The situation of women in Morocco is somewhere between that of women in the West and those in conservative Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia.* Here in Casablanca, everything seems fine on the surface. Clothing varies: women wear the entire range from the traditional conservative jelaba and foulard (although chadras are rare),** to Western suits, to skin-tight shirts and mini-skirts. The choice of dress tends to depend on both age and occupation: in general, teenagers wear sexy or casual Western clothes; professional women wear Western-style business clothing; and older, blue-collar, and unemployed women wear jelabas.
I see both men and women working together almost everywhere I go: in banks, bakeries, schools, stores, and even government offices (although there are noticeably more men than women in the latter). I have never seen women running a stall at the souq (market) or driving a taxi; these domains seem to be reserved for men. From the conversations I’ve had, it sounds as though women are usually paid about the same as their male colleagues, which is more than can be said for some of their Western counterparts. My husband teaches at a private school of English for professionals, and at least half of his students are women. Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any prejudice against women working and going to school, at least in Casablanca. Upon further study, though, there are a number of serious problems. Please note that unless otherwise stated, these observations are restricted to Casablanca; the situation in rural areas is probably quite different.
In the whole of Morocco, there is an extremely high illiteracy rate, especially in the countryside, and especially among women. According to the UNDP, more than 80% of women in rural Morocco are illiterate. I don’t know what this means, exactly, except that based on what I said above about women at work and school, Casablanca is not a representative sample of Morocco.
Women and Work
A married woman must get her husband’s permission before seeking a job. Most working women, about 60%, are in textiles and light industry. Another 10% or so are femmes de ménage (housekeepers or maids). Typically, these women are uneducated, illiterate, and unmarried, and earn room, board, and extremely low wages. They usually speak Arabic and possibly a few words of French. Their duties may include cooking, cleaning, and taking care of their employer’s children, and those who don’t live in usually go home to do the same thing for their families (which may include illegitimate children, sickly siblings, and/or elderly parents).
I have befriended two professional women in Casablanca. Mina runs a sports center, while Jamila is an English teacher. Both of these women work full time in their respective jobs, and they also do essentially everything in the home: cook, clean, take care of the children, etc. The cooking alone takes tremendous amounts of time – I would say much more than in the typical Western household, and even more during holidays, including the entire month of Ramadan. From what I can tell, their husbands do not assist in these domestic chores at all. (The one thing that men have sole responsibility for is the killing of any animals which the wife plans to prepare for dinner.) The husband and wife both work full time outside of the home, but the wife has a second full-time job caring for the household. While both of my friends say that it is difficult to do so much work, neither of them reacted to the suggestion that maybe their husbands could help out. These two women are something of an exception, however; most working families employ a femme de ménage.
Our own femme de ménage, Fatima, is an extraordinary women and an exception in some sense. She has always made it a point to work for ex-patriates and do an excellent job. When Fatima started working (at 14), she taught herself to cook in order to meet the complicated nutritional demands of her French employers, and she is now a tremendous cook. Because she can guarantee a clean house, happy children, and an excellent dinner, she earns twice the normal rate. Although she never went to school, she speaks fluent French and can read Arabic. She treats her employers like family; doesn’t hesitate to offer impromptu lessons on Arabic, Moroccan culture, or Casablanca; and is one of the most honest and genuine people that I have ever met. Fatima has no brothers and lost her father at a very young age; thus as the older sister she has had to support her family since then. She has spent most of her life (she is now about 55) working full-time and then going home to care for her sick mother and, until she passed away, her younger sister.
There is essentially no such thing as a non-working woman. Even if she does not go out and earn money, she cooks, cleans, takes care of the kids, etc. In contrast, unemployed men abound – they sit at cafés day and night.
Note: In February 2004, a new family code was passed which makes much of this section obsolete.
According to Islamic law, men are allowed to have multiple wives, provided that their first wife gives them permission. I don’t know anyone personally who has two wives and the Moroccans that I’ve asked say they know no more than one or two multi-wife families. Most Moroccans have embraced a Western point of view on this issue. Nonetheless, I must say that I find the “permission” concept rather strange. What would happen if the first wife said no? Would the man really accept that?
