An American Woman in Morocco
Most Americans traveling to Morocco visit there once, mostly for the exotic destinations. They have a tourist experience that doesn't veer off the sidepaths, and for a week or so skirt the edges of a different culture.
Although my first trip there in 1999 was incredibly exotic and often shocking, I didn't have the luxury of treating the culture as merely an entertaining and colorful pageant. On the contrary, I felt it was vital that I adopt a "When in Rome..." mindset to understand and learn about Mr. Fresh Hell's culture. Even though he is Algerian, he grew up in Morocco, and his personality and behavior veers between these two similar yet individual North African cultures.
It's a culture, to use a well-worn phrase, that's very much like an onion. There are outer layers that a first or second time visitor may see. It is only through several visits and a genuine interest in peeling back the layers and examining what's underneath that one can truly appreciate the heart of the rich combination of history and tradition.
Over the years, I've learned to appreciate this profusion of riches, mostly by seeing a lot of the country - I've visited museums and palaces, beaches & deserts, traveled long distances overland by train and bus, shopped in countless souks, and most importantly I've been able to step off the beaten path and have been graciously invited inside people's homes in large cities, small towns, and even in a teeny village in the middle of nowhere southern Morocco where there isn't electricity or running water.
Part of learning the culture involves hearing of a woman's position in their society. As a woman, albeit a visitor, I am subject to many of the rules and customs governing women. I personally don't care for most of them. I find the laws demeaning and constrictive and hate the fact that in general, women are still treated as property of their male relatives rather than persons in their own right.
The more I learn, the more I know I don't wish to be them.
There are still so many wrongs done to women in Western society; however, I admit I have it pretty good. Too often the liberal Western expression towards the injustices practiced in Third World societies is condescending and dismissive, as if we're living in some Woman's Utopia here.
I've tried to refrain from automatically thinking myself superior - after all, I believe we have a good many homegrown wrongs to right before pointing accusatory fingers.
As in too many places, exceedingly few North African women are given a choice or a voice, and their lives are decided for them in advance. Poor women are especially given the shaft; most remain illiterate all their lives, and if they aren't lucky enough to marry must help support their extended families through menial labor.
There are a few very lucky women who are independent and who can support themselves - it isn't impossible, but it is a thin line to walk - it takes courage, support, ambition, perseverance, education, and a lot of luck. Oh, plus pots of money.
As an outsider in North Africa, not all of the rules apply to me, and thus I gain a "pass" in light of my outsider status. That status also gains me a proportionate measure of often covert resentment and suspicion from the local population simply because I don't conform to all the rules.
While I would never dream of prancing down a Moroccan street in a short skirt and tank top, I don't cover myself completely, wear a veil over my hair, or even alter my regular clothing style by much. In the larger North African cities, many women adopt Western styles, so blue jeans and tee shirts don't qualify for shock value - in the countryside, I am always getting stares due to my Western clothing. Blonde ponytails, thin on the ground, are good all over for double takes.
I smoke in public (something "good women" don't do), go to outdoor cafes and nightclubs (with male companions) where the nice girls don't, and drink alcohol at restaurants. I'm a typical New Yorker who walks very quickly while they stroll. In a small way, I live a typical man's life over there, although I chafe at not being free to stride out all alone anywhere I choose. (I am practical above all things - I don't indulge myself in mistakenly assuming there are situations in which I will always win and therefore never actively seek trouble.)
On my trips I have met women with zero interest in supporting themselves financially, going to college, or living alone. They don't envy me my mobility and freedom. Quite the opposite - they consider my life one that is too closely focused on material pursuits, lonely and frightening without the protection and support of nearby extended family and, since I don't have children, devoid of purpose and joy.
They aren't dense or unusually isolated from Western society - they just don't wish to be me.
But as divergent as our lives are, they never attempt to convert me to what they perceive as the delight a woman should properly take in hearth and home, and I don't attempt to push the satisfaction and contentment of working and living in a larger sphere. I help when and where I can, all the while hoping and believing that all of our lives as women can and will be made better.