I go back every year with my family to visit my mother in Tangier, Morocco. This is where I grew up and where I lived until age 18. But my feelings and emotions about the place and my past have changed, readjusting, moving, shifting like tectonic plates at various stages of my life.
I had a comfortable, albeit isolated, bourgeois childhood. I went to a French lycée, in the company of other Jewish and some Muslim children. With no siblings and a vanishing Jewish community to afford a sense of belonging, it was a solitary childhood. My father was very strict, so I seldom ventured outside my protected cocoon. I had friends who came from diverse backgrounds, Muslims and Christians, French and Spaniards. But Jews and Muslims have a complex shared history in Morocco, so I was inclined to gaze at Muslim society at a distance, like a bizarre continent where I had landed by some accident of history.
When I left for France, and later for the United States, my original narrative was obscured by another one. This new one answered to nostalgia. Nostalgia is an intoxicating emotion. It constructs reassuring tales for everyone, which serve as anchors when we venture at high sea, faraway from home. We’ve all experienced its siren song, in some form or another: the scents and tastes of our childhood, the words and songs of our lullabies, the deep textures of our emotions, the sweet embrace of our parents. I was no different from anyone else, and I knew too well it was a gloss over reality. I painted it in sunny shades that concealed the larger context. It was not the real Morocco either, but one I had carefully stored in a pretty box with a perfect bow.
So when I went back this past August, I knew this could no longer satisfy me. Serendipity came to the rescue, when I became reacquainted with Khadija at a friend’s house in the Marshan neighborhood of Tangier. We had both attended the same public school—the French Lycée Régnault. And although she is a few years younger, and is Muslim, we could exchange a great many tales of the surprisingly intellectual universe of our hometown, both in school and beyond. We talked about Tangier. Like New Yorkers, Tanjawouas love to revel in the pluralism and diversity of their town. Tangier is a unique place in Morocco. Situated on two water expanses— the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean—it has been exposed to many foreign influences throughout its long history, and has been shaped by that diversity. Ideas of all kinds have flourished on its soil. Khadija and I discussed what an exciting time this was for our native city, as the Arab Spring reignited its vitality, long dormant in the aftermath of the colonial powers’ retreat in the late 1950s.
A vivacious redhead with sparkly, dark eyes, Khadija is a journalist and editor of the online magazine Enti (which is the feminine “you” in Arabic), a lifestyle publication she recently launched. Dressed in Western garb, her thoughtfulness is leavened with a kind of lightness. Likewise, Enti is full of lighthearted articles on food, fashion, shopping advice, trends; a version of Elle, though it lacks the feminist edge of the French publication’s early days. But there is an earnest social consciousness to the magazine which reflects Khadija’s genuine desire to usher in change.
She spoke eloquently about her hopes, but also about her disappointments, as the vast democratizing movement which engulfed North Africa and the Middle East has come to naught almost everywhere, except in Tunisia. Morocco had made some great progress too, under the king’s guidance, though some outcomes were still mitigated.
She explained that women’s rights have been a special focus of King Mohammed VI, who ascended the Alawite throne in 1999 amidst great hope. In 2004, the monarch crafted a wide-ranging reform of the Muddawana, the family legal code. Changes, among others, included raising the legal age of marriage to 18, divorce provisions (with the right granted to women to be petitioners) and limitations to polygamy (authorized only if there is an objective justification for it, if the first wife consents, if the man is financially able to support both families, and if both relationships are equal).
Tongue in cheek, she told me how wives often found out about a husband’s other marriages on the day of his funeral, when the second wife suddenly turned up among the mourners to pay her last respects to the deceased. So she approves the reforms of the king, whom she respectfully refers to as Sa Majesté, as most Moroccans do, though a lot of work still remains to be done. There are the thorny laws of inheritance, for example, which, following Islamic law, afford very little of the deceased’s patrimony to his wife or daughters, privileging male heirs instead.
And there is domestic violence, a taboo. Khadija urged me to watch a video she had produced recently; it had won several international prizes, and has been shared more than six million times. Naturally I was intrigued, and soon riveted. Brief, but striking, the clip is called “Flawlessness by Ines” and can be found on YouTube. It shows a bubbly young blogger cheerfully teaching the viewer how to remove her makeup. With all the appearance of a breezy tutorial for young women, the video gradually takes an unexpected and chilling turn. As the woman cleans the traces of make-up on her face, bruises slowly appear. The beauty lesson suddenly morphs into stark social denunciation, and the clip ends with an alarming statistic: “6 out of 10 women are victims of domestic violence in Morocco,” and a final call to action: “ Do not cover this abuse: unmask it.”
