiculous. I see the amount of clothing that a community finds acceptable as culturally relative and ultimately arbitrary. Why force one culture to adapt your culture's clothing norms?


I'm in Rabat now. I've been invited to the wedding of my boss's daughter, which I'm very excited for. I've spent most of the last week in my community at weddings, staying up late, drinking lots of eating, eating lots of sheep meat, and dancing.

When I first came to my village, I thought that I could never be friends with females. My host mom has always been one of my best friends here. Then I started helping this girl with English and we have become good friends. At the weddings, I met a girl who is from our community, but lives and work in Rabat. She's much more open and less shy. We rode the bus to Rabat together and are friends. Also I've developed friendships with the nurses and teachers in my community. I'm very grateful for these friendships.

My camera recently broke. Almost as upsetting as this fact is the way in which it happened. One of the weddings that I went to was my host cousin's. He asked me if he borrow the camera and take pictures of the wedding. Wanting pictures of a wedding and feeling uncomfortable to be snapping photos myself, I agreed. Well someone bumped into the guy and he dropped the camera. He felt really bad, but didn't offer to pay for its repair and probably doens't have the money to anyways. This is upsetting because lots of Peace Corps volunteers don't lend their things to Moroccans for precisely this reason and warn others against doing the same. I've always been pretty generous with my stuff because I wanted to treat people in my community as I would treat Americans. Now I face the consequences. I'm going to try and get the camera fixed while I am in Rabat.

All is well.


mary ellen newport said...

hey buddy, i think this longer post addresses the nuances in the issue of gender.thanks for sharing the uncomfortable story about the rape scenarios. confirmation about the worst in men. the problem is that men and women in their culture believe that men's sexuality is a given, not changeable. what a loss. for them and their women.

Mara in Morocco said...

great post. aaaaah how much your views have changed of your 'liberal' site :-) hugs