In response to one of my posts earlier this month about my health and fitness, my former student Anna reached out to share her recent experience as an exchange student in Morocco. I was fascinated to read her story about the lack of freedom she experienced in day-to-day life as a woman in another country. I invited her to write a guest post to share her story with you.
A Moroccan Summer
For two months of summer 2016, I lived in Morocco. I was granted the opportunity to study abroad through the organization Project GO, a DOD scholarship program for ROTC students across the country to study critical languages. I lived with a host family and studied Arabic I & II in Meknes, Morocco at the language institute AALIM. Morocco taught me so more than just the grammar rules and Arabic vocabulary. I landed back in Sacramento with two large, overstuffed duffel bags, six “Berber Picasso” rugs, and a new understanding of what cultural immersion truly means.
During the weekdays, my class of nine fell into a routine. Taxi to school in the morning, sit in class for four hours, eat lunch, walk home, start homework, eat dinner, finish homework, shower, and sleep. We had flexibility on the weekends, and every Friday afternoon available, we hopped on the train to a new city or town. Outwardly, the routine did not veer much from a student’s in the States. Yet, everything was different.
My host mother, Fatima, welcomed my roommate Clare and I with open arms. In no time, we learned that Fatima was a damn good cook. In the entire two months, I felt genuinely hungry only a handful of times, and often reached the levels of “thanksgiving-dinner-stuffed,” especially during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in June.
The Moroccan diet consists of all things bread with a handful of sugar, olive oil, and spices thrown in for taste. My taste buds were never bored. Clare and I would always ask for the names of that night’s meal, and Fatima or her two daughters, Ishraq and Imman, would be the ones to answer.
Although Habib, my host father, knew less English and understandably would be less likely to answer our questions, I began to notice a dynamic in the home and at the dinner table that I was not accustomed to from my childhood. Fatima worked all day long in the kitchen, preparing beautiful meals and dishes. She and her daughters, including Clare and me, cleared and wiped down the plastic tablecloth each night. Fatima washed the piles of dishes in the sink and loads of laundry in a bucket, daily. She mopped the floors and cleaned the bathrooms, and she never complained once. Many times I offered to help with the dishes or laundry, but she would respond in her lovely Moroccan accent, “No, no, Anna, thank you. It is my duty.” After praising her for the delicious meal one night, I asked if she loved to cook. She responded with a small smile and said the same, “It is my duty.”
My language partner, Sophie, experienced struggles of her own. Sophie has lived in Meknes for all of her 22 years. She rarely travels outside of her city, and never has been out of the country. She is beautiful and smart (knows four languages fluently), and some of my fondest memories are the nights she showed Clare and me around the city.
One particular night during Ramadan, Sophie was so excited to show Clare and I the local theater. Her face was beaming as she told us her childhood memories of performing on the stage. Acting was her passion, art and painting were her hobbies. I asked if she had acted in any recent plays, and her face fell. When Sophie turned 18, her father forbade her from acting. She was no longer allowed to paint or pursue her hobbies. Her university is a short five-minute walk from her house, and she is to come home straight after her classes and studies. A boyfriend or dating is out of the question. Yet, Sophie finds solace in her mother and younger 16-year-old sister. Her mother supports her and will even hide information from her father if he would not approve. Sophie dreams of a real job, one that allows her to support herself and live on her own, and she sure as hell does not want to get married for at least another six years. Sophie and the women in her family have found the silent ways to fight back, one small victory at a time.
Rock on, Sophie, rock on.
As I spent more time with my host family and Sophie, I observed the environment on the streets. There were always about ten more men to every woman out, at any time of the day. The men would sit at cafés or wander aimlessly, while the women ran errands or stayed at home cooking and cleaning. The men wore tight shorts and shirts and the woman always kept their knees and shoulders covered, at the very least. In the thirty-minute walk home from school every day, my group of friends and I would receive countless unwanted stares and more than a few catcalls or even advances. It made no difference if the men were out solo or in a group, and age was just a number. I never felt unsafe or threatened, yet at the same time I experienced a sense of helplessness and lack of control within my surroundings.
I was completely out of my element. I am used to smiling and greeting strangers. As a gawky adolescent, I was taught to walk tall and make eye contact while speaking with another person. However, in Morocco I aimed to immerse myself in the different culture, which meant adopting a new mentality. The adjustment did not develop overnight, but by the end of the two months, I was a polished cosmopolitan. At orientation, the other students and I were given the tips that all Moroccan women learn from a young age, to never make eye contact and especially to not respond in any way. Ninety percent of the time, it worked. I kept my eyes downward and never responded to petty harassment. The catcalls eventually became part of the loud city street buzz and the walk home from school was unpleasant mainly because of the searing desert heat. There were a few instances when we were followed for a section of our walk, but it did not escalate past that point. My poker face was impeccable.
Before summer 2016, I took for granted the simple freedoms of day-to-day life. I never thought hard about the privilege of life as a college student and the ability to schedule my own time. It just seemed normal. However, the loss of control that I felt in Morocco opened my eyes to the reality of my life in the States. I am truly blessed. I value walking through the Tulane campus in shorts and a tank top, with my head held high and a smile on my lips. I value doing simple chores, such as laundry, or cooking my next meal in my dorm room microwave. I value my time with friends, and most of all, I value my independence.
I was not in Morocco to travel. I was granted the scholarship to learn. I studied the language and I immersed myself into the culture. I met amazing people and shared incredible experiences, and I learned more about myself that I initially thought was possible. June and July were some of the most difficult, yet most rewarding months of my life, and I am a different woman than I was at the start of summer. Thank you, Project GO and AALIM. Thank you teachers, Mohamed and Chaimaa. Thank you, Fatima and Sophie. Thank you, Morocco.