Welcomed in Al-Maghreb
Immersed in the lives of people from one of the most beautiful countries I have ever visited—the Kingdom of Morocco—summer 2013 proved to be the most unforgettable experience of my life.
My days were filled with snake charmers in the old medina (old city), the Atlas mountains in the distance, the rows of olive trees, drum-infused music, diverse dialect, the call to prayer, the colorful array of jalabiyas (traditional dresses), and “couscous Fridays.”
On a study abroad program far away from my home university in Corpus Christi, Texas, during my first month in Morocco I served as an intern at the Association Initiatives pour la Promotion des Droits des Femmes (IPDF) in the City of Meknes. An association that strives to promote gender equality and full citizenship of women through the development of public policies and laws that protect and advance women’s human rights, this internship allowed me to spend several afternoons speaking, interviewing, and learning about the situation of women in Morocco from Moroccan women themselves.
In addition to my internship with the women of IPDF, when Women’s Voices Now made its appearance for one leg of the WVN 2013 Global Tour, I also became a part of the WVN team. My introduction to the work of WVN came on June 19-20, when I attended the film and discussion symposium presented in coordination with a number of women leaders and academics from the region, and my study abroad program, ISA (International Studies Abroad-Morocco).
When WVN visited the community in Meknes, screened its films, and helped to spark a multi-lingual and multicultural discussion and debate on the status of women in Morocco, I witnessed the power of facilitating a forum for free expression. Through screening films from its first festival, Women’s Voices from the Muslim World, WVN offered the women from IPDF an opportunity to virtually connect with women who overcame some sort of hardship and, in the process, began to articulate their needs and rights as women. I saw how this empowered portrayal of women inspired the IPDF women with whom I worked over the course of my two-month stay.
Seeing the uplifting effect of these films, my co-interns and I were inspired to draw out the voices of the women around us and to share our findings with the world. By summer’s end, we managed to record three video interviews that are now available on WVN’s website. By connecting those of us who do not have the chance to speak with and live among the Moroccan women that I came to know and be inspired by, these interviews were made to help further the mission of WVN – to bridge those of us, throughout the world, who promote women’s rights in Muslim-majority societies.
Women’s Voices Now is a U.S.-based non-governmental organization. The fact that WVN originated in the United States, in some ways, renders it a representative of the U.S. and its presence abroad. Accordingly, the United States presents itself as an advocate for freedom and equality, but that is not, necessarily, how U.S.-efforts in the Middle East and North Africa region are perceived.
As a new WVN intern, I decided to do some fieldwork on the perception of young Moroccans vis-à-vis American non-profit NGOs, such as Women’s Voices Now. In my investigation I included young, local Moroccans—male and female—to find out whether or not they agreed with the statement that these organizations help to support the growth of women’s rights in their country.
As a student taking classes at Meknes’ Moulay Ismail University (UMI), I quickly identified my informants. A group of four young men, whom I now consider dear friends, graciously shared their reflections on my questions regarding the efficacy of an organization like WVN. Making my findings all the more fascinating, one of our mutual friends, Kaddar Kawtar, a female graduate student, also gave an interview. Below is a short excerpt from our conversation that tells the story of a country in the midst of great transition.
Hamza Abouzahra (HA), male, age 20, UMI student.
Imad Maz (IM), male, age 21, UMI student.
Mahdaoui Salah Eddine (MSE), male, age 20, UMI student.
Youness Bouzimar (YB), male, age 18, student at University of Ibn Zohr.
Kaddar Kawtar (KK), female, age 23, UMI graduate student.
Evon— What is your opinion of American organizations, like Women’s Voices Now, coming to Morocco?
KK—The presence of WVN in Morocco is a positive one. By giving examples of various women’s success stories from around Morocco as well as other countries like the U.S., it allows Moroccan women to realize that they too can have their own success stories and achieve great things socially, politically, and economically, if they choose to.
