January 31, 2005: Headlines: COS - Morocco: Blogs - Morocco: Gender: Personal Web Site: Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Barlett in Morocco: Gender Relations

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Morocco: Peace Corps Morocco : The Peace Corps in Morocco: January 31, 2005: Headlines: COS - Morocco: Blogs - Morocco: Gender: Personal Web Site: Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Barlett in Morocco: Gender Relations

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Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Barlett in Morocco: Gender Relations

Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Barlett in Morocco: Gender Relations

"During our two months of PST, my fellow trainees and I were bombarded with a lot of rules and policy, some of which I have already related to the reader. Of course, we also discussed the topic of gender relations, not just within the local Moroccan culture but also between Moroccans and foreigners, as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims."

Peace Corps Volunteer Doug Barlett in Morocco: Gender Relations



During our two months of PST, my fellow trainees and I were bombarded with a lot of rules and policy, some of which I have already related to the reader. Of course, we also discussed the topic of gender relations, not just within the local Moroccan culture but also between Moroccans and foreigners, as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims. (Phew. That sentence in and of itself is already quite loaded; one can only imagine the broader topics and the discussions that followed.) Here is a list of impressions, customs and policies of the gender situation in Morocco that were downloaded to us during staging and PST.

Please note that these are not all-encompassing rules or laws, but rather customs and scenarios that were discussed in PST, thus lending to overall impressions. Just like in life, they do not exist in isolated vacuums but in a free-flowing spectrum of changing tastes and times. As I am learning, Morocco is a wide and varied country with many different degrees of cultural norms, especially when in contact with westerners. While this may not be the case in all places, the following points are used as guidelines on how to navigate the new waters of our cultural divide. I only list them now to give the reader an idea of the types of issues that were introduced to us since the beginning of this journey.

1. Never initiate discussion or contact with a woman you do not know. Exceptions, of course, are made in professional or business settings. Only shake a woman’s hand if she initiates the interaction.

2. Especially in the villages and douars, Islamic and Berber traditions dictate a strong separation between male and females.

a. Men are always the most visible in public; most public establishments such as cafés, hotels and restaurants are their domain. They can come and go as they please and stay out as late as they want. In fact, it would be quite odd or unacceptable for a woman to be seen in these male-dominated public arenas, even contributing to an ill reputation.

b. Women’s territory is clearly in the household, especially the kitchen (or other places where they conduct most of their daily work) and private quarters. Men, unless they are part of the household, are never allowed in these places without prior notice or consent. Even male members of the household defer to the women when in these locations.

3. The woman is highly protected (or hidden, depending on how you look at it).

a. She is expected to remain in the house at most times. Even in the city, women are generally expected to be in the house by nightfall.

b. Depending on the region and its tradition, a woman never shows herself in public. Some of the deeper traditions require that a woman is fully covered in veils, sometimes only exposing one eye to be able to see where she walks. In some instances, women never face men directly, even speaking with their backs turned.

4. Never inquire about a man’s wife or daughters. Although it may be meant innocently, it is traditionally perceived as being invasive and insulting. Instead one may inquire about the family or the children in general.

5. While staring is not considered rude, extra amount of unnecessary attention to the opposite sex is noted and may be registered as marital interest. To relate it to Americans, it is like being in high school and everyone is gossiping about who was talking to whom and who likes who.

6. Care is placed when referring to friends of the opposite sex.

a. The common term for friend (saHb) may be used when referring to same-sex friends but a completely different term (sadiq) is used to refer to opposite-sex platonic friends.

b. To refer to an opposite-sex friend as a “saHb” may be misconstrued as “girlfriend” or “boyfriend”.

c. If a person from the opposite sex asks one to be his or her “saHb”, to be “friends”, they are proposing the beginning of a mutual understanding, the first steps of an exclusive relationship.

7. Male PCVs are cautioned that if a Moroccan girl starts to dote too much, such as showering attention, bringing small gifts or preparing food, to be careful. In a seeming contrast of assertiveness, the girl is courting and “marking her territory.” It is not unheard of that the girl will push the envelope and urge the object of her affection with two simple words: Shnoo daba? (“What now?”).

8. Public displays of affection (PDA) are against the norm, even between husband and wife. Such displays are morally offensive and may even result in arrests depending on the disposition of the locality. Couples are rarely seen -holding hands, or even arm-in-arm for that matter.

9. Like in many other religions, pre-marital sex is forbidden in Islam.

a. Of course, pre-marital sex exists in Morocco but is not discussed openly nor is it ever portrayed in the public eye. However, in a seeming disproportionate regulation on purity, a woman’s virginity is emphasized and sought, while not much is discussed about the man’s.

b. The assurance of virginity is a big part of the marriage contract. In some ceremonies, the entire wedding party awaits the display of blood-stained sheets after consummation. If all goes as expected, the wedding party continues. If not, the man’s family has the right to discontinue the marriage, claiming the contract has been broken. Not only would this cause all involved great shame, it would probably result in messy community altercations.

c. There are even reported cases of women with the financial resources to undergo a reconstructive operation to replace a torn or broken hymen with some new sutures that easily tear, to replicate the signs of virginity.

