Samantha Hubner
Samantha Hubner
Morocco 2016
VIEW FINAL REPORT
سلام/Bonjour! I am a recent graduate seeking to fully experience the vibrancy of Morocco as the ultimate cross section of Western, African, European, and Middle Eastern culture. Join me on this adventure as I pursue a hybrid initiative of women's empowerment in the city of Rabat! Read More About Samantha →

Inshallah

The idea of writing this final post has been, in a word, overwhelming. I have certainly struggled throughout this experience with how to best articulate all of the complex experiences I’ve had into accessible and engaging posts for this blog, but this is on a level all its own.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the recap.

This is the last post I will write regarding my life-changing adventure in Morocco. It is also the first post that anyone visiting this blog in the future will see. Embracing that duality, if you’re curious about any specific topics regarding my time in Morocco, here is an abbreviated list with shortcuts to the accompanying posts:

How much do you actually know about Morocco? Improve your knowledge and click here! You can also get my initial impressions here and here!

 
Want to learn more about the rationale and execution of my project in women’s empowerment? Click herehere, and/or here!

For fun travel reviews, click here and/or here. Morocco is a safe, welcoming, and economic travel destination for solo travelers as well as family vacations! Tourism does a great deal for their economic development too, so PLEASE consider planning a trip soon!

Curious about Islamist and/or Moroccan culture? Click herehere, and/or here for some personal stories!

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Above is the amazing local staff of my nonprofit, Cross Cultural Solutions. They were my encouragers, challengers, and protectors. But most of all, they were my dearest friends and confidantes in the volunteer house. Two of these staff members are former PeaceCorps employees, which was a terrific resource for me to explore as I continue to pursue next steps in postgrad employment. The other two staff members did not speak much English, which makes their friendships uniquely valued to me. These are people who have only communicated with me through a common second language. The reason this is so special to me is because I have a theory about how our personalities change based on how we are able to communicate in any given language. (I’m not the only one either... check it out!) In my first language, I can express a seemingly infinite amount of nuances and emotions. But that’s much more difficult to accomplish in a second, third, or fourth language. So to have been able to make friends despite the limited self-expression of a second language is quite meaningful to me! Overall, my wonderful experience in Morocco would not have been possible without these four incredible individuals.

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Cross Cultural Solutions is an exemplary nonprofit that I am grateful to have called my sponsoring partner in executing this project. If you have any interest in volunteering abroad, I strongly encourage you to investigate their programs on their website. They have well-developed programs working toward sustainable impact in Morocco, India, Tanzania, Costa Rica, Ghana, Peru, Thailand, and Guatemala. They provide excellent customer service before, during, and after their programs, and they do a particularly great job ensuring the safety of volunteers while abroad. Please feel free to ask any questions about working with CCS if you’re interested!

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Shukran bezzaf, thank you SO much, for being a part of this adventure with me. I was motivated that my women’s empowerment project indeed addressed a profound, ongoing problem in this country, and I can only hope that the work I did over the last three months made an impact on at least one person I interacted with. Education is the key to empowerment, and I am so grateful to have had the platform I did with so many different audiences to initiate these tough discussions. Sometimes it was difficult to change classes, but at the end of the day it was for the best. My impact was much further spread as a result. Please continue to share this blog with your friends, your family, and anyone else you may come across that could benefit from these stories. One of the primary goals of the Lumos fellowship is to continue to advocate and share about your experiences, maintaining an infinite cross cultural dialogue. So I invite all of you who have so kindly taken the time to read this blog to join me in pursuing that. Inshallah, or God willing, this is not where the adventure ends.

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Finally, in true Belmont fashion, I’ll conclude with some fun music recommendations of songs I couldn’t stop singing during my time abroad. Check them out! “Zina” by Babylone“Maria” by Faydee“Habib Galbi” by A-WA“Sahranine” by Carole Samaha, and “Kolly Melkak” by Sherine.

For those of you in Nashville, stay tuned for the date of my project presentation on Belmont’s campus later this fall. Looking forward to seeing you all soon! All my love!