HA— I support WVN’s presence in Morocco. Promoting the rights of women here is a positive thing that should continue to grow.
MSE— WVN is making women aware that they have a place in Moroccan society and that they can contribute socially and economically to the country and be respected. This is a good thing and I support this. However, there are certain limits that exist because of our society, which makes this hard. For example, men and women in the U.S. engage in regular business lunches or dinners, sometimes one on one. In Morocco, this does not typically happen because it could be misconstrued by people or their colleagues as a meeting that does not pertain strictly to business – this can be problematic for the woman’s reputation.
YB— I believe that foreign organizations, like WVN, have helped promote the creation of local Moroccan organizations, which has a positive domestic effect, which I support.
Evon— Do any of you feel that negative aspects exist in regards to the presence of foreign nonprofit organizations in Morocco?
IM— It is not that “negativity” comes as result of their presence, but “culture shock” does happen. Moroccans and Americans have different cultures and societies, so misunderstandings occur.
KK— I believe the misunderstanding stems from the differences in our “freedoms”. Sometimes having foreign organizations promoting certain rights for women backfires. Women and people as a whole have different definitions of what freedom is. The meaning of freedom in my society is understood by most girls as whether or not they can dress a certain way, smoke or drink rather than striving for intellectual freedom. I wish the girls and women here strived for this because if you have intellectual freedom, then you know why you are choosing to do certain things such as dressing a certain way or smoking, etc. I find that young women are rebelling against our society in the wrong ways. This paints a negative picture of women and therefore pushes them back instead of forward.
Evon— What places in society do Moroccan women hold today? What places should or could women hold in Morocco’s future?
KK— As of now, I think that Moroccan women are poorly represented in organizations and the government. There were changes in 2011 to our constitution to bridge the gap between men and women, but these are just written words. They are not actively applied to daily life. Women continue to be abused in every way, and not just exclusively in rural areas, but even more so in cities now. Also, socially, here in Morocco, I believe a woman determines how others see her.
Evon— Would you guys agree or disagree with Kaddar’s statement?
All four males— We agree.
Evon— In the future, if any of you have a daughter, what would your hopes be for her?
HA— I would hope she can express herself in good ways, like me with dance, and I would make sure she becomes highly educated.
IM— I would hope my daughter has a strong mind and will. That way, she can achieve anything she wants.
MSE— I hope my daughter will become smart, strong and stay true to her morals and background.
KK— I would hope that my daughter will be part of a world that one day treats her as an equal to men. I hope she is strong-willed, intellectually free, and respectable.
Overall, the above interview depicts an abbreviated version of several conversations that I had with young Moroccans over the duration of the two months that I lived and studied in Morocco. In my observations, the perspectives of the younger generation offer a unique insight into the Moroccan gender equality movement. That is: Morocco’s social fabric is gradually changing and that change holds hope for the future of Moroccan women.
Generally speaking, Morocco has a reputation for being a more “Westernized” country in the Middle East and North Africa region. It receives this label because, throughout its history, the Kingdom has been accepting of different people, their cultures, and religions (with some episodes of exception). In the past, this policy of openness and acceptance was directed from the top down, wherein the few men in charge made the decisions for the many.
Today, Morocco—an island of relative stability in the chaos of the Arab Uprisings—continues to see gradual social transformations taking place in the country, and, especially, in the size and scope of the gender rights movement. In my opinion, these changes can be accredited to the youth, whose inexorable call for change is now filtering up. The young men and women of Morocco, including those whom I befriended this summer, are striving to break down some of the toughest barriers to women’s rights, namely, the mindset of the older generation. In the meanwhile, women of Morocco are steadily becoming more educated and aware of their rights, and dictating how they wish to be treated by their government, society, and male counterparts.
Insha’Allah (Godwilling, hopefully), extensive strides toward achieving gender equality will continue to be made within the ever-fascinating, western edge of the MENA region, Al-Maghreb.
Special thanks to my colleagues Arielle Moss and Liz Vaughn.