The video was a response to a sequence in Sabbahiyat, the television show aired on channel 2M of Moroccan national television, in 2016, teaching women how to mask traces of domestic abuses using make-up, which drew a worldwide outcry.
I was shaken to the core, like Sleeping Beauty awakening from decades of sleep. I realized how little I knew about my old country. What did I understand about Moroccan society, about the everyday struggles of its people, about its political parties, gender inequality, or the battles of its women, or the discrepancies between salaries and the cost of living? As a Jew, whose community was slowly falling into extinction by the inexorable propulsion of history, I’d had my own fights to tend to. But now, I was embarrassed by my ignorance.
There had been an imaginary wall separating me from women like Khadija. Historian Susan Miller has called the symbolic separation which isolated (and preserved) Jews from the larger Muslim world, an “imaginary mellah” (a mellah is a Jewish ghetto, in Arabic), since there was no real mellah in Tangier, which there was in other parts of Morocco. Now, that wall seemed irrelevant to me. Perhaps because I had left and come back, perhaps because it was time to look at things differently. Not as a Jew lamenting the vanishing of my own people in this land that was ours too, nor through the fallacious lenses of nostalgia, but as a Moroccan concerned about her fellow Muslims, my kin after all.
I became attuned to myriad new voices. Khadija, my Virgil, skillfully guided me through the maze. She explained how she decided to make the Flawlessness video because it was time to have “frank discussions” on the matter, to raise consciousness about the issue. It had been particularly challenging to find someone to perform in it. She pointed out how domestic abuse often remained undetected especially among Moroccan women of the upper middle class. Fearing social reprobation, these women recoil from going to the police, perhaps more than those with lesser social status with nothing to lose. Khadija is herself in the middle of a divorce, though she shied from the subject. She is also vocal about the rampant street harassment in Morocco.
That’s when my own memories rushed in: the irksome and numerous times when I was unable to stroll undisturbed in the streets of Tangier as a teenager. Being groped, followed, or whistled at is still a daily plague for a woman in Morocco.
The situation is so volatile, explains Khadija, it can easily take an unexpected turn, as on a Friday, which is the holy day of prayer for Muslims, when she was walking in the streets of Tangier in a miniskirt, and took notice of a group of men in white djellabas coming out of a nearby mosque. Fearful of being chided, perhaps even insulted, for her attire, she attempted to change course, but could not. She was enormously relieved when they barely took notice of her, though it took some time for her heart to stop pounding. She later explained she had been ashamed of having thought ill of the religious men, more open-minded than she had reckoned.
More disturbing, during my trip back this past August, a young teenage girl on a bus in Casablanca was not so fortunate. She was sexually assaulted by a gang of young men in front of impassive passengers, while the vehicle continued to roll as though nothing had happened. The rape, which some in Morocco called “deserved” because the young woman was “scantily clad,” drew an outcry in social media, but nothing was done to punish the perpetrators of the crime.
Stunned by these facts, I started paying attention in ways I never had before. I discussed this further with my friend Mounia, a journalist at the radio station Medi-1 in Tangier. She attributes the sharp rise in the number of women wearing the Islamic veil or hijab precisely to street harassment: “Currently, women in Morocco wear it less because of heightened religious awareness, but rather because nobody will bother them in this guise.” Another reason commonly heard is the need to find a husband. If a man sees a woman with a headscarf, he thinks she is “serious,” “honest,” and “modest.”
One more brushstroke filled the picture when I ran into my old classmate Awatif. Awatif and I had gone to school together some 30 years ago. I vividly remember her long dark braids, frequently tugged by mischievous little boys during “recreation,” recess, in the schoolyard of our lycée. We renewed our acquaintance in the lobby of the apartment building where we both reside, on the site of my childhood house. So when I noticed pearls of sweat under Awatif’s hijab, I boldly asked her if she wasn’t too warm under her heavy religious headscarf. The question was treacherous. Debating the headscarf was the last thing I wished to do. But it was obvious I was really asking was why she was wearing that burdensome gear at all.
