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.


L said...

I'm jealous. Midelt doesn't have flowers.

Joy said...

sebt looks beautiful! i wish i wasn't so busy and we could go for a bike ride. all that flooding brought something good! :)

william lauer said...

Holy smokes. Eighteen months.

The yellow flowers remind me of the Sandhills.

You got a pinpong table? I'm there.

bella said...

You are doing such great work. It is fun to read about the stuff with Dar Shabab. And I like all the Arabic you slip in. When I think back to serving in Morocco 25 years ago (gasp!) and how we were just starting to form the Women In Development (WID) group . . . it is great to know there are still feminists in Morocco carrying the torch!
kay siebler

MollyinLincoln said...

I love your beautifully written accounts of your work in Morrocco and the fantastic photos. I'm sorry I don't post every time so you know I'm checkin' in. The gifts you are getting warm the heart. What a difference you are making, Becky! It's just amazing.

jill said...

gorgeous shots!