Early on into my program, I promised a post detailing the role of women I observed here in Morocco. And it’s really only fitting, seeing as the genesis of this project is centered around women’s empowerment after all. But before I share those insights, I’d like to take a second to talk about why and how women’s empowerment makes a difference... And not just for women!
While working at the US Department of State, my office’s research was wholly centered on development strategies, both domestic and abroad. However, regardless of the region in question, there were some recurring themes in these strategies. Of all of these themes, the one that surprised me most was women’s empowerment. Naturally it is advantageous to help women to contribute to society, but it is so much more than just that. This article from the Brookings Institution explains it best, so give it a quick look before continuing!
From skimming this article, it is clear that the positive correlation between supported, hardworking women and overall improved society is unquestionable. This is not only part of a feminist movement advocating for more women’s rights, this is a valuable insight about what women as a gender contribute to society when they are equipped with the skills, support, and tools necessary to succeed.
Having explained that, let’s turn back to women in Morocco. As you may remember from previous posts, the Kingdom of Morocco was established in 1956, and the country has enjoyed marked stability under the monarchy ever since. It is an Islamist country with strong Berber and colonial European influences, and as a result the Moroccan people are a unique balance of many modern and traditional cultural values. In 2004, the Moudawana code established a Moroccan woman’s right to sign her own marriage certificate, file for divorce from her husband, and to be protected from child marriages by the state. Women currently make up 17% of the Moroccan Parliament and are excelling in higher education, particularly in STEM fields. These are all examples of good improvements made to the lives of Moroccan women. Good, but to be quite frank, not good enough.
Though Moudawana has done a great deal to protect women from abusive marriages, there are still some holes. Domestic abuse and rape, for example, is still something that is very difficult for a woman to prove and be protected from. (I’ll just leave this here. Note that this article could be a trigger for sexual assault survivors.) As for Parliament, the only reason that 17% are women is because it is the mandated representation of women in the body, a law often made in developing countries that is quite controversial. When it comes to college education, these women still struggle to compete against their male counterparts for the already scarce amount of jobs available. Needless to say, we can do better.
Before going to Morocco, I was asked many questions by American women and men about my project. I’ve chosen three of the most popular questions and asked real Moroccan women to respond in hopes of us better understanding their culture, society, and how they see their future. Below are the questions that address our some of our foremost cross cultural differences in the context of women’s empowerment. My responses are crafted with direct assistance from local Moroccan women of all ages to paint as vivid a picture as possible.
Is living in an Islamist country oppressive of women?
In the US, there is a lot of confusion about Islam and whether or not it oppresses women. This is the first point I’d like to address, because it is by far one of the most sensitive no matter where you go in the world. After extensive discussions with both devout and non-religious Moroccan women, I have come to the conclusion that while Islam itself is not oppressive, some of the cultural and societal norms it facilitates in an Islamist country like Morocco are. Take for example the hijab, the headscarf a devout Muslim woman wears. She can choose when she wants to start wearing it, but she is obligated by the Quran to commit to wearing it at some point in her life. The hijab represents a woman’s commitment to her relationship with God, somewhat akin to wearing a crucifix or a Star of David on a necklace. The hijab itself is not oppressive: it is a religious choice that women are given the freedom to make at any point in their life. Furthermore, Islam as a religion is not particularly disciplinarian. If a woman never wears a hijab, that is simply between her and God, and not for anyone else to judge.
The problem, then, arises when that choice is taken away... Such as a parent deciding for their daughter when they will wear the hijab despite their daughter’s objections to save face, or a husband demanding that his new wife start wearing a hijab to honor her new marriage, despite never mentioning it before. Or, even more dismal, a woman who only chooses to begin wearing the hijab because she knows it will superficially protect her from the unsettling and incessant jeers she gets from men whenever she is out by herself. All three of these scenarios (all true stories from Moroccan women) demonstrate societal pressures that circumvent the beauty of what the hijab is supposed to symbolize in a way that manipulates the woman’s choice into questions of honor, loyalty, fidelity, and demand for respect. But that’s not all.
In a country that enjoys the luxury of close proximity to Europe, the hijab can also pose a problem in reverse. For example, a devout woman who has committed to wearing the hijab is asked to remove it as a condition of her being hired to be seen as “more modern”. With unemployment as it is, the woman can’t afford to turn down the job. But why must it come at the cost of her religion? The woman who experienced this did take the job, but confessed to feeling so ashamed whenever she saw her friends and family. It is one thing to never wear the hijab, but it is quite another to remove it after wearing it, which is why she felt so humiliated by the choice her job forced her to make.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Islam itself is no more oppressive than Christianity, Judaism, or any other faith that entreats women to dress, behave, or live a certain way. It is only when religion is manipulated that such oppression occurs.
How does dating work?
In Morocco, it is a very big deal if you are known to be dating someone. It is expected that you intend to marry that person if you acknowledge that you are indeed dating them, so it is more like an unofficial engagement for the duration of time before you become engaged, and eventually marry. As a result, the whole family is a big part of the relationship, and unanimous approval is usually necessary. This is vastly different from the Western concept of casual dating, which is more about enjoying each other’s company than pursuing long term commitment. For that reason, it is important to be aware of how dating is defined differently to understand the cultural implications of introducing a significant other.