As soon as my words came out of my mouth, however, I regretted my audacity, hastening to add that I utterly understood and respected her traditional choice. To my surprise, Awatif looked me in the eyes, and said she was indeed uncomfortable. She did not enjoy wearing the head-covering scarf one bit. “So why do you consent to it?” I pressed her, this time encouraged by her reply. She demurred, and the answer, like the moisture on her forehead, seemed to vanish.
Alongside the modesty exemplified by Awatif, I was surprised to observe that many people wore minimal bikinis at a private pool club I visited with my children. How could the country accommodate such extremes?
In her now-classic childhood tale of growing up in her family’s harem in Fez in the 1940s, the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi speaks of the “harem within.” Retracing her budding feminism in the constricting confines of the harem, she observed two competing camps among the women. On the one hand, the traditionalist co-wives: these were the ones who had internalized the harem, who held it “within,” and carried it everywhere, unable to imagine their lives outside of the status quo imposed, according to Mernissi, by male domination rather than by the Koran. On the other, the modernist ones, like Mernissi’s mother, who, though not well educated, dreamed of a different world where women would no longer be men’s captives. For Mernissi, who went on to have a brilliant career as a prominent scholar and writer in the United States, the progressive camp did not derive its views from exogenous influences. The desire for equality and equal rights, she contended, was not solely a product of Western presence in Morocco during the colonization. Rather, it drew its strength from Islamic texts themselves which were much more inclined towards gender equality than often fathomed—and obscured—by Westerners. I pondered that perhaps Awatif had not freed herself from “the harem within.”
When we spoke on the phone last fall, Khadija gave me one last thing to reflect on. In her view, women’s rights in Morocco are profoundly dependent on a shift in mentalities. “When I tell my daughter she is man’s equal, I also have to instruct her brother in the same spirit. This occurs primarily through education. Mothers ought to educate their children equally,” she explains, adding further: “Change does not happen overnight.” Hence Khadija favors “more debate,” on the subject, but adds in French this should occur en douceur, meaning “organically,” lest the country’s stability be jeopardized.
Recalling my training as a political scientist, I was aware that the distinction between “reform” and ”revolution” is a tricky, slippery subject masking an array of marked political choices. Khadija, who was educated in a French lycée, comes from a privileged social background. Would a housemaid feel the same? Partisans of reform are typically more conservative than radical revolutionaries. Yet, considering the failures of the Arab Spring in places where it had taken a revolutionary turn, perhaps she was onto something. Furthermore, I also knew Morocco was a more traditional society than other Middle Eastern countries—for instance, deeply attached to its monarchy.
In a recent article published in The New York Times, the British journalist Shereen El-Feki shared a similar assessment. El-Feki registered some positive change across the Muslim world, especially regarding rape laws and sanctions, which have become significantly stricter. But “passing the laws and applying them are two different things,” explains El-Feki, “in large part because the judges, the police, and other officials in charge of enforcing these laws are often conservative themselves.”
The more I listened, the more I realized the many intricacies I faced. Some will accuse me of having gone too far: what gave me license, as a Jew, now having lived in America for decades, to speak up for Muslim women in Morocco? Many more will accuse me of cultural appropriation, though in the latter case it is the majority who tries to speak for an oppressed minority. But this doesn’t apply in my case, since in Morocco I represent the minority. We begin to see how complicated this can be. Others still, finding me sympathetic to the cause of tradition, will contend I have not gone far enough.
The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas believed that understanding the “otherness” of another person should start with a consideration of the face (le visage). Failing to do so results in a breakdown of communication. In this story, that has been my sole intention: to see precisely the face of the Other, my other, but also any other. An “Other” who, to me, and to my community, had remained distant for centuries. Not distant in the way Eastern European Jews remained severed from the larger Christian world in the shtetls of the Pale of Settlement, because in the Mediterranean world Jews and Muslims were in constant contact with each other. But distant enough to have ignored each other’s struggles. In the many faces of the women I spoke to, and in their stories of suffering they shared with me, this “other” suddenly ceased to be so. She had become my sister.
Yaëlle Azagury is a journalist and a critic who writes, among other topics, about French and Sephardic cultures. She is a previous contributor to Lilith.