A Girl Named Jihad

This is the story of my dearest friend here in Rabat. She is 20 years old, the second of three daughters. She lives in a cozy apartment with her family about 10 minutes away from me. She is a passionate economics major at the local university, and she speaks French, Arabic, Darija, and quite a bit of English. She loves the Egyptian singer Sherine, the color pink, and reading lots of books in her spare time. Last week, she was hired to her first ever job , which is a very big deal in a country with such a depressing unemployment rate. She is compassionate, curious, and wise beyond her years.

And her name is Jihad.

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Don’t worry, I did a double take too when she first introduced herself to me at the bus stop. “Jihad” is a word we’ve all seen and heard before, thanks to the frequent use of the term in the media to reference ISIS. The definition of “jihad” that we are most familiar with is that of a holy war.  Admittedly curious and taken aback by my new friend’s name, I decided to do some research... Did you know that “holy war” is not  actually the primary definition of the word? In fact, the way we use “jihad” is linguistically incorrect, as the proper word for war would be “al-harb”. Instead, jihad actually means to put forth a great effort. In Islam, Muslims can use this word to describe three different types of challenges that require great effort. The first and most commonly used meaning is the challenge of living out the Islamic faith in all aspects of life. The second is the challenge of building and maintaining a good Muslim community. It is in the third and final definition, the challenge to defend Islam, where the definition “holy war” comes into play.  All three definitions of the word are technically correct, even though they are not all equally used.

So to put this in a potentially more accessible context, let’s take the word August. When we hear the word August, it is safe to assume that we are likely referring to the eighth month of the year. That is the primary definition and most commonly intended meaning. However, the word can also correctly be used as an adjective to describe something or someone that is respected or impressive. The frequency with which English speakers use the word “august” to describe something impressive is about the same frequency as Arabic speakers would use “jihad” to mean holy war. While “august” is not an ideal example because it changes the part of speech for its two definitions, it is the best example I could come up with to illustrate my point. Plus, both words can are used as names, which is all too fitting toward the point I hope to make!

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When I first met Jihad, I didn’t know how to react when she introduced herself. But after my research, I felt guilty for my presumptuous concerns. Once I had properly addressed those concerns by seeking to rectify my discomfort, I felt as if I ought to re-introduce her to myself to make up for my ignorance. I imagine some of you may relate.

As I mentioned before, Jihad and I met at a bus station in downtown Rabat. I was waiting for my other friend outside of the hammam (bathhouse: an experience I thoroughly recommend) when she and her mother approached me to ask about whether or not the bus had already passed by. She was by far the most joyful person I had ever met, and I enjoyed chatting with her and her mother as they waited for their bus. About 20 minutes later, we swapped numbers and said goodbye. This is a common practice in Morocco, as the locals almost always go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their country. I never expected to see her again, but I was so grateful for her refreshing conversation and contagiously positive attitude. So when she invited me to her home for Sunday lunch two weeks later, I figured why not?

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However, I simply was not prepared for the onslaught of generosity, acceptance, and love that would envelope me during my visit. I spent five hours at their house talking, laughing, listening to music, and looking at old family photos. As Jihad told me to story of her aunt making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, Jihad’s mother insisted on sharing one of the prized dates leftover from her sister’s trip, along with a sip of water from the Zam Zam Well, which absolutely blew me away. Muslims believe the Zam Zam Well is the spring where God supplied Abraham with water for his son Ismail, and consequently it holds a tremendous amount of religious significance. The water is believed to be miraculous, with unique healing properties. So the fact that this family insisted on sharing their limited supply of such extremely sacred gifts with me, someone they know is not Muslim, was simply overwhelming. I do not think I will ever be able to articulate the raw beauty and humanity of that specific moment.

But the thing I appreciate most about Jihad is, without a doubt, her candor. I often forget that a language barrier even exists between us as we discuss the news, talk about our hopes for the future, and (of course) watch the Olympics! In fact, when the news broke that a Moroccan boxer had been detained for allegedly sexually assaulting two maids in the Olympic village, we had a fantastically cross-cultural dialogue about how the systemic double standards of sexual abuse translate in our respective countries.

