“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” – G.K. Chesterton
I had no intentions of noticing the lack of female patrons in the cafes on our 750 mile drive through Morocco. I didn’t necessarily ask about our guides ex-girlfriend who ended up in a pre-arranged marriage. I read a book about the emperor in the 17th century having 4 wives in his palace and what they went through, but didn’t realize I would actually tour that palace in Marrakech and feel a kindred spirit with the women. But, I did notice all of it, and the more I realized how different the culture was from my own the wheels started spinning.
So, I wanted to write about what I learned after doing a road trip through Morocco for 5 nights and frankly, just being curious by nature.
For me, who I was traveling with made me realize the differences in culture tenfold. So, a little about that first…. It’s pretty simple. I decided I wanted to ride a camel and camp in the desert, and Morocco seemed about as exotic as it gets so that’s where I wanted to do it at. When I booked my extremely cheap roundtrip flight and posted on Facebook the more the merrier should join, I got immediate replies that flights were booked. In the end, there were 10 women. Ages ranged from 29-43, & 9 out of 10 are single. The married one is a girl boss and traveling with or without her husband. I knew most of them, but everyone else met at least 75% of the group for the first time.
It could not have gone any better, which makes me extremely happy to know so many amazing women who are willing to travel and be open to new cultures and experiences. More importantly for my point of this post, is that they do so on their own accord and time.
To spend time with other women who are in the same 30-35ish very-single-but-loving-life boat was refreshing. A few don’t want kids, some don’t plan on marrying, and discussions were had about both. I’m not what I would consider a feminist, but I felt empowered by these other women and the simple fact that all of us made our own personal choices and weren’t swayed by what I feel are ‘society standards’. More important than that, I was grateful. I want a husband and children, and this was a very good reminder not to feel pressure. That what I am doing with my life is just fine, because it’s what makes me happy.
The flip side of this is that we were traveling in a country where arranged marriage is a very real thing, polygamy is still present, and women can be considered or treated as a prostitute if they show too much skin. To feel empowered by my travel companions, and also be able to look around me and realize how lucky I am to have the freedoms I do was ironic.
As an American woman, women’s rights in Morocco, is not something I have put a lot of effort into understanding. I didn’t understand that the suppression women may be experiencing in Morocco wasn’t directly related to being an Islamic country, that it may stem more from tradition rather than religion. Just a brief run down for those who, like me, have never really considered or looked into it.
My take away from the basics and how they apply to women’s rights are, mostly importantly, Islam places equality between men and women. In Islam, modesty is commanded in the Qur’an. It is also commanded that a woman not have premarital sex, her husband (after the marriage contract) will be her only partner. However, he may have up to 4 Muslim wives and have sex with as many non-muslim slaves as he would like. He can marry a christian or jewish woman and it is fine, but all wives must be treated equal. A woman cannot marry a non-muslim unless the man converts, nor can she have multiple husbands.
The Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad advocate the rights of women and men equally to seek knowledge. The differences in gender roles should be defined in social functions. The womans responsiblity being the home and the mans being outside the home. The belief that home and family are the center of life in Islam recognizes the importance of the role the woman plays. The mans work cannot take precedence over the private realm, nor was the woman meant to be restricted to just the home. The first university in the world was founded by a woman in Fez, and women have played important roles throughout the history of Islam.
So, religion vs traditions. My understanding of the Islam views towards women is that equality is meant to be inforced in all aspects, modesty is important, and traditional gender roles are outlined. Premarital sex is forbidden, drinking alcohol is forbidden, and a man can have up to 4 wives. Other than that last part, it doesn’t seem so different from the way I was raised. “Forbidden” was used fairly loosely and the punishments were never severe, but dont drink, dont do drugs, dont have sex is pretty universal.
