Moroccan Feminine Wiles
I have been grappling with the decision to write this piece, as well as how to write it. I’ve rewritten it at least a dozen times. Everything I’ve written is true. I am simply recounting my personal experiences spending a summer alone in Rabat, Morocco. But, I’m worried that it will come across as some sort of Islamophobic, imperialist rant. And, then, I decided to just tell the truth. Take it as you will.
I nearly broke under the weight of oppression. The air felt thick with it. I burst into tears at work. I cried myself to sleep at night, listening to the cacophony of cries and screams of the domestic servant girls, some of them Moroccan, some of them foreign, being beaten and raped in the darkness. The discordant melody of wailing and torture would wind down just as the dissonant Muslim call to prayer hailed the rising sun. Where was either the conservative Muslim society, which honors chastity and abhors immoral behavior, or the open and modern Morocco, which smokes cannabis and eats up French culture?
In retrospect, my somewhat charming naiveté was matched only by my somewhat less charming overconfidence. I had expected to find an Islamic culture lite—a softer, gentler Muslim society in which women not only participated but thrived. And where better to look than Morocco: a tourist Mecca, West-friendly, with a king determined to modernize and democratize and join the European Union. I felt stupid. I had come to bear witness to the dawning of a new era of enlightenment, of women’s rights, of ijtihad (the ability to interpret Islam individually). King Mohammed VI pushed a revised and progressive Family Code, the Mudawana, through Parliament two years prior. I had come to study its impact and implementation while working for a human rights organization in Rabat as a summer legal intern last year. And, while I did meet successful Moroccan women in positions of power and spam, they were, unfortunately, few and far between, and their success was more a product of having been born into the highest echelons of society. The typical Moroccan woman simply does not share in these opportunities. I had expected too much, too soon.
I am not a cultural relativist. I believe that the inherent dignity of a human being and the rights implicit therein trump religion, culture, and nationality. One of the problems I have with the cultural relativism argument is the issue of who defines the culture. Whose culture is it? Almost without fail, those in power employ the argument as a means of maintaining the status quo to their own advantage. This usually means men. If women are not full participating members of society, with economic and political power, how can it be said that they are complicit in their own degradation? Inherent in the cultural relativism argument is the claim that the women living within whichever so-called culture support and reinforce their own diminished and devalued status in society.
I find this argument repugnant. Usually, it is cloaked in religious justifications. A religious endorsement of a cultural entitlement to human rights violations is supposed to end the debate. And, of course, if your religion indoctrinates children from birth and threatens them with either violent death in the herenow or eternal hellfire in the hereafter, it isn’t hard to see that free will isn’t really part of the equation. Having been raised in a cult which espouses the virtues of the subjugation of women, I promise you that, at a very tender age, I would have been able to wax eloquent about how that really wasn’t so bad, and it was what God wanted for me now, for which sacrifice I would be richly rewarded later. Was I complicit in my own degradation? I think not. I had been inculcated. And, I was afraid of being raped by demons. By a stroke of mercurial fortune, I was born in the United States. And, while it hasn’t been easy, I was able to walk away from my entire family, my religion, and my life, at the age of 18, to make a new life for myself. Most women in the world are not so lucky.
Women in patriarchal societies do what they have to do to survive. This in no way either legitimizes their inferior status or implies that they acquiesce in their own subordination. Saying as much also denies the extraordinary efforts of numerous women’s rights organizations and thousands upon thousands of women in Morocco doing amazing work to advance the role of women in society. I did things in Morocco, which I would never have imagined that I would ever even think about doing until I did them, because being raped on a daily basis was not a happy alternative. But, no, I never wore a headscarf, because the Islamists are right—there are some things worth dying for. Like my humanity.
I was shocked from the moment the plane landed at the reaction I elicited. I had never felt so sexualized and objectified. It was a suffocating and overwhelming deluge of incessant, aggressive, unwanted male attention. Taxi drivers tried to kidnap me. Soldiers harassed me. Strange men tried to lure me into their shops, their homes, their beds. I was baffled at the rudeness of these men who felt absolutely no compunction in trying to touch and grab me.
I was terrified and dismayed. I thought, “How am I going to get to and from work? How am I going to maneuver through my daily existence, buy groceries, go to the bank, eat out?” I was incredulous. Walking down the street by myself in downtown Rabat, in front of the Parliament building no less, seemed like a nightmare in which I had mistakenly exposed my genitals.