These are the conversations that reminded me of the true range and value of our common humanity.

As I left Jihad’s home for the last time, I could not help but marvel at the insurmountable depth that her companionship has added to my experience in my last few weeks. She has inspired so many more questions and curiosities about the Islamist world, particularly anthropologically, all of which I intend to continue to explore  in adventures to come. Though I cannot help but be amused as I think back to how it all started... With a misconception of what is truly a beautiful name.

 

 

 

Who Run the World?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Once Upon a Moroccan Wedding

One of my favorite parts about my job at Feminin Pluriel was the wide variety of students that I got to work with and invest in... Everything from 6 year old beginners to astrophysicists seeking to improve their writing abilities for their PhD dissertations! It was through my work at the center that I met Noureddine, a computer designer in my advanced conversation class. In class, I could always count on Nourredine to have a smile on his face and a profound point to make during discussion. One day after class in late June, I was joking around with my students after a great dialogue about international wedding traditions, saying how it was my dream to go to a Moroccan wedding. Noureddine perked up, and said that he actually had a friend getting married after Ramadan, and if I and the other volunteer wanted to go, he would happily take us along!

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Almost a month later, Demi (the other volunteer) and I found ourselves in complete shock at the overwhelming amount of generosity our dear student showed us in making my dream come true. After spending his whole day with us adventuring together around the city, Noureddine introduced us to his sister and her beautiful family, where Demi and I were quickly named honorary tantes, the French word for aunts, to his sweet niece Amira. After his wonderful brother-in-law picked us up and brought us to their apartment, Noureddine’s lovely sister Kawtar loaned each of us two of her beautiful caftans and helped us get ready for our very first Moroccan wedding! She even helped us prepare our gift for the bride and groom!

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For the first time, Demi and I felt like we were part of a family here, the value of which is simply insurmountable when you have been living far away from home for so long.

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But the story doesn’t end there. At the wedding, a most assuredly exhausted Noureddine introduced us to his friends, took pictures, and kindly watched over our purses as we dove headfirst into one of the most authentic cultural experiences of my life thus far. Fun fact: traditional Moroccan weddings start at 9:00 P.M. and last until about 5:00 A.M. (So yes, we were quite literally dancing all night long.) The bride entered the venue for the first time with her groom at around 11:00 in a beautiful white caftan. The couple would exit and re-enter the space four times, sporting a different ensemble every time. Pictured below you can see the bride in her brilliant blue, yellow, and green caftans, though red is another color often added into the mix. Though each entrance serves a purpose, I thought the most profound was that of the groom’s family, following their third entrance, to present them with wedding gifts. It was so cool to see the whole family have such an outward role in the ongoing ceremony!

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As those of you who know me well will not be surprised to hear, I spent 90% of my time making friends on the dance floor. I was quickly adopted by Noureddine’s friend Houda, and we had a blast dancing together with her other friends! I didn’t even realize how much time had past when it came time to leave! But eventually, Noureddine retrieved Demi and I from the dance floor to go back to his sister’s house, where we slept over after one of the most incredible and surreal nights of my life.

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Continue reading

Confessions of a Volunteer English Teacher

Last week, I mentioned the difficulties presented in my project by the frequent changes in classes due to shifting needs at the Empowerment Center. Over the course of my time here, I have taught just under 10 different classes. As one of the only native English speaking volunteers regularly coming into the center, my managers often move me around to better accommodate the fluctuating needs of the students attending the center. As a result, these classes differ in age as well as levels of ability in English, which means that my approach to teaching has changed with every new class that I take on, as it should. However, my thought process in embarking on this project was that by choosing to stay for here for three months, I would be able to invest in building relationships with one class of students over a long period of time. I simply did not account for the fact that though my presence would remain constant, the demands on me might change.

