Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In which we celebrate women.

Ibtissame makes a card for her mother for International Women's Day.

“Women are still the majority of the world’s poor, unhealthy, underfed, and uneducated. They rarely cause violent conflicts but too often bear their consequences. Women are absent from negotiations about peace and security to end those conflicts.”
~ Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on International Women’s Day

Not the most upbeat description of women’s status worldwide, but an honest one. It is good to remain open-eyed to realities in the world ~ realities of wage disparity, female genital mutilation, suppression of basic human rights, lives lived in war zones. If we don’t acknowledge it, we can’t work to change it.

Yet it’s also important to celebrate successes. Morocco is slowly making strides toward greater equality for women. Major reforms of the moudawana, or sharia-based family law, in recent years have given women more rights in marriage and divorce. Certainly much work remains for these rights to be widely accepted and practiced, but it’s a start ~ and one led by a popular and powerful king. As a relatively progressive Muslim country, Morocco does not put women under the dictatorial restrictions that exist elsewhere; women can drive, hold jobs, participate in their government or protest against it. They are not required to wear the veil. They are not sequestered within the domestic sphere.

Of course, much remains to be done. Illiteracy rates are still far higher, and education levels far lower, for women than for men. While the veil is not required by law, and women are free to leave their homes, the truth is that in rural areas such as where I live, social pressure does not make it easy on the rare woman who chooses to exercise such freedoms.

Education is the answer to equality, across the globe. Better education brings better opportunities, and gives both sexes a greater understanding of why equality promotes peace and prosperity for all. I’m so proud of my kids, girls and boys, who are so eager to further their education. And I’m sad for the occasional girl who leaves school at 13 or 14, because her family either requires her to help out in the house or to work in a shop to keep food on the table.

Mad card-making skills (and check out the lingering mold on the walls of the dar chebab).

We didn’t quite get around to all of these concepts during my International Women’s Day exercises last week. But we did scratch the surface with great enthusiasm. My nedi ladies added the words “equality,” “rights” and “respect” to their English vocabularies, and learned to conjugate “to be able” ~ as in, “Women can do anything! I can do anything!”

On Saturday at the dar chebab, we made cards for our mothers to celebrate the work they do for us every day. My plan was for a chance for my “little girls” (13 and under) to exercise their creativity while thinking about the simple idea of women’s equality. At first I was afraid I’d have an empty classroom, on a rare sunny day, but eventually about half a dozen girls showed up.

Next thing I knew, I had an equal number of teenage boys on my hands ~ older teens, 15-18. The dar chebab was set up for an event the next day, so they couldn’t play pingpong or any of the other games we usually play. One of the boys sidled up to me, asking whether they couldn’t color, too. I explained the concept, prepared to have to kick out a handful of rowdy boys all taller than me, expecting them to make fun of the concept, commandeer the supplies, make too much noise, make fun of the girls, make fun of me.

I love it when I’m proven wrong. The boys got right down to business and were into the idea from the start. They developed creative card designs and tried to stay on message. They respectfully traded ideas and sneak peeks of their work with girls half their age.

"Hi, Mom!"

One boy was proud to have used four different languages on the cover of his card, mixing Arabic, French, Tashelheit (the local indigenous Berber dialect) and English. He even taught me to write “mama” in Tashelheit, which looks something like this: [•[•

Another, for some reason, addressed his card to “This Frail Mother.” Something lost in translation there, I assume.

My little girls always love to show off the English they know. I helped them spell “love” and “mother” and “beautiful.” One girl drew a Happy New Year card, so enthusiastic was she to combine her knowledge of English with her knowledge of English-language greeting cards.

I tried to keep stressing that these cards were for their moms, who should be able to understand them, and maybe we should stick to pictures, and maybe we should go home and thank them for working so hard, every day.

Little things that make me happy.

My village's back yard. Admit it: When you think of Morocco, this is not the vista that comes to mind.

* A successful trip out into the country to judge whether the dirt roads have dried out enough to run on. Still boggy in a few places, but definitely negotiable. And, thanks to those rains, so surrounded by dense green fields that I lost my way once, a familiar trail strewn with so many random wheat stalks that I didn’t recognize it.

* My anniversary: I’ve been in country 18 months as of today.

* Things viewed from the bus on the ride to Taroudant: Goats in trees, munching the argan leaves (it’s a local oddity that I don’t actually get to see in action, but goats really do climb trees here!); a flock of sheep that I have dubbed “Black and Tans,” pitch black except for a swath of beige across the midsection, not just one but the whole flock of ’em; what looked to be Hereford cattle; spicy orange-red bougainvillea and hibiscus.

* A successful shopping trip in Taroudant that netted cherry tomatoes, strawberries, avocadoes, green beans and orange-infused honey.

* A shout-out from the back of the bus as I boarded for home, laden with shopping bags. It was Soumia, my bac student from last year. She goes to accounting school in Taroudant now. She has an internship at a bank next summer. She invited me to her house out in the country Sunday. It was good to see her doing so well ... and still speaking English.

