A Woman in Morocco

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This is an article I recently wrote for The Observer Passport Blog. The Observer is an indepedent publication serving the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s Community.

 

IFRANE, MOROCCO My decision to study abroad in Morocco shocked many of my family and friends.

“Why would you want to go to North Africa at this time? It is not safe,” my mom said repeatedly.

Before leaving, I mentally prepared myself for the exchange. I read up on Moroccan culture, checked what clothing items were deemed appropriate to wear and looked up popular sites. I was aware that the gender dynamic would be different than in the States, but after just two months in this country, I realize how deeply engrained a patriarchal system is in Moroccan society.

I have had enjoyed many wonderful experiences here. My friends and I have hiked mountains, cliff-jumped into the Atlantic Ocean, tasted tagine and drank mint tea. All of these experiences, however, have been tainted by the natural entitlement of men. On my hike, the guide took it upon himself to stare at my chest, and when I jumped into the Atlantic, men catcalled me from above. Walking into town for my afternoon tea, I am beckoned into the cars of strange men. Some men even go so far as to physically touch you.

These experiences are emotionally draining and can take away from the overall beauty and positive qualities of the most liberal and politically stable North African country. What I have come to realize is how truly lucky I am to be a woman in the United States. Being a foreign blonde in this country has caused me to reevaluate patriarchy and feminism, but it has also encouraged me to learn about the day-to-day lives of rural Moroccan women.

On Oct. 20, my Women and Economic Development class took a trip to the small village of Zawiyat in the Middle Atlas. We visited one of Morocco’s many women’s weaving cooperatives. The Middle Atlas region is the poorest region in Morocco and is known as the graveyard of development projects. Women in this region work long hours to provide for their families but often have little control over their finances. When we met the women from this cooperative, their faces gleamed with pride when they showed us their work. Their rugs, quilts and traditional wares were beautiful and priced quite reasonably. My peers and I bought many items and were happy to hand the women Moroccan dirham, the country’s currency. We were saddened to see many of these women give the money directly to their husbands after making the sale. Some of these quilts took months or even a year to make, but once a sale was made, most of these women did not have a say where the money went or how it was spent.

Each household is run differently, but after doing research and speaking with the women and professors, it is clear that the majority of women are the sole providers for their families but do not control their own finances.

This system of patriarchy is very different from that of the United States. Third-wave feminists in the States are fighting for reproductive rights and working to change the media’s perception of beauty, but here in Morocco, I sometimes feel unsafe venturing outside the campus walls.

Morocco is a beautiful country, full of mountains and beaches. It is also home to the Sahara Desert. I would recommend traveling here, but I will admit there is no way, as a woman, to truly mentally prepare for the strong patriarchal attitude of many Moroccan men. It is something you have to experience, and it will change your life forever. My decision to study abroad in Morocco may have surprised many of my family and friends, but I would not trade this experience for anything. Now I personally know what it means to be a female outside of the United States and am more proud than ever to claim the identity of a woman.

 

Tunisian Holiday: SUSI Sisters Reunited

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On October 24th I was able to get out of Morocco for the first time since I arrived in August. The holiday of Eid Kbir came at perfect timing. Right before the break was mid-term week and I was sick with food poisoning. Needless to say, a vacation from my small Moroccan town of Ifrane was much needed. So, on that Wednesday I hopped on a train to Casablanca to catch a flight out to Tunis. Although I was not leaving the North African region, I was very excited to visit my SUSI sister and friend Hager Ben Mosbah. We met this past summer through the Study of the United State’s Institute program and I have been looking forward to seeing her since I booked my trip in September.

When I arrived her and her sisters were waiting for me in the airport. It was very nice to see a friendly face!  Her mother, whom I now call Mama Mosbah, had a warm home cooked meal waiting for me when I arrived at their home right outside of the capitol in La Marsa. Because it was the holiday weekend, we were only able to stay in Tunis for a couple of days, so Hager took me to all of the tourist hot spots in just two days. I was able to sip on Tunisian tea in the city of Sidi Bou Said and see Roman ruins in Carthage. The ruins were one of my favorite sites. It was absolutely incredible to not only be among thousand year old ruins, but also to feel as though I was in Rome while in North Africa.

While we were walking around these tourist sites and downtown Tunis, Hager made sure to keep an eye out for me. After the American embassy was burned and trashed just a month ago, US citizens were asked to leave the city of Tunis for their own protection; therefore, there were not many Americans left in Tunisia when I visited. I have never been in a situation where I was not full-heatedly confident in expressing my American identity. I have never been in a place where my nationality could potentially be of harm to me. During my time there we met many Europeans and other Africans, but no Americans. It was a unique experience to go almost a week without meeting or conversing with anyone from the states.