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Last summer, after the schools let out, tons of young children flooded the center which overwhelmed the volunteers. In preparation, this year, the older students were asked to leave by a certain date to make room for the younger students presumed to be coming. However, I didn’t know that it would be my older students’ last day until that day, when one of them told me how much he was going to miss our classes. Having already gone through many changes of class with different groups of adults, I found my heart breaking yet again.

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Another important factor to mention is sharing classes. When other volunteers come to the center, sometimes I am asked to move around or temporarily switch to teaching another class to better accommodate the skill set of new volunteers. Other times, we co-teach the class at the same time. This is arguably even more difficult, as I admittedly struggle in having my time with the individual students suddenly interrupted by people who, at first, are strangers to me. I worry about my students, whom I know well, and how they’ll fare under the new structures and attitudes that come with a new instructor, even if I’m in the room to mediate. Thankfully though, my anxieties about changing, sharing, and switching classes were always met with nothing but reassurance thanks to great relationships with my supervisors.

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As this continued to happen, I began to introspectively analyze my responses to the changes thrust upon me. By nature, I am someone who thrives by being in control. One of the greatest challenges of this project for me has been learning how to re-channel my internal need to be in control into positive energy that is able to better embrace the fluidity of my placement. Establishing routines is great, but getting rigid in them to the point of opposing change is not. Understanding that sometimes, as a volunteer, I do not get to have the final say in what the students need is crucial. And though it has taken time, I believe that I have indeed learned my lesson and grown because of it.

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For example, when my advanced conversation lesson was suddenly interrupted by my manager Amal because the volunteer to teach the youngest students at the center had not shown up, she asked me to end my lesson to become the new elementary level teacher. I had lesson plans prepared through the next week for my advanced students, where we would continue our intellectual discussions about politics, anthropology, communication, and etymology. I would have to scrap all these plans and instead create new plans for basic introductory English. But disappointed and frustrated as I was when this initially transpired, I dismissed these feelings almost as quickly as they came. Because my work in this center is not about me, or the lesson plans I’ve made, or which demographic I prefer teaching. It’s about the students. It’s about Amal and Jamillah, who work so hard to coordinate these classes and more to empower the women and children of Rabat. It’s about my sponsoring nonprofit, Cross Cultural Solutions, who have chosen to invest in Le Feminin Pluriel as their partner program.

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While it may seem like an obvious epiphany to have, I would emphasize that I didn’t fully understand the gravity or the difficulty of doing something I didn’t want to do out of necessity until the circumstances were upon me. At least, not until circumstances like this were upon me. Circumstances were I was needed elsewhere, and not in a small way. If I did not teach the children, the class would cease to exist. But I am here, and so the class can and will exist. Because I chose to be willing, and I chose to relinquish control for the sake of greater needs than my own. As a result of adopting this philosophy, I believe that I was able to fulfill and serve the mission of my project better than I ever imagined.

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My weeks with the little ones, whom I very affectionately refer to as my little monsters, have been tough. It was the first class that I had to integrate a discipline regimen into my teaching, the difficulty of striking that delicate balance is something I imagine any parent or educator can speak to. I missed my older students and our advanced discussions, but I was able to find new joy in watching my little monsters succeed and improve in reading aloud during our daily Circle Time. I beamed with pride as they conjugated basic verbs in the past, present, and future tense. And yet again, I found myself falling in love with each and every one of them, never wanting to leave their class for another.

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But alas, this is my final week at Le Feminin Pluriel. And today was my last day with my little monsters, as I promised my older students I would return to them before the end of the season. And while it is heart wrenching and difficult to say goodbye, I take solace in realizing just how much these students (every single one of them) have helped me grow over the last two and a half months... How special it has been to experience the symbiotic nuances of working toward empowerment with such energetic, engaged, and kind people!

Stargazing in the Sahara

Last weekend, I joined the group of West Point cadets for a weekend camping in the Sahara desert. The cadets are led by a professor of comparative politics and anthropology, who has become an incredible resource to me as I research and observe the society and culture around me. Her perspective is poignant and challenges me to continue to search for new manifestations of women’s empowerment in the Islamist and Arab culture, as well as the Moroccan political identity. But besides that, she and the rest of the cadets have become very, very dear friends to me. I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to spend so much time with their group in the last few weeks. Below is a photo of our group (WP plus their four tagalongs!) on our way to the desert.