Children are considered good luck and are adored here (and they are universally adorable – I have never seen so many beautiful children in all of my life). They also seem to be considered the reason for both marriage and a woman’s existence. I have met Americans who think I’m missing out by choosing not to have children, but they pale in comparison to Moroccans, for whom family is everything. Every single Moroccan that my husband and I have chatted with for more than a few minutes has asked how many children we have, and when told none, the majority have asked why not? when will you have them? At first we were rather startled by this, but we soon learned that rather than telling them the truth (that we don’t want to have children), it’s better to tell them that we are waiting until we get settled. Even this, though, is not really accepted or even understood. One morning I felt a little ill, and our femme de ménage (whom we have told that we are waiting) started waxing ecstatic about how maybe I was pregnant and how beautiful our children would be. A professional woman suggested that I go see a doctor to find out why I hadn’t gotten pregnant yet. She was oblivious to my explanation about wanting to wait until we had a home; I can’t imagine her reaction if I had told her the truth, or how very rude I thought her suggestion was.
Wills are an interesting conundrum. They seem to exist, but I don’t understand why. From what I understand, upon a man’s death, his property is automatically distributed as follows: half of his property is divided up among his sons, one fourth goes to his widow(s), and the other fourth is divided up among the daughters. I had a conversation with a woman named Malika about this: her father died and left a summer cottage to his widow, two daughters, and one son. Malika would like to buy out the others and keep the house, but in order to do so she must follow the above-mentioned division. She had hoped that her brother, who is very well off, would be amenable to a “fairer” distribution (such as 25% per person) so that she could afford to do this, but he says that she either has to come up with the “correct” division or sell the house so that he gets his fair share of 50% of its value.
On the other hand, men still pay dowries to their wives. They often pay only a percentage of this before the wedding, and owe the rest, potentially for the rest of their lives. However, if the couple divorce, the man is still required to pay the rest of the promised dowry.
Divorce – even when the woman has custody of the children, if she decides to leave the country, she must still get permission from her ex-husband.
Both men and women continue to live at home with their parents until (if) they get married. Most parents will not allow their unmarried daughters to go out at night, no matter how old they are.
I don’t have statistics on domestic abuse, but I know that it is rampant and that there is very little recourse for its victims
Prostitution and Rape
Most women who become prostitutes do so upon becoming “illegitimately” pregnant, often due to rape. This disgrace causes her family (with whom she would normally live until she married) to kick her out on the street. With no education and no way to support her child, she can either be a femme de ménage or a prostitute. I have no data on which is the more popular choice, but I do know that there are ample numbers of both. Large areas of Casablanca are considered red light districts, and certain restaurants, cheap clubs, and all but one hotel bar* are usually flooded with prostitutes at night. Divorce may also lead to one of these employment choices, as women usually get custody of the children.
*The Hotel Idou Anfa is the only hotel in Casablanca which does not allow prostitutes.
Traditionally, any woman (pregnant or not) who has premarital sex can pretty much forget about getting married, unless it’s to the man who took her virginity. Her family will have nothing to do with her if they know she is not a virgin. On her wedding day, her bloody underpants must be displayed to prove that her husband got a “good deal.” This seems to be changing now, however.
I have heard rumors of a truly horrible activity. It is said that when important businessmen come into town, young women (virgins, of course) are kidnapped for a weekend or more. These women, too, are then kicked out of the home.
Division of the sexes
There are at least three places where men and women are kept separate: in hammams (public baths), gyms, and mosques. There are separate hammams for men and women, and gyms are either separate or have “male” days and “female” days. The mosque has separate sections for men and women. When we toured la grande mosquée, the tour guide explained that there is room for 20,000 men (on the main floor) and 5,000 women (on a large balcony). When asked why the men and women are kept separate, the guide explained that it’s not because women are considered inferior,* but rather because that way the risk of getting distracted by the other sex is kept to a minimum. I would have liked to ask why there is room for four times as many men, but I suspect that I know the answer – because the other women are at home cooking and taking care of the kids.
* I find it interesting that she prefaced her answer with this defensive comment, since my question was completely neutral.
Last year I got to know two sisters, Samira and Sumaya. Samira is about 30 and works in a bank, Sumaya is around 40 and does volunteer work, and neither one is married. This is by choice, as they do not want to lose their independence. However, what I find interesting is that this feminist (even radical, considering that we’re in Morocco) choice of lifestyle is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that they still live with their mother and they both wear the conservative jelaba and foulard. I would expect a Moroccan feminist to wear Western clothes and break out of the “unmarried” mold by getting an apartment.
* Note: As always, this article is based on my own personal experiences, conversations, and observations while living in Morocco. It is not meant as a criticism of Morocco; simply a Western woman’s perception.
** Traditional clothing: A jelaba is an ankle-length, long-sleeved, loosely-fitting gown. A foulard is a scarf worn over the hair and fastened under the chin. A chadra is a veil which covers most of the face. When a foulard and chadra are worn together, only the woman’s eyes are visible.