Beyond that, any time spent with your significant other is spent in a public place, like a cafe or park. You usually meet through family members, at school, or at work. And while arranged marriages do still happen in some villages, it is much more common to marry for love. Interestingly, the age at which Moroccans get married has been getting increasingly older, just like in the US and many other countries around the world. The reason for this has a lot to do with women seeking more education and better opportunities for employment instead of just a husband.
Within the context of marriage, my sources agree that every relationship is different. When a couple sits down to write their marriage contract, (yes, they do write it together) they specifically articulate the roles that they commit to play for each other. Typically, the man agrees to be the primary breadwinner, accepting sole responsibility to provide for the family. So if his wife also has a job, she has the liberty to keep all of the money she earns in a separate bank account from her husband, unless it is stipulated in the marriage contract that she will also contribute. Her responsibility is typically childcare, but many of the women I have encountered have put their children in daycare to take on work or more schooling themselves. Because the marriage contract delegates that responsibility to her, she is free to decide as she pleases about daycare. I found this to be a particularly interesting play on traditional gender roles in marriage, because while these traditional gender roles still exist, they have certainly been tweaked to allow more flexibility and freedoms for women in particular.
What do Moroccan women want for their future?
The same thing most women around the world want... To not be seen as any less or any more than who they are. To have the chance to earn the same opportunities in education, work, and life overall that a man can. To not have their competence judged based on how they look or how they dress. To have the freedom to be independent, self-sufficient, and powerful influences on society! Regardless of religion and culture, women can and should unite around making all of these goals a reality. It has been such a comfort during my conversations with these women to share in their frustrations, triumphs, and dreams in imagining a world where women are just as able to make a difference as men. This kind of rhetoric may make some uncomfortable, especially those who are wary of the many definitions feminism has taken on in recent years. And that’s okay. But remember the Brookings article... An empowered woman is an empowered society. And that’s something we can surely all get on board with! (Salma certainly agrees in the photo below!)
To conclude this post, I’d like to introduce some insights about Morocco’s current status of gender equality using international comparative research. As previously discussed, Morocco is a country whose gender equality usually looks quite good compared to its counterparts. But for this last part, I am going to remove the rose colored glasses. It is my hope that this will clarify and challenge the way we track progress in women’s empowerment as a tenet of overall societal development.
Fair warning: From this point on, I’m putting on my social science analyst cap on... This means I’ll be discussing variables, data, metrics/measurement, and all sorts of things that one who does not particularly enjoy social science may find a bit dull. However, this is aimed to be a *BRIEF* substantive analysis, which will synthesize a lot of the research I’ve been doing behind the scenes as part of this project. So I promise, if you keep reading I’ll make it worth your while!
Ranked at 139 out of 145 in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report of 2015, Morocco is a country whose gender equality often looks a lot better on paper than in practice. As discussed earlier, Morocco has one of the highest percentages of women in Parliament and is often thought of as one of the best Islamist countries for women. So what is it about this report that contradicts those accolades? Well, to put it simply, a more comprehensive metric.
The report evaluates gender equality using four basic categories: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment. Each of these categories is further broken down into empirical variables that are measured using a variety of primary sources such as the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization, and more.
According to this data, no country in the world has successfully closed the gender gap yet. However Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Ireland have all closed over 80% of their gender gap. That is a wide discrepancy from the lowest scoring country, Yemen, which has only closed 48% of their gender gap. At 139, Morocco has closed just under 60% of its gender gap. That is about 15% less than the USA, which ranked at 28 with 74% of the gap closed.
Though Morocco’s cumulative ranking is 139, it also received a ranking in each of the four categories that generated the final ranking. Those rankings were as follows: Economic Participation and Opportunity: 140 Educational Attainment: 123, Health and Survival: 95 and Political Empowerment: 97. From this breakdown, it is clear that the areas most in need of improvement are economic participation/opportunity and educational attainment. Which makes sense, given the continued struggle of unemployment in Morocco as well as the 67% literacy rate, (90% of which are women) as reported by the World Bank. Furthermore, this is why I have spent the last three months in a classroom working as a cross-cultural mentor teaching a lucrative language skill.
Though gender equality is different from women’s empowerment, I found that the two concepts inform each other quite well in creating and executing my project. I hope that through reading this post, albeit lengthy and (at times) complex, you too can see how my work has targeted the needs of my selected demographic. I also hope that you are taking away a better understanding about the culture and society that has shaped these women whom I’ve come to love so dearly. I am privileged to share their stories, but I know they’re not quite over yet! Speaking of which, be sure to check back later this week for another post that will tell the very special story of one of my dearest friends here in Rabat. You won’t want to miss it!
P. S. I will be revisiting this post to insert proper citations as soon as I get my hands on a laptop! Any questions about any of this information, don’t hesitate to ask!