Being unwilling to abandon my summer plans, I quickly adjusted as well as I could. I avoided eye contact with everyone on the street and simply ignored the men attempting to secure my attention. Yelling “No!” while pointing my finger at anyone bold enough to speak to me yielded particularly disarming results. I glared and glowered at the cab drivers while barking directions at them. Basically, I behaved in a manner that would have completely mortified me in the United States. I usually pride myself on being friendly and courteous, but it just simply wasn’t possible, or safe, to be so in Morocco. I was distraught over the negative impression I was imparting. And, I didn’t want to have to confine myself to a merely academic course of study. I wanted to take it to the streets. I wanted to meet the people. I wanted to understand what life is like for a typical Moroccan woman. If this was it, I felt nothing but the most prodigious admiration for the tenacity of Moroccan women.
I chose two particular survival tactics both of which were highly successful, and both of which left me feeling wholly dehumanized and demoralized. First, I would tell any man whom I met that I was engaged to a Moroccan. I abhor lying, but I had little choice to do otherwise. Once, I was attempting to thwart the groping hands of a taxi driver when I told him as much. He instantly took his hands off of both me and the steering wheel, raised them in the air, and began praying to Allah for forgiveness, shutting his eyes and covering his face with his hands. I thought, “That’s great that you’re repenting and everything, but could you not cover your face with your hands while you’re driving me to work, thanks.”
I realized that he saw me, as an infidel, a nonMuslim, as being for the taking and the raping. Even as a Muslim woman, he saw me as a chattel, the sexual property of another Muslim, whose property he may not defile. I felt the utmost indignation and sadness. I was also disgusted with myself for manipulating his idiocies to protect myself against him. How do Moroccan women cope with being treated as ciphers with vaginas and wombs?
The other way in which I protected myself from the onslaught of sexual perversion was to befriend, under somewhat false pretenses, a group of young Moroccan men who worked at various shops in the center of Rabat. This was useful because, if I was accompanied by a Moroccan man, I was neither accosted nor molested, since I had already been claimed by a Muslim. I was able to do this, because the aspirations of this group of young Moroccan men had less to do with sex than emigration and economic advancement. One of the greatest sources of income in Morocco comes from men who live and work in foreign countries and send money home to their extended families. Marrying a foreign woman, particularly one from Western Europe or the United States, becomes a lucrative business endeavor.
Unemployment and underemployment remain a trenchant problem in Morocco. And, there is no shortage of western women to court in Rabat. Morocco harbors a robust sex tourism industry, especially for French and British women, as well as Arab men from the Gulf, who view Moroccan women as lesser Arabs and, accordingly, lesser Muslims.
The young men whom I had befriended were, for the greater part, well-educated, nominally employed, and middle class. They came from nice, traditional Muslim families. All of them spoke French, and some of them spoke at least some English. Most of them had visited or studied in France and had family living there. They often spoke of being pressured by their families to marry their French cousins, which they were more apt to be inclined to do if they had found their respective cousins’ pictures toothsome, and less inclined if they had found their cousins’ pictures otherwise.
Their attentions were rather solicitous than lewd and officious. It was pleasant to be in the company of men who wanted to chat with me, not rape me. I have to admit that I felt, in no small part, a great sense of relief. They made everything OK. They took me to sightseeing spots in the city. They would threaten the cab drivers in Arabic before sending me home for the night. And, I let them think that if they performed these tasks to my satisfaction, they might, just might, win the grand prize of American citizenship.
More than anything else, I became highly skilled in the subtle arts of duplicity and manipulation during my sojourn in Morocco. And, likewise, I was the subject of much Machiavellian scheming and machination. I won people over initially by professing my profound hatred for George Bush. This never fails to win friends and spam people in Muslim Arab countries. And, it just so happens to be true. Not only did I gain protection, I also gained information. I was there to study the culture, the language, the state religion, the government, the laws, and, especially, Moroccan women’s place in society. So, I withheld verbal judgment, and I tried, as best I could, to refrain from exhibiting facial judgments. I was very open and honest about my goals. I wanted to learn as much as I could about Morocco in the short time that I had. Likewise, they were more than happy to participate in my study, because they hoped that I would take them back to the States with me. This completely misguided yet ubiquitous misconception existed that I was free as an American to simply bring back whomever I might choose. If I attempted to insist otherwise, I was met by obstinate refutations. “No, no, you can,” they would counter. So I dropped the subject. Also, I met the same obdurate resistance when I tried to suggest that not everyone living in the United States is leading a charmed life of luxury.