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To get to the Sahara, we drove 10 hours through the Moroccan countryside before arriving in the neighboring town of Merzouga. It was incredible to watch the scenery change from urban residences to winding cliffs of dense forest, to eventually an infinite horizon of sand. To give you a better idea of where we were geographically, we were about 25 miles away from the Algerian border. We spent Friday evening in a hotel before waking up early Saturday morning to explore. We visited Berber artisan shops and attended an abidat ra concert. Abidat ra is a unique type of music that is native to Morocco , whose subject matter illustrate the nomadic roots and religious undertones of the Berber ethnicities prevalent throughout the region. It is extremely dissonant, but especially hypnotic and captivating when it’s performed live. Here is an action shot of us dancing with the performers! (Note the Audrey Hepburn-inspired headscarf... It was a great way to keep cool in the desert, and avoid getting sand in my face when it got windy!)

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At around 6:00 PM that day, we embarked on our sunset camel trek to our campsite in the Sahara. The last time I was on a camel was two years ago  in the Gobi desert in northwestern China, during a blistering hot afternoon. It was one of my favorite adventures in China, and so naturally I could hardly contain my excitement to mount a camel once again and enjoy a beautiful sunset as Merzouga disappeared behind me. I took the lead camel, feeling bold, and named him Hatim after my favorite child to care for at the local orphanage. After an incredible sunset and 45-minute ride, we arrived at our campsite for a mouthwatering dinner of tagine chicken and steamed vegetables. After that, we stayed up into the wee hours of the morning lying outside entranced by the constellations of stars above. The stargazing was the most incredible I’ve experienced... We saw five shooting stars and located two of my favorite constellations (Hercules and Pegasus) using the SkyGuide app (INVEST IN THIS APP) before falling asleep under the stars.

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I woke up early with our guide Hamza to watch the sunrise, which was every bit as mesmerizing as the sunset we watched the night before. After we finished cleaning up camp, we saddled back up to return to Merzouga for breakfast before returning back to Rabat.

It was an absolutely indescribable weekend of experiencing the most majestic natural landscapes and culturally influenced art, and these pictures truly only scratch the surface.

I look forward to sharing more in detail about this weekend during my Lumos presentation this fall!

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In my next post, I’ll be focusing about the changes happening once again in the classroom at Feminin Pluriel... Challenges and frustration are just as important to document as life changing weekends in the desert, after all!

Lessons Learned

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Eid Mubarek/Happy end of Ramadan! Today I concluded my month-long fast alongside the rest of the Moroccan community. I cannot emphasize enough how profound of an experience it was to participate in Ramadan in an Islamist country, but I would also like to give a MAJOR shout out to all the Muslims living in non-Islamist countries around the world, who fast without the support of an entire country, community, and/or family. So much respect to each and every one of you that find the strength in your faith to persevere as individuals fasting. The sense of community was one of my biggest incentives as well as one of my greatest support systems throughout my fast, and I can only imagine how challenging it must be to embark on the fast without that.

In the spirit of the end of the holiday, I thought it would be fitting to share the five biggest lessons I’ve learned in the first month and a half of my program abroad. While I can hardly believe I’m already halfway done with my entire project, the experiences I’ve had and lessons I’ve learned assure me that though time passes quickly, I am still making the most out of every second.

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1) Say hello on the streets!
When I first arrived in Morocco, I was extremely apprehensive about engaging with locals outside of my work. I had been warned again and again prior to my trip about the forcefulness of unwelcome advances that naive foreigners inadvertently encouraged by being too friendly, (particularly from men) and I was worried that I would become a victim. While its always important to be cautious and aware, I took it to an extreme. I never smiled, said hello back, or made eye contact with anyone out on the streets. To be honest, I was downright hostile, which made me feel like a terrible representation of both myself and my country. Over time, I’ve learned how to balance my caution with friendliness: you can tell who is a friend and who is not, and I’ve developed confidence in my ability to differentiate between the two. More importantly though, every person has a unique story to tell... A unique story that could impact your own story, if you choose to let it.

