By the time our van parked in front of our Moroccan host family’s home, the heat was stifling. Our group of 13 students with the Morocco Exchange program had been traveling for more than six hours from Seville, Spain, to Tangier, Morocco. The city bustled with activity as I pressed my cheek against the glass, straining to see my new surroundings. Around us the streets were crowded with women hurrying from the market, their hands filled with groceries as they tugged along small children. Most had their hair hidden beneath brightly colored scarves and wore loose clothing covering their ankles and wrists where gold and silver bangles were visible just beneath the fabric.
As our guide ushered us out of the street and into our home, I noticed the surrounding run-down buildings—not a far cry from the Morocco I had imagined. But after passing through an ornately carved wooden door and climbing a steep marble staircase, we entered an immaculate living room lined with blue and gold sofa benches. Our host, Yalda, a gray-haired woman with a friendly smile, poured traditional Moroccan mint tea, while her daughter-in-law, Fatima, presented an enormous platter of couscous and began serving us. I noticed neither of them wore the scarves I had seen women on the street wearing. On the sofa across from us, the men shouted at a televised soccer game, or football game, as Moroccans call it. My hosts embodied everything I had pictured of a traditional Moroccan family—the men were the breadwinners; the women, homemakers. That is, until Fatima mentioned that she was on maternity leave from her job as an attorney.
I was stunned. So often Arab women had been presented in American media as controlled by men, their sole purpose being to serve others. I thought I knew everything about Morocco—after all, I had seen Casablanca five times. Yet Fatima was the picture of a modern woman: She had her own career, her own money, and she was in control of her life. I began realizing my preconceived notions could not have been more wrong. I had a lot to learn about Morocco, and more importantly, its dynamic women. The next afternoon, Fatima shared pictures of her five (yes, five) wedding dresses with us before we left for DARNA, a local women’s center that provides safe harbor, career training, and adult education for the women of Tangier. There we participated in a panel discussion with three female Moroccan students, Youssef, Hicham, and Noora, who wore a stunning gold head scarf commonly referred to as a hijab. As we discussed Moroccan religion and education, unspoken questions hung in the air: ‘What about your hijab? Don’t you hate being forced to cover your head?’ Seemingly reading our minds, Noora answered for us.
In Morocco, women are not required by law to wear a hijab, and none of the women in Noora’s family wear one. But after studying Islam, Noora chose to wear a hijab to honor her faith at age 14. The hijab, she explained, is not a sign of submission or inferiority, but a public declaration of the strength of her religious conviction. She dresses for herself, transforming what is sometimes interpreted as a symbol of oppression into a symbol of devotion. I was in awe of her courage. I thought back on my experiences with faith, on the number of times I had stayed silent about religion in fear of being persecuted for my opinions. How silly I had been living in the “land of the free,” but afraid to speak out, while every day Noora wore her beliefs openly.
For Noora, the hijab is a symbol of pride—a greater pride than I had ever experienced in my own faith. Noora also explained that much like American styles, the hijab comes with stereotypes. In America,women often face judgment based on how they dress: A woman who wears a crop top and high heels is labeled a “slut,” while a woman who wears a high neckline and long pants is labeled a “prude.” Appearance can instantly classify a woman as wealthy, trashy, trendy, old-fashioned, strange, or beautiful. In Morocco, I thought the uniform manner of dress would eliminate such shallow judgments. Once again, I found myself completely off base. I witnessed these prejudices firsthand when our group toured the city with two male university students. We took this as an opportunity to ask questions about relationships between men and women in Morocco. Did men and women date before marriage? I believed they spent time together, although they never touched, and when a man was interested in a woman, he courted her before marriage. Telling our guides this, they burst into laughter. They said some Moroccan women chose not to date, but many did much like Americans. They believed women chose not to wear a hijab were open to dating, while women who wore a hijab were conservative and probably not interested in interacting socially before marriage. As a woman, I was offended by this blatant superficial judgment. At home, I had seen women wearing hijabs discriminated against as a result of cultural intolerance and as a bias towards conservatism, but I had no idea women were discriminated against within Arab cultures as well. Once again, the layers of culture began unpeeling, and I began to realize how little I had truly been exposed to until now.
Our final night in Morocco, the women of our group walked down a narrow alleyway toward one of the most enlightening, yet mortifying experiences of our lives: the hammam, a Turkish bathhouse. Nervous laughter filled our conversation as we discussed what we knew about the hammam—we had to scrub our skin with loofas, use olive oil soap, and we had to be topless. Once we entered the hammam, a Moroccan girl led us to a changing room where we were told to undress. Awkwardly staring at each other, we burst into anxious laughter. My cheeks crimson red, I struggled to keep myself covered.
Other American tourists were doing the same—hiding behind towels, covering their chests with their hands, and sprinting to the bath before anyone could see. When I finally entered the bath, I froze, unable and unwilling to move.The room was filled with bathing Moroccan women who seemed unaware that they were topless. ‘How is it possible that women who cover their heads, wrists, and ankles, in public are comfortable exposing their most private features?’ I wondered. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like an outsider. I had always thought of America as carefree and liberated; yet somehow, these Moroccan women were more comfortable with their bodies than I was with mine. Inspired by their confidence, I slowly uncrossed my arms and began to bathe.
After leaving the hammam, I felt a new sense of self-awareness. Until then, I had known only one narrative about Moroccan women, naively believing they were controlled in most aspects of their lives. I was unaware that women were allowed to choose what they wore, and I was taught to view those wearing a hijabas oppressed and conservative. I was equally as ignorant after arriving in Morocco, declaring Moroccan women were pillars of strength that American women should emulate. Although my intentions were sincere, I was doing them, and myself, an injustice by over-simplifying women. Only after truly getting to know the women of Morocco as individuals and reflecting upon their lives did I finally gain a clearer perspective. There is no singular definition of a Moroccan woman; each is as complex and multi-faceted as the country she lives in. All I needed to do was look beneath the hijab.