Traditions must be to blame then for the fact that in 2004 15-year-old boys had a 65% literacy rates compared to girls 40%, and as of last year women in general have a 64% rate. Marrying a girl was allowed once she had reached puberty, or whenever her father consented, the average age in previous decades being 17. A man could verbally divorce a woman whenever he liked, and could take wives (up to 4) with or without consent of the others. According to Islamic law, Sharia, a woman cannot be forced into a marriage. But, in 2012 a 16-year-old girl was forced into marrying her rapist because he can avoid criminal prosecution if they marry. She committed suicide and in 2013 this government article was revised. I’m not going to even get into the past decades inheritance laws and how messed up they sound.
Since Muhammad VI became king in 1999 a lot has improved for women’s rights. Now, law says you can’t marry until 18 (unless a judge grants permission… which apparently happens often especially in rural areas). Divorce is granted in court, and a woman can now file for a number of reasons. As you can imagine, divorce rates have increased by leaps and bounds. The parent who wins custody gets the home, as opposed to when women were sometimes left homeless once divorced. And also women can sign their own marriage contracts now rather than having their fate determined by their father.
So that’s the stats and a little background, clearly things are changing and women’s rights are improving.
My personal experiences while traveling (and again, without doing much research beforehand), I quickly picked up that there were rarely any women in the cafes we would stop at on our road trip and I asked why. I was told that they would be home preparing lunches. I was also informed that they may be considered a prostitute, or treated as one if they were in the cafes with the men… who most of the time seemed to simply be hanging out. Our own guide has an ex girlfriend that they broke up because her father decided a prearranged marriage offer was good and it was time for her to marry. While every answer given to me was said as if it were completely normal and ok, because it is there. My sheltered little American mouth wanted to drop open.
There are a group of women called, Morchidat, who are helping and hoping to empower women and improve their lives. It’s called a ‘rare experiment in the Muslim world’, and it’s also the first time in a Muslim country that a religious role has been given to women. The mission is that these spiritual leaders can both encourage a more tolerant Islam and improve the position of girls and women in Moroccan society. So, religion and tradition. Look them up, as well as the movie about them, Casablanca calling. I have not watched more than trailers at this point, but would love to find it!
To bring it back full circle, I’m reminded of the irony of how free it felt to travel through Morocco with my girl friends, who really have no care in the world other than planning our next trip and maybe trying to set up a date here or there. While I’m the first to admit my ignorance about what it’s truly like to be a woman in Morocco these days, there are experiences I have as a visitor that make me sympathize. If the men grabbing our butts in the Jemaa el-Fnaa market while asking how much (keep in mind I was in linen pants and a t-shirt and my friends in similar or full length dresses), or brushing against our bodies… hands first, and the occasional looks as we order at a cafe is any indication of the level of respect you receive by your equal than I hope your rights continue to improve.
So a big thank you ladies, our trip to Spain and Africa will forever go down as one of my favorites because of what I experienced as well as who I experienced it with. I look up to each of you in different ways, and am grateful for the opportunity to ride a camel & sit on a sand dune in the Sahara Desert and contemplate life and how freaking good it’s been to me. I also want to thank the women of Morocco for broadening my horizons. The ones I met in our Riads in Marrakesh who run the bed and breakfasts and had ready smiles, my masseuse who is her own boss and works when and where she chooses, the ones who I didn’t see because they were running their homes, and the ones working to make a positive change for other women.
At the end of the day, this is obviously a look at the dark tumultuous side of things after a week of traveling and wanting to know more. I know life isn’t like everything previously mentioned for everyone, and I truly hope that my curiosity and thoughts are not insulting. I’m currently in contact with a 27 year old getting her doctorate in economics in Morocco who says she only wants to travel in her country because it’s very safe and she loves it so much. Good for her, but I hope she makes it outside the borders and gets to experience a new culture that makes her keep her head on a swivel and her mind constantly in a state of wonder. That’s what traveling is all about.
Personally, the last thing I want this to sound like is a nose in the air half ass explanation is Islam. I learned a lot, and was grounded by everything. I’m reminded to be thankful that I have the freedom to choose my own happiness, and my biggest worry is how to fit as many trips into this year as possible. As for you, I hope you learned something without taking the full road trip through Morocco, but you really really should. I have amazing guides at Overmorocco I would recommend to anyone!