Sisters in Womanhood

Brianna Gist
December 3, 2019

“What’s been the most difficult aspect of acclimating to life in Morocco?”

“The food?” Nope. “The bathrooms?” Sometimes. “Living in the Old Medina?” Getting warmer.

The hardest - and most fascinating - change I’ve experienced is the shift in perspectives regarding women in Moroccan culture. 

As a woman acclimated to living in what has traditionally been called “the West,” it was a little shocking to confront situations in which I thought women lived according to more conservative standards of living. For example, most of the host mothers I’ve met rarely leave the house and devote their time to the home and the family. I have never seen my host father or brothers help my host mother with cooking, laundry, or household cleaning, and I notice that after every meal they leave the remnants of their food and dirty dishes on the table for my host mom to clean. In general, I feel that there is a significant amount of pressure on young women to behave and comport themselves well. I’ve even felt the pressure to dress in a discreet, respectful manner, lest I be deemed hshuma or shameful in public. All of this exists within the context of a catcalling culture that threatens to bring me and fellow females students to tears when we’re shouted at on the street or followed home after sun-down.

Due to today’s ethno-political climate in the United States, the most salient aspect of my identity back home was my bi-racial heritage. I was aware of it on a daily basis as I walked around on my predominantly white campus and performed in academic settings in which I was often one of few students of color. Here in Morocco, I’ve found that the most salient aspect of my identity has shifted toward my gender: 

I’m aware of my womanhood every day when I choose the clothes I wear, interact with vendors or cab drivers, and walk in public - especially through predominantly male spaces.

Being the curious student I am, I’ve tried my best to situate these observations in historical context to get a better understanding of why they happen. On our first day of classes, Dr. Aicha Haddou, the professor for our course on Islam in Morocco, surprised me by teaching us about the ontological origins of humans in the Qur’an, saying that no one sex is superior to another. Nafs wahida: from one soul, two were created as equal, man and woman formed by God in equitable harmony. Yet if we were created equal, how did we arrive at the current situation regarding women in Morocco? 

In my North African Politics course, we learned that these cultural norms are rooted in much more than religion. Many Amazigh or Berber indigenous communities in Morocco are also conservative in their perspective on women. In some rural areas, women are not permitted to leave the house or interact with male members of their husband’s family, let alone with men in public. Additionally, I learned that many beliefs are rooted in radical interpretations of the Qur’an such as those surrounding the inferiority of women and the shameful lust of the female form. I proceeded to ask my program coordinators, professors, and other acquaintances I’ve met here about their views on the female experience in Morocco, and for the most part, they said that their families and friends groups don’t hold these beliefs. Sometimes they interact with co-workers or people they meet traveling around the country, and in those situations, I gathered that “respectful disagreement” was the best strategy at mitigating tensions.

However difficult to grasp, these lessons substantially improved my understanding of the female Moroccan experience because they provided me with proper cultural and historical context. Yet as a girl living in a new society, I still had a significant number of functional questions concerning women on an everyday basis.

What are the views around menstruations and sex education? Not that different from those in conservative areas of the United States: the topic is taboo, and women learn about it from other women.

How do women use the bathroom when there is no toilet paper? Normally, there is always a bucket or hose that can be used to clean oneself. Most host homes also keep soap and a towel near the toilet to dry oneself off.

What are the norms around dating and how are women viewed in relationships? Typically, neither men nor women disclose the status of their relationships to their families until the day that the fiancé-to-be and his family visit the woman’s house to officially ask for her hand (But the mothers always know, because moms know best!). Women are not encouraged to “date around” and yet, are often prompted to find husbands.

On the whole, the coolest lesson I’ve taken away from these reflections is that we women all speak the same language. I’ve enjoyed numerous tacit conversations with Moroccan women by exchanging glances, facial expressions, or laughs as we shake our heads at the men around us. I’ve even walked with and stood by women facing harassment in the medina, and I’m confident that others would do the same for me.

Sisters in womanhood, looking out for one another, no matter the nationality. It’s a type of tacit support and uptake exchanged between friends and strangers alike that I don’t feel in the United States, and truly consider it a special phenomenon to be apart of while I’m here.


Brianna Gist

<p>I am a rising junior studying Linguistics, Government, French, and Spanish at Georgetown University. If all goes right my my life, I would love to devote my career to diplomacy and peace studies or to preserving endangered languages. I am a proud Chicago native and a huge foodie who loves to swim and do bikram yoga. At school, I am a writing consultant specializing in humanities papers, blogs, op-eds, and presentations, and I also sing as a soprano in the Gospel Choir. It is a privilege to be studying abroad in Morocco, and I greatly look forward to my time in Rabat!</p>

2019 Fall
Home University:
Georgetown University
Chicago, IL
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