Living in Morocco: dear America, what you asked, and what I learned

Emily Goshey, a student at the University of Pennsylvania, studied abroad with AMIDEAST Morocco during her 2011-2012 academic year. Recently, she published this article on Morocco World News about her experiences abroad.

Those who travel to Morocco always start with an idea of what life out there will be like. Sometimes romantic visions of exotic, oriental lifestyles lead to false expectations, and in other cases careful preparation and pre-departure research allows for a realistic understanding of what is to come once they arrive. Either way, those impressions develop and transform as the reality of life in a Muslim, Arab, African, Berber, francophone nation sinks in. For some, the experience is an uncomfortable confrontation and for others it is a process of liberation from preconceived notions and a plunge into the truth of what life in Morocco means to Moroccans themselves.

I cannot claim to understand what life in Morocco signifies, even after living for nine months with a Moroccan family in Rabat. Moroccans themselves differ widely in their opinions about the political, social, cultural, and economic conditions of their nation. Nevertheless, I did learn a few lessons during my time abroad. In some ways, my time in the Maghreb reinforced the ideas that I already had. In other ways, those few months have forever changed the way that I view Morocco and its place in the world.

It would take me far too many pages to describe each protest that I witnessed outside of the parliament building or to recount each heart-to-heart conversation I held with mothers in their kitchens as they prepared the Friday afternoon couscous, but there were a few questions that Americans consistently posed about Morocco before I left, and I would like to share what I learned in regard to those subjects.

Before departing for my study abroad year, those who knew where I planned to go consistently asked me the same few questions: Will you have to wear a headscarf? Are you scared about the political situation? Is it going to be difficult for you as a woman in an Arab country?

As for the first question, my thoughts about the issue have not changed. I initially said that no, I would not be wearing a scarf because it is not mandatory in Morocco. While I was on the ground, there was absolutely no pressure to cover my hair, and furthermore, plenty of Moroccan woman themselves do not veil. The subject rarely crosses my mind unless someone else brings it up. It is interesting to me that the issue of veiling is so fascinating to westerners despite the fact that among Muslims, even for those who feel strongly one way or the other, it is an issue of secondary importance at most.

My opinions about the second of these four questions did not change significantly either. I was not afraid of the political situation in Morocco. Despite the unpredictable and, at times, volatile conditions in other parts of the Arab world, Morocco has been and remains quite stable. Yes there are frequent protests and yes there is a strong surge of activism pervading the population, particularly my university-age peers, but these new waves gave me the sense that Moroccans are gaining an interest in participation in the political system and development of constructive reforms. At no point did it appear that Moroccans were so fed up with the system that they would take to the streets in the way that their Egyptian or Syrian counterparts have.

After all, the Moroccans love their king, His Majesty Mohammed VI. And why shouldn’t they? As an educated leader who has been implementing major reforms since long before the Arab Spring (i.e. the progressive changes made to the family legal code back in 2004), it would be inaccurate to portray him as someone who is merely trying to make concessions in order to keep his people from rebellion. His track record suggests that he legitimately wants to move Morocco forward and do what will benefit his people. Moroccans do voice their complaints about corruption, unemployment, poverty, poor education, etc. but hardly anyone seems to believe that those in government are not trying to make things better.

An Islamist party (The Justice and Development Party) won a majority of the seats in parliament several months after I arrived, and life went on as normal. It may be too early to tell, but as of yet it seems that Islamists can be functional and pragmatic just like any other politicians, at least in the Moroccan context. Only time will tell if they can outperform their secular predecessors or not, which will ultimately determine their longevity on the political scene in a functioning democracy like Morocco.

Some of my initial impressions were, if not correct, at least consistent with both my experiences in Morocco and my reflections after having returned to the U.S. However, as I turn my attention to last of these three questions, I have to acknowledge that my perspective has undergone quite a bit of change.