I was shocked by how open and honest these young Muslim men were about their misogyny, their racism, their tribalism, and, especially, about their antiSemitism. They were also brutally honest about their interpretations of Quranic tenets and Islamic dogma. They proudly bandied about their cell phone displays, emblazoned with images of the two hijacked planes hitting the Twin Towers, for my amusement. They then sheepishly put them away when they saw the look of utter horror upon my face. Somehow they thought that my disapprobation of the American president would equate with my pleasure in seeing thousands of
American innocents slaughtered.
They all espoused a sincere desire to head to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Palestine, to engage in jihad against the infidels. Many of them claimed that only familial responsibilities, such as caring for mothers and sisters, held them back from fulfilling this ultimate Muslim duty of martyrdom. They waxed eloquent about ripping open the hymens of angelic virgins unto perpetuity as a rightful heavenly reward for their efforts. They would, in the same breath, harangue the killing of innocents as unIslamic and then vehemently defend the killing of any and all Israeli or Jewish or European or American or nonMuslim civilians, including men, women, and
children, as enemies of Islam.
Whether or not these proclamations were the products, in no small part, of testosterone-infused bombast, they were chilling nonetheless. These were not impoverished, uneducated, unsophisticated, and frustrated inhabitants of some shanty town on the outskirts of *spam*. These were not young men who had fallen prey to and under the sway of some radical mullah. These were young men who wished to marry western women, move to Western Europe or the United States, and avail themselves of both the freedom and capitalism therein. Yet, these were also young men who laughed at children’s television cartoons that represented American soldiers as hapless and witless buffoons who most often blow themselves up through their own ineptitude. I have to admit that I found myself becoming angry, even incensed. They seemed completely oblivious to any sense of dissonance between their desire to destroy Western culture and their desire to become part of Western culture.
One need only visit a Muslim Arab country to understand the true nature of the much-abused concept of jihad. There is no talk of internal struggle on the streets of Rabat. There is no talk of nonviolent conversion in the cafes of Morocco. There is only talk of blood, lust and martyrdom. Keep in mind that Morocco is a moderate Muslim Arab nation, infused with European culture and populated with cosmopolitan cities, and, arguably, America’s greatest Muslim-Arab ally.
I feel that the real views of the vast majority of Muslims towards women, both Muslim and infidel, are given short shrift in light of the omnipresent dangers of jihad. My Moroccan companions continually insisted that all French women are whores while also doing anything in their power to woo said whores for the chance to become French citizens. The duplicity inherent in these relationships is disturbing, to say the least. And, they didn’t reserve their vitriol for foreign women either. Muslim women who were not sufficiently pious were not to be spared their wrath and venom. My Moroccan friends took every opportunity to let me know that Muslim women who do not cover their hair are loose, easy women. They would point at young Moroccan women in Western-style dress walking down the streets of Rabat and allege that these women have sex every night with different men.
They went so far as to allow their view of women to color their ideas about genetics and heredity. I once asked them about the common practice of marrying one’s first cousins. I asked if they were ever concerned about the increased risk of birth defects. They told me, in no uncertain terms, that this could not be a problem, because a Muslim man only marries his first cousins on his mother’s side of the family, not his father’s side. There would only be a problem if he married his female cousins on his father’s side of the family. At first I thought they were joking. “Are you kidding?” I asked rather impolitely. “Mitochondria? DNA? Double helix? Mendel and his beans or peas or whatever? No? Nothing? So no one in Morocco looks like his mother?” I babbled. They honestly did not believe that women provided any genetic information to their own children. When I tried to explain to them that this was not the case, they refused to relent. Finally, I dropped the subject, completely incredulous. I also didn’t understand why everyone, well, the men at least, were so interested in my religious affiliation. Upon meeting me, everyone would ask, “Are you Christian?” I found it rather impertinent. And, if I replied no, they would then inquire as to the religious affiliation of my parents. I gave up trying to explain Jehovah’s Witnesses after a couple of attempts. I didn’t feel that my French was truly up to the challenge of explaining the nature of my then quasi-deist stance. After listening to me grapple for the requisite vocabulary for several minutes with perplexed looks on their faces, they would wave down my speech with their hands and conclude, “You are Christian. You are Christian,” with great satisfaction. I didn’t understand what had elicited the satisfaction. It was only later that I was informed that they were inquiring as to my marriageability. A Muslim man may marry a “woman of the Book,” i.e., a Christian or Jew, and she is not even required to convert, as long as the children are raised Muslim. An atheist or agnostic or deist, however, would not be acceptable under any circumstances.