* A mystery couscous delivery last Friday: A little girl knocked on my door, handed me a steaming covered plate, said “Mama says hi,” and ran away without answering “Chkun mmk?” (“Who’s your mother?”) I hope someone eventually comes looking for her dishes and her secret identity thus will be revealed …

* A gift bestowed upon me as I was leaving the women’s center today after class. Fatna pressed a battered cassette tape and a scrap of paper into my hands, telling me they were about Islam, “only if you want them.” Sometimes volunteers feel harassed by proselytizers; sometimes I do, too. But this wasn’t the “Hello, you speak Arabic, are you Muslim? No? You should convert!” kind of conversation we often have with strangers. This was so heartfelt: She waited until she knew me well; she went to the trouble of finding Web sites that explain the Koran in English; she made a point of saying it was only in case I might be interested. I actually feel quite touched that Fatna cares enough about me to share with me what she so obviously considers a great gift.

More photos of spring.

Just gotta dodge the puddles.

The star of Morocco's flag, in triplicate.

Spring comes on with a vengeance.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Women, film and funds.

So many of my family, friends and blog readers have asked how they can help us do our work here in Morocco. Well, here's an easy answer!

My friend, Peace Corps compatriot and fellow Gender and Development Committee member Cortney has launched an amazing project to raise awareness of women's rights in Morocco. What started as a plan to film some successful Moroccan women, to promote leadership and gender equality among youths, has morphed into a budding NGO (nongovernmental organization) of female Moroccan leaders, a network to help them effect change in their communities, their country and themselves.

To get the film portion of the project off the ground, Cortney is seeking funds from folks back in the States. Even $5 or $10 can help us toward our goal. Go here for more information and to make a donation:


You can read more about the project at the NGO's new web site: http://initiativesdesfemmes.webs.com/

Thanks for your support!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Get on the bus.

As I'm sure I've mentioned before, I go to the nearby city of Taroudant every week or two, usually on Mondays. While it's not a major urban hub the likes of Marrakech or Rabat, with their multicultural restaurants, big-box stores and westernized culture, Taroudant offers a wealth of things I can't buy in my village. Cashews (protein!), fresh-squeezed orange juice, real cheese, tortillas. Restaurants and cafes where itÕs acceptable for me to sit outdoors in public, whether with other volunteers around the region or armed with my iPod, my book and my journal.

If I"m not in a hurry, I like to take the 'tobis ~ the rattletrap, decades-old bus that runs between my village and the city. Four dirhams (less than 50 cents) each way, and the 26-kilometer (16-mile) trip can take up to an hour as we stop to pick up and drop off people at villages and isolated roads along the way. The number of seats on the bus doesn't matter; if people want to get on, everyone makes room.

The bus was half empty this week when I climbed aboard. My host father was there, always smiling and solicitous (How are you? Have you adjusted? How's your health? How are you?) I sat a few rows behind him, on the opposite side of the aisle, behind the driver, having learned from the Berber women to pick the side the sun won't hit during the ride. When the ticket taker comes down the aisle, he hands me my slip and tells me my host father has already paid for me, a treat I cannot refuse.

The bus is still half empty, but a man tries to take the seat next to me. I ask him to sit elsewhere, indicating the many empty seats, saying, I'm a girl, I'm alone, I'm a good girl. Trying to follow the local cultural expectations, but all I get is a guffaw as he leaves to snicker with whatever man he settles in next to.

Again and again this scene is repeated as more men board, until I am burning with embarrassment, trying to melt into the window frame, disappear into my iPod. Why do I bring this upon myself? The rules against sexes mixing seem to fly out the window where public transport is concerned, anyway. All I'm doing is bringing extra attention to myself. As if I don't have enough already. Finally the seat opens and I gesture urgently to a woman standing nearby with her toddler son. Whereas men have no problem plopping down next to me, women tend to be initially very suspicious ~ but usually end up very chatty after I make the first effort. So it was today with Khadija and little Mohamad, who insisted on riding standing up on mama's lap so he could see out the front window.

Hours later, I board again, to a far different dynamic. The bus is crowded like I've never seen it before, yet the ticket-taker (a different one, this afternoon) recognizes me and ushers me on board. I stand in the aisle with about 20 others, trying to protect my precious bag of strawberries, trying not to squash the woman in the seat next to me when I must make way for yet another passenger squeezing through. The dynamic is convivial. This isn't quite the chicken buses of Central America ~ I've yet to see actual livestock brought on board ~ but it's a melange of human sizes and scents and sweat, plastic bags and string-tied cardboard boxes, painted-over windows and mismatched fashions.

A standing position opens front and center, next to the driver, and I jockey into the much-needed breathing room. The driver and his assistant know me and ask after my health, my family;'s health, whether the rains flooded my home. I feel safe enough to pull out my camera and try (unsuccessfully) to capture the full effect of the 'tobis. I ask the ticket-taker if he'd take my picture, saying I know I'm a crazy American but I want my mom to see what my life here is like. He doesn't understand; an old man nearby repeats what I've said, with far better pronunciation and sentence structure, and he snaps the picture just as I point at my interlocater, saying Nichan! (Exactly!)

These are some of my favorite days.

My day in Taroudant.

Quote of the day.
"Is peace simply the absence of war? Or is peace the absence of the conditions that bring on war?" ~ Lorret Miller Ruppe, former Peace Corps director