10. As a result of images portrayed in western media (like movies, television, books and magazines) and the censorship of such images here in Africa and the Middle East, PCVs are faced with the following gender stereotypes.

a. Western women may be easy or loose, seemingly open to and accepting overt sexual advances.

b. Western men may be perceived as aggressive boors who will try to get their way.

c. Westerners are perceived as being rich and affluent. Their attractiveness is increased because of their citizenship, targeted as an access to a passport and visa.

11. As PCVs, we are always advised to be careful how we present ourselves to our communities, as this adds to the on-going impression of Americans. Especially in small communities where all facets of life seem to be in plain view of the public eye, the following are advisable.

a. Never invite someone from the opposite sex into your home for a one-on-one meeting. This is especially true for female PCVs. It is always better to meet in a public, neutral environment. If a meeting or a visit is necessary, never close the door.

b. Members from the opposite sex should not spend the night, even if they are just platonic friends, even if they are westerners. While a PCV is accepted as a foreigner with different practices, this may still be against community standards. If it causes controversy, the community may alienate the PCV, thereby effectively disabling his or her effectiveness and efforts.

c. Of course, there are plausible exceptions to this situation: if the visitor is an immediate family member, like a brother; or if the visitor is a husband or a fiancé. (Some PCVs have strategically intercepted this dilemma by telling their communities that they are already married or engaged.)

12. In regards to Islamic views, it is much easier for a western woman to engage in a relationship with a Moroccan man. The following odds seem to favor girl power.

a. She is not required to convert to Islam should they decide to marry. The children, however, will be raised as Muslims.

b. On a pragmatic level, she will not face the same stigma from the community should the relationship end because she is not of the community.

c. Also, Moroccan males are freer to start relationships with non-Islamic women. They are socially allowed to roam about, to come and go as the please. Again, this is one of those double-standards that are just a part of life here.

13. Ironically, in a male-privileged society like Morocco, it is more challenging for western males to engage in a relationship with Moroccan females.

a. If the topic of marriage arises, it is likely that he will be asked to convert to Islam, if he is not already Muslim.

b. Should the relationship end, and the couple has engaged in physical relations, this puts a huge burden on the woman for the aforementioned reasons regarding virginity. The man may also be pressured by the family and the community (and I use the term “pressured” in a loosely antiseptic manner here) to complete the engagement he started.

c. Again, on a pragmatic level, since Moroccan females are socially restricted from venturing out or far away from the house, it is challenging to develop a relationship apart from the watchful eye of others.

14. The reader will notice at this point, that I have only described heterosexual relationships. That was not a conscious decision on my part to be politically incorrect; rather it is just a lack of discussion or material. The biggest reason for this is that homosexuality is vehemently denounced and denied in Islam. That was the extent of our discussion on the topic. But I would like to add the following points.

a. Before being invited into training, this issue was outlined for all applicants, pointing out that tolerance and acceptance exist to varying degrees in these parts of the world.

b. As Americans we have many liberties to be proud of, sexual orientation being one of them. But PCVs do not serve in America and have to be conscious of their physical, emotional and psychological safety, not to mention political correctness in local standards.

c. There are gay and lesbian volunteers in service throughout the world, and in Morocco. I am sure there are gay and lesbian Moroccan nationals. Their identities as well as their relationships are their own business.

d. A Gay/Lesbian Network of PCVs in Morocco has been established to provide support and to broaden the discussion on this topic.

Regarding the relationships between PCVs and Moroccan nationals, as long as we do not compromise our mission, our reputation and our ability to work here, then proceeding is a personal choice; how one goes about it is up to one’s discretion. However, given all the aforementioned scenarios, I must say the outlook seems rather narrow for me. The other guys from my stage joke that it is going to be a very cold winter and a dry two years of service.

All jokes aside, this topic opens up a wide range of questions. As they mature from children to adults, how do they explore and define their roles, their responsibilities and their sexuality? How are relationships between Moroccan men and women fostered and developed? How does that translate into preparing future generations to be a part of the global society? PCVs do not live in a bubble; in the process of cultural exchange, are romantic and physical relationships inevitable? How do we approach the concept of personal relationships in a society where ethnic and religious parameters tilt so far to one end? Finally - without all the big fancy words – what does a guy do for fun in this town?

Obviously I don’t know the answers to any of these questions right now. I may never get some of them answered. But I will let you know anything I find out.

When this story was posted in June 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Personal Web Site

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Morocco; Blogs - Morocco; Gender


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