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2) Document the special moments.
I’m learning this lesson the hard way, as I continue to struggle with what to highlight through this blogging platform. There are so many victories, failures, and stories to be told that it becomes difficult to keep track of them all, let alone decide which ones will be the most impactful for readers. But ever since I’ve begun jotting things down, I’ve been a lot more capable of synthesizing what seems like endless material into a powerful and accessible narrative for those of you who are so kindly following along on this journey. Beyond that, I’m also creating a better personal record of my adventures that help me keep it all in perspective as well.

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3) Never underestimate the power of encouragement.
In executing a project centered on women’s empowerment through education, encouragement is key. But this is a lesson with a much broader application than just that. You may never directly see the immediate effects of your affirming words, but it is crucial that use them generously and authentically to reinforce the strength of the relationships you build regardless.

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4) Try to be aware of the time passing.
With new groups of volunteers coming in and out of the house every few weeks, I have become acutely aware of just how quickly my project is moving along. I’ve been so fortunate to get to know a number of compassionate, creative, and motivated volunteers from all walks of life over the last month and a half, and I’m sure that trend will continue. The coming and going of the other volunteers also helps me keep track of my own timeline, which is so helpful in preventing me from ever taking this opportunity for granted. While its going by fast, remaining cognizant of living in the moment is helping me keep track of it all!

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5) It’s okay to struggle with change.
New friendships with other volunteers develop, but then they return home. Students are invested in, but later on have to stop coming to lessons. The constantly changing dynamics of both the volunteer house and the classroom in which I teach are easily the two greatest challenges I continually face here. Sometimes I miss my old friends from May. Sometimes I hesitate to get to know the new volunteers for fear of getting too attached when they too eventually leave. Sometimes, I don’t know how to teach my class, which is no longer comprised of contemplative adults but instead with shy teenagers who are much more difficult to engage. Struggle is uncomfortable, but it is absolutely necessary to confront head on. This has not been an easy project, but it was never meant to be. By openly acknowledging the difficulties I’m facing, I’m hoping to overcome them rather than being overcome by them. And so far so good! But the first step is always acknowledging that struggle is as much a part of the journey as success.

 

Something you may have noticed in common amongst these lessons: they don’t just apply to my project in Morocco. All five of these lessons have a much broader application that, wherever you are in the world and whatever you’re doing, likely bear some relevance. It’s amazing what can be learned from a mere change of perspective!

Thanks for checking in, as always. Check back next week for a post on this weekend’s upcoming adventure... Camping out in the Sahara!

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The Blue Pearl

Originally founded in 1471, the city of Chefchaouen has a profoundly rich history. Located in the Rif mountains of northern Morocco, the natural scenery surrounding the city is striking. However, the thing that sets Chefchouen apart is actually found within the city walls... The uniquely blue city walls, to be specific. When I visited Chefchaouen last weekend, I was absolutely blown away by the sea of blue that surrounded me. It’s no wonder why they call it the Blue Pearl. I did my best to capture the beauty of the city in the pictures below, but know that this is truly a place that one needs to experience firsthand to fully appreciate! 
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The pictures truly speak for themselves when it comes to a city like Chefchaouen! Check back later this week for a more reflective update summarizing some of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my first month abroad... Because believe it or not, it really has been a whole month since I was last on American soil!

 

Ramadan Mubarak!

