Tuesday, March 14, 2006

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a writer who spends half the year in Fez and the other half in Australia, I agree totally with your depiction of the way things are "on the ground" in Morocco. My wife is writing a book about her life as a young Western woman living in Fez and would tell the same story. Great blog. Great writing. Thanks.

The View from Fez

11:15 PM  
Blogger Miliana said...

Thanks for the support - I will definitely check out your wife's blog.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband will be in Fez for 3 months to study Arabic. He is American.Do you guys have any tips? Thank you

12:55 PM  
Blogger Miliana said...


The best tip of all is to open one's mind to the culture-consider it as if one is an alien visiting another planet. Be quick to learn and slow to judge. Listen more than talk. Your husband should learn etiquette and protocol as soon as he can and use it constantly.
Good luck.

3:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi ;)
oh... what demented news!
what do U think about it?

3:07 PM  
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3:37 AM  
Anonymous MoRocco said...

you are so lucky to be in morocco! but since u are american, i would gues you'd experience quite big cultural shock there...

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

my comment to you Miliana is that eventhough you claim that you went to Morocco with an open perspective you're still not hiding your "modesty". Your view of Morocco is a Western view based on judging my culture by your standards. Visiting Morocco several times doesn't make you an anthropologist. In order to understand a country you have to know its history, and know its people, and I don't mean the people who welcomed you in their homes who have no jobs, and the women who aren't interested in college; but those WOMEN who are SCHOLARS in many scientific, theological and sociological fields. Portraying all Moroccan "Muslim or Arab" women the way you do only shows your ignorance.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My dear, you are taking issues that effect male and female and making them soley female. It seems that you WANT their to be a problem for women in Morocco. I live here and know you are very wrong in nearly all your claims.

"There are a few very lucky women who are independent and who can support themselves " ~~Many men can't support themselves.

"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."~~Where in the hell in Morocco you were I have no clue. I have been all over this country and never encountered such people. You are apparently 100% not familiar with Moroccan law. You must associate with aliens.

"I've tried to refrain from automatically thinking myself superior - " Seems you didn't try hard enough.

"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.
"~~I just laugh at this.

6:04 PM  
Blogger jyytana said...

hello i am american i have been to morocco twice and i married a moroccan man. i i plan to live there with him in the future after i finish college here in the states. i dont understand why u say that the men treat the women bad or as property because there are good and bad in every country and culture. and i think you like attention from men and u think u cause the women to be gealous because you run around naked and show your blonde hair. i love morocco and its people and i hope to spend the rest of my life there in its beauty.

2:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Salam Allykum, she is right. I am presently living in Morocco with my Moroccan husband and I am an American. I barely have any rights. Im never out alone, im not even aloud to look out the window or door. And when i am taken outside i have to wear a hijab on my head to cover my hair and neck and I have to wear a jilaba to cover my body over my clothes. I am Muslim so i already learned alot of this in America but the not going outside and being told to not speak is very hard sometimes, but im used to it now.
Also, there are so many things im not allowed to say or do because it is a shame for woman. And on Saturday night me and my sister n laws and my husbands mother all watch the music concert on tv while my husband and his father go to the coffee for the night.
Obeying your husband is told to me everyday including by my husband and if i dont obey,.....
Okay, hope to write more on my life in Morocco. Thanks for listening.
sweetcitywife, Morocco

8:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not impressive at all. blatant generalization, Shallow analysis, not worth reading at all.

12:26 PM  
Anonymous Len said...

Great article! I am considering taking a job that would be based in Morocco, although my responsibilities would encompass most of North Africa. I have a wife and 3 daughters (ages 13, 11, and 2 mos) and I am gravely concerned about the impact on them of living in this culture for several years. Any thoughts or tips?

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am engaged to a moroccan and am living here until we can leave for America. I can't wait. Things looked really good here as a visitor. Nice places to see, but that's not enough now for me. I see some dominating characterists of my finace' now and how he trys to make me feel like he knows it all and I don't. HA! I feel like women are scared to talk about this, and the men are definately scared for this to even be discussed. However, my fiance' goes with me everywhere, which I like, and we go to cafes, etc... There will be no me sitting at home while he goes out and enjoys everything. I can back to America and have my freedom. The only women I have seen earning money so far are the prostitutes, there are many and they don't hide the fact either.

5:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with the writer somewhat.
I too am an American woman living with her fiance' here. There are women that the men consider "good" because they cover their heads with a scarf or the "bad" women that sleep with men for money. My guess is some of those men with that opinion like both. You would be really shocked how lovely they get along with either woman in public. I think this country pretends things are not happening and they hide a lot of it. I use my free mind and speech with my fiance all the time and he is open minded and educated enough to know that a happy woman will be a good woman to him, and yes, I am happy.

7:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi all americans what I can say that you are very welcome to morocco and be sure wherever u go all over teh world ther's teh good and the bad , and be sure if u meet with nice ppl here u will find morocco a wonderful country besuide to teh culture and habbits and so the food , just do not hesitate and be sure we can teach u many things about life and u can contact me via my electronic address mohamedfatihi1977@yahoo.com
Fatihi Mohamed

1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Maliana,

Your post is written back in March 14, 2006. Today is February 20,2010.

Hope you are still alive and wish you well.

I might comment when you show signs of living

Mr Nice

9:16 PM  
Anonymous Younes said...

Everything changes by the color of the glass you see it through.
Thanks for sharing.

12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello From Rabat ^^ , firstly I want to thankyou for the honest share of your point of view about Morocco ;) I'm a college student and I think that what you, wrote is simply true !

OMG here the norm ( for females )is to look stupid aka "beautiful" and dress like a black grabage bag and obbey to males , give birth , dust the floor , carry the house on your sholders and follow the Smart dumb ass husband LAMO

Have a nice day

I'am simply a moroccan and I'm not proud of it at all !

1:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Im shocked. Im an American girl living in Morocco and I don't agree with any of the above. I wear whatever I want, and all the girls in my school do so as well. I go around as I please and I even go to nightclubs and hang around with girls who smoke all the time. Ive never felt oppressed here, nor have I ever felt that I couldnt do something that I could previously in America. On the contrary, most things I do here I couldnt do in America! (They dont check your ID in Morocco)

5:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too married a Moroccan man and I am American. Shortly after we married in Morocco, I moved there to be with my new husband. Truthfully being a Western woman it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I had gone all my life going where I wanted when I wanted with or without an escort. Then being expected to embrace sitting alone at our home( or with his female relatives, if we happened to be visiting) while my husband went out at night was way to much for an American wife to swallow.I commend some of the posters here if they can accept this practice. I tolerated it badly for 8 months. Then I informed my husband that I was returning home. He followed me 6 months later to US and his adaption to the American way of life has been much easier than mine to his.

10:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Anonymous, you're the one who's not impressive at all. Either tell about your own experience or stop criticizing other people's blogs!
We arabs have a problem LISTENING! Anything said against our culture is always refused and frowned upon... Instead, we should try a bit harder to digest what we don't necessarily agree with and see how we can make ourselves and our society better.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Fatima said...

Salaam, anonymous
I am married to a moroccian and have been and I am also Muslim. But, you need to study your rights with in Islam. I think that alot of the problem women and men alike encounter is not knowing their rights as well as their responiblities in Islam. If people knew and understood these correctly women would know how much respect they actually have. As far not looking out the windows and doors, I don't know where this comes from? As long as you are covered properly if you can be seen by the other sex, outside your family. Sometimes people try to mix culture and religion and you can't do that your religion is your religion, there in no room for culture. Prophet(PHUB)left us instruction for a complete way of life that Allah(GOD) has prefected for us. But we as muslims need to learn and study our religion and not culture no matter where we live.

7:46 PM  
Blogger Badra Sid said...

Cultures are different, people are different and we are all shaped by our environment, otherwise the world would be a boring place where to live. As a matter of fact and for the ignorant, the american constitution (Thomas Jefferson) has been written based on the Quran and the Bible, and the freedom you are enjoying is based on these principles.

5:27 AM  
Blogger Monika said...

My dad had been working in Meknes as a doctor in 1980', and I used to spend my vacation there. The customs were quite shocking to a young Polish woman and a student of physics whom I was at that time. Whenever we had visited somebody's house the women seemed to be hiding somewhere, They did not come out, unless it was a dinner party. But even then they would only bring in the water and food, as if they were merely servants. The women were humble and would never take part in a conversation. We had a neighbor - a young Moroccan woman who was working at a travel agency. A "normal" woman in jeans and a T-shirt. Sometimes after work she would visit us for a small glass of wine. A "normal" woman in jeans and a T-shirt. Once we met her at the Medina. She was wearing the traditional clothes, and when we had greeted her she pretended she didn't know us. I was surprised, but my dad only shook his head. He understood Morocco.

2:08 PM  

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