Womanhood in Morocco

Published 11/04/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Soniya Gurung | 11/04/2022

Geographically, Morocco is located in North Africa and has a Muslim majority population; hence, it begged the question of how the neighboring countries are also influencing the country’s treatment of women.

Post-Christmas, I traveled to Morocco to not only visit a country that had been on my bucket list for a long time, but also to try to understand what it is like to be a woman there. More specifically, I was curious how the nation was progressing in the women empowerment movement by trying to stay rooted to its long-held traditions while also striving for modern ways. 

I started my trip at the port city of Tangier and right when I landed, I was greeted by a large, framed picture of the King of Morocco. It was immediately striking to me that his picture was not taken with a Queen. I brushed the thought aside and continued on to explore the city, thinking that it was probably just a random observation to have a King alone without showing his family or partner. However, this observation started being a pattern. The Airbnb homes we stayed at of local Moroccans also included framed pictures of their King but excluded their Queen. I decided to ask our host if there was any reason to exclude a Queen and the answer I received was that they did not like to have their Queen being out in the public. As I dug further on this, I was also told that there were rumors that the Queen might have left the King and was in hiding to prevent public backlash. It was deeply concerning to me that a country that was economically improving to advance the standard of living of the citizens still felt the need to push their women as second-class citizens in the faintest sense. Nothing was outright and openly discriminatory against women but there were nuances like the case with the Queen not being allowed to be in the public too often as the King. It was also at Tangier that I experienced a lot of cat-calling that were not as innocent and simple as “Ni hao” (In Morocco, due to the influx of Chinese tourists they have experienced over the years, anyone who looked remotely Asian was immediately assumed to be Chinese and greeted as such). While cat-calling is not an isolated occurrence that only occurs at Tangier, my friends and I, all females, had a pretty vulgar statement being thrown to us one unfortunate evening. It reaffirmed that no matter where we go in the world, as the day gets dark even in the most religious of countries that preach all the right things, women become prey to men who are unable to see us as their equal and give us the respect as they would in broad daylight to their mothers and sisters.

From Tangier, I took a public bus to the Chefchaouen and was pleasantly surprised to see so many women working at front desks while I was dealing with buying bus tickets. Most of the women who were working in the counters were wearing hijabs and later on, I found out that there is an advantage for women who wear hijabs to get an office job. As I traveled through Chefchaouen that is less urban, there were more women who were working as housewives or engaging in small businesses. There were moments when I would try to speak with a women in the restaurant, probably the main cook, but I would be directed to her husband or business partner. At first, I assumed that they were shy or not able to speak English as well but then it finally dawned on me that they were probably told from a young age not to speak with outsiders without approval from their male family member. Overall, Chefchaouen was a beautiful, blue city that was a little rundown but it added to its charm. It was also in Chefchaouen that I realized how hard the women work here as homemakers and sometimes also savvy business women by selling works of their talent such as sewing clothes, cooking food, making jewelry, or even the famous argan oil production of Morocco.

After taking in the beauty of Chefchaouen and learning so much from their strong women, I traveled to the city of Fes where I met the most interesting driver! His name was Abdul and he was around my father’s age, in his fifties. As I started talking to with him, I learned that he was divorced, had a young daughter, and lived in a shared home with all his siblings, their children, and his parents. We all had a good laugh when he mentioned how they try to keep a bathroom schedule and sign-up sheet in order to prevent any clashing in the morning when everyone has to go about their days. By the end of our journey, I was stumped when he decided to offer to “marry” me! I assumed it was a joke and although it was all light-hearted, there was a subtle seriousness in his proposal to be his second wife. Here was a man in his fifties asking me, in my twenties, if I would be willing to be his second wife! I still laugh about the whole ordeal but then it became apparent that it was absolutely normal for a Muslim man in Morocco to have more than one wife, usually all living under the same roof. In Abdul’s case, he was a rarity to actually be divorced and could be considered “modern” in a sense as he explained how he does not support Muslims who have distorted the religion to force certain ideals on others. In particular, he brought up his dissatisfaction with wealthy Saudi Arabians who spend all their money in vices while trying to present a perfect “Muslim man” identity.

My last portion of the trip took me to two tourist-heavy cities, Casablanca and Marrakesh. Casablanca and Marrakesh reminded me of New York and Los Angeles. One of my lovely hosts had two daughters around my age who were in University, studying marketing. I had the pleasure of meeting them near their school and was greeted by 2 young ladies. One of them had brought their boyfriend along as well but I was warned not to tell their father of the relationship. (As a side note, young Moroccan couples who were unmarried are not allowed to rent rooms together without proof like a marriage certificate. While Casablanca and Marrakesh are much more progressive, it was clear that unmarried couples in a relationship had to ensure they were being discreet in their affection and stay conservative.) Speaking to the two sisters brought the message home for me that while Morocco is advancing, they are not yet ready to shake off old customs and traditions that are deeply rooted in their Muslim religion, as well as their neighboring countries that follow similar morals and enforce them in the region. Tourism was bringing in mass volumes of people from Europe and all over the world that came from different backgrounds but Morocco has not completely let go of its identity as a proud Islamic nation, which is represented in the flag.

By the time I landed in New York City to be back home with my family, I had learned so much about the strength of women in Morocco, those in urban cities like Casablanca, as well as those in Berber villages who were only starting to get used to being exposed to a new world beyond their community. In my opinion, education does not equate to the degrees you have or the schools you go to – it is more so about understanding the world outside of our comfortable lives and challenging ourselves to seek out an untraditional education through travels to foreign land. The Milken Institute and Milken Family Foundation both have mission statements that refer to improving our lives and I strongly believe that after my trip to Morocco and learning about how women play an integral but silent part there, I have a greater drive to strive for gender equality beyond the United States.