Last week, I shared my decision to participate in the month-long fast of Ramadan as a means of more fully immersing in my environment abroad. But what does it mean for a non-Muslim to participate in Ramadan? What’s the point? Is it difficult? When (and what) do you eat to stay healthy? But before we get into that, here’s a quick summary of what my typical day during Ramadan looks like:

I wake up around 2:30 AM to share a light breakfast with my fellow fasting volunteers. We snack until around 3:30, when the call to prayer rings out, indicating the sunrise. Some people choose to sleep through the night instead of waking up, but regardless of what one chooses, from sunrise to sunset, we fast. So no food or water from about 3:30 AM until about 7:40 PM. Because the whole country is participating, schedules change universally to allow for extra sleep in the mornings. My class now begins at 10:30 AM and ends at 12:30 PM. I get back to the house around 1:00 PM, and around 1:30 PM I have either Arabic lessons, a lecture, or cooking lessons. (As you can probably imagine, the cooking lessons are admittedly rough!) For me, this is the hardest part of the day. The only scheduled activity is to prepare my lessons for the next day, which usually only takes me 30 minutes to an hour since I like to do the majority of my lesson planning over the weekend. Many volunteers opt for a nap around this time to pass the day a little faster. Naps make me feel lazy, so I usually try not to. (Though I’ve certainly conceded once or twice!) I usually read for the last few hours, up until around 5:30 PM when the others start to wake up from their naps. We hang out and chat until around 7:00 PM, when we start to prepare the food for iftar, the breaking of the fast. A lot of the traditional Ramadan dishes are extremely sweet, (and delicious!) such as chebakia and sohor. This is to up your blood sugar after 15 hours of fasting! After enjoying a delicious and highly anticipated meal that lasts at least an hour or two, we start to get ready for bed around 10:00 PM. And then the cycle begins again!

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Though it may sound intimidating, I haven’t found adjusting to the fast too difficult at all. It’s important to know your body and its limitations, so taking it easy is crucial, especially at first. (No running marathons on day one!) But you’d be amazed at how quickly the body adjusts to a different feeding schedule. To make sure that I’m staying healthy, I try to stay active by regularly going on walks around the neighborhood or to the medina. I also make sure to drink a lot of water throughout the break of the fast to stay hydrated. It’s also important not to eat too much too fast once iftar hits, because you don’t want to overwhelm your body with too much all at once. But these are all pretty straightforward guidelines, so perhaps you’re starting to see why the fast itself isn’t all that intimidating after all!

In my (very limited) experience, the hard part is the commitment. Right now, all of my fellow volunteers are participating in the fast. But next weekend, eight more volunteers will come who likely will not participate, meaning they will be eating at a normal schedule while living with us. This will be like a next level test of willpower for those of us here now, but I imagine this is just another day in the life for any Muslim not living/celebrating in a Muslim country... And for that, I salute them!

As a non-Muslim, Ramadan holds a different significance for me than my students. But the unending support and sense of respect I have earned in their eyes for participating in Ramadan as a foreigner has already made it so worth it. By doing this, I make myself a lot less of a foreigner and much more a part of the community. One of my students who describes himself as not particularly religious wrote a wonderful essay on the importance of the principle of Ramadan for class, and it’s all too appropriate to share an excerpt of his interpretation as part of my own justification for participating in Ramadan:

Because I am hungry and thirsty, I remember my brothers in humanity in Somalia, Djibouti, and everywhere else in the world. I invoke the suffering of these people with my fast. Ramadan is not just a principle of the Islamic religion. Ramadan is like a school to teach the great values of humanity: patience, tolerance, empathy, solidarity, kinship, respect, and forgiveness for our false assumptions about the lives of others.

No pun intended, but how’s that for some food for thought?

God, Country, King

Trivia question: In 1777, which nation was the first to officially recognize the US as a sovereign state? No, not France. They’d of course discuss it, but the recognition would not become official until 1778. (Naturally followed by a declaration of war from Great Britain, who was understandably salty.) Believe it or not, Morocco was actually the first country to officially recognize the newly-independent US with the Treaty of Peace and Friendship on December 20, 1777. And for the most part, we’ve been tight ever since!

