Today’s post comes from Everyday Ambassador’s Partnership Manager Meg VanDeusen. She is currently studying abroad in Amsterdam on and SIT Program titled The International Perspectives of Sexuality and Gender. They spent the past two weeks in Morocco exploring issues of Migration and Gender. When not traveling, Meg attends the University of North Carolina where she studies Anthropology and Women’s Studies and in her spare time farms with HOPE Gardens.
The only way I can describe my two week excursion to Morocco is as a pure culture high. I have known for a long time that I am a restless questioner who has caught the travel bug and Morocco only bolstered my belief. Every moment was an act of exploration. I discovered stereotypes I was not aware of having and challenged my understanding of Arab culture. I came to realize how many ways there are to look at crossing cultural barriers. My study abroad program approached this trip with the mindset of debunking global stereotypes of gender conflicts. I can confidently say that while I came to no conclusions, I fine-tuned my gender lens during the experience
Before leaving Amsterdam we were provided with numerous preparatory lectures, many focusing on the concept of harassment. Our role as western women was to prepare ourselves for unkind, pointed comments. Don’t follow strangers home; don’t talk back; don’t show your shoulders; for goodness sakes don’t even accept help when you are lost in a foreign city. Something did not feel right. There is a distinction between being vigilant while traveling and perceiving yourself as the victim of cultural difference. We were creeping closer and closer to this ambiguous grey zone. All these warnings racialized street harassment; in the global north, society expects us to follow common sense and blames us when immorality occurs. The minute our young women travel to the global south, however, society wants to protect us from these “foreign men.” This generalization is exactly where our problem lies.
I feared the tone created by categorizing all Moroccan men as potential harassers and all female students as potential victims. Would my classmates be so afraid that they would unintentionally act mean? Would they miss out on the opportunity for cross-cultural conversation because accepting tea from a shop owner was forbidden? I clung to famous words by Mark Twain, hoping that these unjust stereotypes would be broken: “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”
Once we arrived in Rabat, these stereotypes began to disintegrate. We acknowledged that Islam creates stability within Moroccan citizen’s lives, allowing them to embrace aspects of modernity while retaining their identity. We breeched the topic of harassment in a Moroccan context: though the Koran gives women control of the private sphere, recent generations began to desire more than this internal power and ventured in to public spaces. Today, the streets themselves have changed. Verbal sexual comments, what we would qualify as “harassment,” are sometimes sought out by Moroccan youth. The street is a place to meet and connect; soft words exchanged between people can be harmless, even enjoyable.
We were all taken aback. Women felt good about themselves when men talked at them on the street? Sometimes women did the cat calling? From there, whispers of “you are beautiful” and “I’m yours if you’ll have me” made us smile instead of cringe. There were still comments that made individuals feel uncomfortable, but all of the students began to recognize that those calls were no worse and no more prevalent than they would be in many American cities.
Suddenly we thought we understood the gender dynamics: we knew everything we’d come to learn after a few lectures and days of experience. Or did we?
When my classmates and I sat down with students from the University of Fes, I felt my new knowledge slipping away again. We struggled together through our conversation on the progression of feminist movements and double standards for men and women that remain in both Moroccan and American societies. I was thrown off when the students explained their belief that the next step for Moroccan feminism is to revert to Islamic laws. I discovered yet another mental box around myself.
Whereas I thought that the Islamic religion was the reason for so much gender oppression, I learned that the Koran gave women more rights than currently practiced. Our earlier lesson on the practice of Islam as a source of stability still rang true, but only under the current social norms. The rise of fundamentalism within Morocco has lead to a misunderstanding of the Koran and individuals utilizing Islamic law for their own benefit. Under Moroccan law, even with recent changes to the family code granting women the right to choose their husband, the right to divorce, the right to say no to a polygamous marriage etc, women are still dependent on men. Therefore, actually enacting the Koranic rights Allah has granted women would, in of itself, be an act of Arab feminism. If the educated leaders of tomorrow believe that respecting the tenants of Islam is the next step to promote feminist change within Morocco, then we must acknowledge that traditional Western feminism is not right for this country and show our support in other ways.
Rather than clearing up all of my assumptions, this trip raised more questions for me. For now, I wonder how global feminism can triumph when actors around the world all have unknown stereotypes of different cultures and their respective feminist movements?