Muslim women, on the other hand, may only marry Muslim men. And, only one man at a time, whereas Muslim men may marry up to four wives. Polygamy is still legal in Morocco, but severely limited and judicially constrained. Whenever the urge to shock overcame me, I only had to verbalize my intent to move to Morocco, because I thought group marriage a fine thing, and I myself desired four husbands. Jaws instantly dropped. “No. This is unacceptable.” Likewise, I invoked a similar response whenever I stated my intent never to marry or have children. Moroccan culture is a celebration of the image of man as implacable, sexually-ravenous beast. Little boys are vaunted and cooed over, caressed and kissed, even in public, even by grown men, while little girls are lamented, ignored, and marginalized. Bragadaccio over sexual exploits and abilities is typical conversational fodder. I was flabbergasted. It all struck me as the antithesis of a pious, moral, chaste society. How had women managed to survive in this atmosphere? Oh, yes, in the exact same way as I had done.
I finally had a chance to visit with a Moroccan woman in her home. She was around 60 years of age. She had given birth to eight children and raised six. Her father had forced her into marriage at the age of 12. Her mother and sisters had protested, but to no avail. Her husband, a stranger a dozen years or so her senior, beat her viciously, because she was unable to cook and clean to his specifications. She became pregnant at 14. And yet, despite all of these apparent miseries, she seemed happy. She sat, nonplussed, next to her blue-jeans clad youngest daughter, watching a pussy cat dolls music video on the television, and she seemed even joyful. Her husband, now frail and small, didn’t seem at all concerned at her recounting his abuses. I asked her how she felt about scantily-clad women parading their bodies across the television screen. She said that she thought it was fine for the younger generations, but that she would be too embarrassed to do the same. The woman and her husband slept in one salon, and her daughter and I slept in an adjacent salon. The woman and her husband cooed and giggled at one another well into the night. Her daughter laughed. “The lovers’ chit chat,” she said. I asked her if her mother held any grudge against her father for his treatment of her. She said no. “Time passes.”
I don’t regret having visited Morocco. On the contrary, it was one of the best and most amazing experiences of my life thus far. I couldn’t be more thrilled that I had the opportunity. It was a life-changing, eye-opening experience that I wouldn’t exchange for the world. I was able to meet and work with fantastic women who are striving to improve the lot of all women in Morocco. Things are changing for the better, more slowly and more painfully than I had thought or hoped. But evolution is inexorable, social and otherwise, the creationists and fundamentalists deny it as they will.
What did I take away from my Moroccan experience? I realized that Moroccan women are artful and disingenuous deceivers and survivalists by necessity, not choice. I also realized that the complicity argument is hogwash. And I realized that men care not for their religious tenets and dogma, except to impose sexual slavery upon women. Embracing cultural relativism makes the West complicit in the gender genocide and sexual slavery of millions upon millions of women living in predominantly Muslim countries. People don’t realize how many Muslim women are fighting for their rights in Muslim countries. Their governments don’t want the West to know. It defeats the cultural relativism argument.
The whole notion that societies where family ties are paramount are more moral is a sheer and utter fallacy.
I used to be more sensitive to the cultural relativism argument. When I arrived in Morocco, I was terrified of appearing culturally insensitive. I didn’t want to be labeled an egotistical Western imperialist. But now, I am a militant secular humanist. I spam reject any suggestion that insistence upon human rights is in some way imperialistic. Three months alone in Morocco will do that to a girl.
Sarah Braasch, FFRF’s first legal intern, grew up in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She attended the University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, where she obtained two engineering degrees, summa cum laude, in aerospace engineering and mechanics and mechanical engineering. She worked in the boutique hotel industry for several years, in both Los Angeles and Miami. Sarah is currently a law student at Fordham University in New York City. She spent a summer in Morocco working for a human rights organization. She recently participated in a human rights clinic in Ethiopia. She worked for the Foundation over the summer of 2008. She is studying at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, this fall.
By Sarah Braasch