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Fast forward a few centuries to the most recent regime change in 1956, and you have the Kingdom of Morocco, a 60 year old monarchy currently ruled by King Mohammed VI. His wife is Princess Lalla Salma, who despite her fair complexion and red hair, is in fact a native Moroccan. Note that her official title is that of a princess, the same of all women in the royal family. Queens do not exist in the Moroccan monarchy. In fact, traditionally the wives of kings are kept far away from the public eye. It wasn’t until the current King that the Moroccan people had ever seen the face of a King’s wife. The King is a very big deal though, as is evidenced by the country motto and namesake of this post: “God, Country, King.”

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The Moroccan monarchy, at its surface, seems quite similar in structure to that of a typical democratic parliamentary system. However, in reality, the Moroccan parliament is nothing more than a puppet of the monarchy. As one local pointed out to me, the Prime Minister only exists for when things go badly... It is always the parliament’s fault, never that of the King. But if things are going well, then all credit goes to the king. In fact, Moroccan citizens can actually be arrested and persecuted for speaking out against the king. Though King Mohammed VI has been notably more liberalized than his predecessors, things haven’t been the same since the suicide bombings that occurred in Casablanca in 2003, the most severe terrorist attack Morocco has ever seen. The highest measures are taken for national security, certainly at great costs of civil liberty.

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Morocco is also lauded as one of the most advanced African/Islamist countries for women, especially following the passage of the Moudawana law (also called the Family Code) in 2004. The law included major amendments to improve a woman’s ability to seek persecution and divorce in situations of domestic violence. Prior to the amendments, a woman had to have witnesses of the incident for any legal proceedings to take place. Sounds great! But here’s the problem: 60% of Moroccan women are illiterate, and therefore are hardly empowered by a law they can’t read. While it may be tempting to acknowledge the 17% of women serving in the Moroccan parliament, it is sadly only the result of a mandated gender quota, meaning that many of the women in parliament are quite literally there just for show. This is assumed to produce substantive representation for women in the government, but since the monarchy is the one pulling all the strings behind the curtain anyway, does it really make a difference? Morocco may be doing better than most, but further improvement is clearly still needed.

One of the most heart wrenching moments of my time in the classroom thus far came when one of my students told me “Things will never change. 20% of us live on less than the minimum wage of 200 dirhams a day ($2 USD) while the government officials get paid thousands for doing absolutely nothing. The best we can hope for is to continue our education, find a good job, and have enough to support ourselves and our family.”

Income inequality, unemployment, and illiteracy are three of the major issues afflicting Morocco right now. Many students cannot afford the opportunity cost of continuing school when their families need extra income to make ends meet. And many students, even after obtaining college degrees (yes, plural) in prestigious fields, are unable to find work in their field and have to resort to whatever else they can find to support themselves, like working in food delivery or as a parking assistant. At this point, you may be asking yourself: How is this government able to get away with this? Why don’t they protest? (Actually, they do.) What could possibly be worth sacrificing so much?

For all its shortcomings in civil liberties, government transparency, and rigid socioeconomic inequality, Morocco has something under the monarchy that outweighs all of the above. Something that can be summed up in a single word: Stability.

Amidst the chaos of ISIS, Boko Haram, and a systematic lack of government protection that plagues its neighboring states such as Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, (just to name a few) Morocco has enjoyed a steadfast stability that is not to be taken for granted. Their proximity to these persisting threats is constantly just a little too close for comfort, which they are reminded of when they see the inability of neighboring governments to protect its citizens. The monarchy, by contrast, has kept the Moroccan people safe by forging relationships with many world powers, working as their key ally in the Magreb. While it is certainly an imperfect system of governance, the people are acutely aware of just how much they have to be grateful for when they turn on the news.

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Morocco is an altogether fascinating and complex country. I look forward to learning more about the triumphs and struggles that the Moroccan people face, because in an age where voluntourism (foreigners who travel to developing countries without understanding how to make a sustainable impact versus furthering the problem) is trending all across social media, it is of the utmost importance to seek out, learn, and understand the full story. Perhaps now, after this brief introduction to both the gaps and advantages of the Moroccan political system, you will start to see how my project in Women’s Empowerment was created in the hopes of meeting the challenges that Moroccans face.