By Molly Lower
Every morning just before the first call to prayer, several of Midelt’s women tiptoe past sleeping children and head for the local ovens. Once inside their cooperative, they slip out of their jallabas, tie scarves up around their hair, and push up their sleeves for their morning work. Flour is set out, water, salt, and yeast. Propane tanks are turned on, and the ovens are fired up for the morning’s first round of khobz.
Situated on the plains between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Midelt developed during the first half of the twentieth century as a mining town. While the region around Midelt has been inhabited for centuries by local Amazigh (Berber) villages, the growth of today’s Midelt came with the mining of lead, gypsum, fossils, and other minerals during the French colonial rule of Morocco.
Today in Midelt, the economy is fairly steady, with minerals, agriculture, animal husbandry, and growing tourism providing many jobs. However, for the women in this cooperative, providing for their families is very challenging. Their stories vary; many of the cooperative’s women are single mothers, widows, or divorced, while others have husbands who refuse to work and live off the meager salary they earn here. While women in Morocco have the right to file for divorce, stigma against divorced women is commonplace in Moroccan society.
Khadijah*, in her mid-forties, leans on the windowsill and wipes sweat from her brow with the back of a floured hand. Divorced, she is raising four children on her daily 15 Moroccan Dirhams, just under 2 Dollars, she earns here. For each loaf, the women earn 1.5 Moroccan Dirhams. As the batches of hot, flattened, round loafs emerge from the oven, they are left to cool, and are bagged up to be sold store to store by the women of the cooperative.
Each day, the women keep track and write down the amount of necessary ingredients they use, noting the propane tanks they go through, averaging about two tanks a day to heat their ovens. During Ramadan, the women continue their work, using nearly three propane tanks as the demand for fresh bread increases during the holy month.
With a rent of about 900 Moroccan Dirhams a month and the purchase of all baking materials drawn directly from the cooperative’s profits, the women of Midelt’s Bread Cooperative barely make ends meet. However, for the past seven years, the women still tend their ovens daily. The first shift from 4-11 in the morning, and the second from 11-14, the women continue to support each other and themselves, sipping on sweet tea amidst turning hot loaves with their bare hands.
For women without extensive education, job options are limited in Midelt’s fairly isolated location. The women of Midelt are mostly Amazigh, predominantly speaking Ait Ayache, a Central Atlas Tamazight, and the Moroccan Arabic, Darija. Limited education and knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic and French languages isolate women from jobs in the Moroccan government and education sector. Options for women with minimum education include house cleaning, street sweeping, cooking, and some may find work as a preschool teacher. In part due to limited job opportunities for women like the ladies working here, prostitution is very high in and around Midelt.
For now, the women who walk to the ovens of the Midelt Bread Cooperative each morning work hard to make ends meet, supporting their families on the little income they manage to generate. In a society where men working the same job often make twice as much as they do, these women wake up each day, and make the best of an incredibly challenging situation, putting their best foot forward for their survival, and their children’s futures.