As an Arabic and Islamic Studies major and a long-time lover of all things Middle Eastern, I feel inclined toward a positive perspective of the Arab nations and their peoples. I find Islam to be a religion of immeasurable beauty and capacity for positive influence throughout the world. The Arabic language is still every bit as enchanting to me as it was four years ago when I began learning the basics. However, it would be a disservice to that part of the world that I appreciate so much to gloss over the major flaws which exist and need attention.

When I faced the third question about women in Arab countries, I responded, “Oh, I’ll be fine. Women in the Arab nations are far more empowered than most people think,” or something to that effect. I actually do not think that I would disagree with that statement now, but I would certainly phrase it differently and add an asterisk or two.

Women in Arab nations really are more empowered than most people think. In general, my experiences indicated that Moroccan women have a large (if not the largest) say in the day-to-day decisions of the household. They enter university in higher numbers than Moroccan men, and they make up an ever-increasing portion of the work force. I know several households in which a lone matriarch ruled her domain without any male support. In contrast with the stereotypical image of a docile, subservient oriental housewife, the Moroccan woman is indeed more empowered than many Americans might think.

By contrast, it was exceedingly difficult to be a woman in Morocco. I was not fine. I faced harassment in the streets on a daily basis despite dressing more conservatively than the average Moroccan woman. Other women in my program often had even worse experiences than I did. I was fortunate enough to never have been groped, though I did not escape the cat-calling, jeering, and following by strange men.

Every woman with whom I discussed the subject affirmed what I observed, which is that it is not only teenagers who harass women. Young boys, adults, and even elderly men engage in this unacceptable behavior. It is not only the poor and unemployed but also police officers on duty and gendarmes in full uniform. Contrary to what one may expect, not only provocatively-dressed female tourists experience this harassment, but also Moroccan women, veiled women, young girls, and grandmothers.

There is a serious social problem going on, and though I cannot claim to be an expert on Moroccan gender issues after only one year there and a few university courses on the history and culture, I do have a guess as to what this is all about.

Many anthropologists and historians have discussed the idea of the “public sphere” in Morocco, and the fact that women have only really been a part of it for a few decades. Not long ago, women did not participate in Moroccan political life as they do now. They were not present in schools and in the work place in such large numbers either. Basically, the studies that we discussed in my courses all point to the fact that Moroccan men misbehave because they are just not used to having women out and about in public.

I will concede that the transformation happened rather rapidly, and that it is only natural that the culture of gender norms will struggle to keep up, but the gap needs to start closing.

The mindset of defending the honor of one’s mother, sisters, and daughters is central to the Moroccan male psyche, so the foundation for the solution to the problem is already in place. Moroccan men are more than ready to insist that others show respect for their female relatives. However, in the modern world this needs to translate to an understanding that every woman is a sister, a mother, a daughter, and that no one has the right to threaten the honor of any woman, even one without family to defend it for her.

I will never forget the wonderful months that I spent in Morocco. Nearly all of my memories are positive ones. The Moroccan hospitality and sincere warmth is unparalleled the world over. Maghribi culture is so rich and diverse that I could easily spend a career studying it without ever exhausting the wealth of knowledge that there is to uncover.

As I ease back into my life in Philadelphia, I notice the subtle changes in my behavior. After eating such fresh, natural foods for so long, I find myself seeking out farmers markets and choosing locally grown produce over imported goods. I get the urge to call my parents and siblings on a daily basis now, having seen how much the Moroccans benefit from and appreciate family time. Even my Iraqi roommate is surprised at how often I listen to Qur’anic recitations, which take me back immediately to the streets of Rabat. Every sunrise seems so hollow without the echoing adhan gently rousing me from that deep sleep that only comes when the whole city falls silent.

And so I went to Morocco and made it back and learned some new things and re-affirmed some ideas that I already believed. But I cannot claim that the ultimate value of my trip was a specific observation that I made or a particular habit that I picked up. Rather, what I gained was something especially relevant in a world of stereotypes about Arab nations and cultures. You cannot know until you go, and going is always worthwhile.


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