When we visited downtown Tunis I was able to see the avenue where many of the main revolution protests began. We visited the Prime Minister’s offices and saw places where windows and doors were broken and burned.

When we went west for the holiday to the town of Beni Mtir, I was just a town over from the exact spot where the Arab Spring was sparked. I was able to see the impoverished towns and villages that were essential in fueling the revolution. After reading about the man who operated a vegetable cart and burned himself alive in response to the nation’s handling of certain events, it was fascinating to see the fields in which his family and friends worked.

The town of Beni Mtir was a beautiful little village where we spent the holiday  It is in the west of Tunisia, very close to the Algerian border. It was a peaceful place to spend the holiday. This was my favorite part of the entire trip. I was able to spend an Islamic holiday with my friend’s family. This holiday reminded me of my Christmas back home. We sat around playing cards, watching Arab music videos, went on walks in the forest, and ate around the dining room table. The only difference was we ate sheep instead of my family’s tradition of eating Turkey. There was enough food to feed a village! Hager’s mom and aunt are incredible chefs and bakers. It was refreshing to finally have a home-cooked meal. After having meals in both Tunisia and Morocco, I will admit I enjoy the Tunisian cuisine more. Their food is more spicy and flavorful. For instance, their couscous is made with fish and a very spicy red tomato sauce. It is absolutely incredible!

We visited a few other places as well, like the city of Tabarka on the Mediterranean coast and other suburbs of Tunis. Overall, my trip to Tunisia was one of my favorite holidays. I am so thankful to have met Hager and for her family being so hospitable. I look forward to returning to this country in the future, and would love for her family to come visit me in the states!

After this holiday, I am refreshed and ready to take on these next two months in Morocco.

Focusing on Progress

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This is my absolute favorite time of the year. Fall brings boots, scarves, football, pumpkin lattes, and most importantly, the beginning of fall marks the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting (CGI 2012).  Each year around this time I am constantly attached to my Iphone, Ipad, and laptop. For three days, these devices will have full battery so I can Livestream the different panels. This year I am listening to the diverse array of panels in a different perspective. For the first time, I am able to discuss these issues with peers from all over the world.

For this blog particularly, I would like to focus on a quote that Nicholas Kristof shared with the organization Women Thrive just about a week ago. Kristof, one of my idols, stated, “We can’t just focus on the bad things going on. We must focus on progress”. Each year around this time, CGI allows the world to focus on the progress for three days. I am a firm believer of optimism, and although there are many heavy issues occurring in the world today, I am not worried about the future. I listen to panelists talk about their passions of changing the world in some way, whether it is in world health topics, environmental issues, or human rights concerns and I know that both my generation and future generations will have a positive impact on the world.

Within the past couple of months I have truly been blessed by all of the new people God has placed in my life. With the SUSI program and now with studying abroad, I have met some of the most incredible people. I have been introduced to young men and women with dreams and aspirations of changing North African political systems, striving for democracy in Myanmar, and becoming president of the United States. I am confident that some of these people will one day be key note speakers at this annual conference.  These folks are climbing the ladder of success, and one day they will help others do the same.

This is a short entry, but it is important to be reminded of some of the positive events/people in this world. Like Kristof said, we must focus on the progress, and looking at the world today, I can firmly state there is a lot of progress being made.

Now I must get back to my Livestream.. Secretary Clinton is up next!

 

Just a few of my peers discussed in this entry

Morocco: The Good and The Bad

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Today, I will be blogging about two very different experiences in Morocco; one very positive and the other on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to travel to Tangier with a wonderful group of people. Our group consisted of 5 Americans and 1 Danish exchange student. We set off for our travels late Friday night and arrived by train early Saturday morning.  After a long night of traveling on a Moroccan train, we started our day by taking a stroll on the beach of the Mediterranean. With Spain in the horizon we were able to take a little dip in the water and enjoy some time for relaxation. We then went to a restaurant on the water where we ordered one of my favorite Moroccan breakfast dishes, Khliaa, and Moroccan Mint Tea.

Like most of our travel spots, we started out in the city’s Old Medina and worked our way around town. Tangier is my favorite city in Morocco this far, and I especially liked the fact that my Spanish speaking skills could get me by in this city. In fact, after Arabic, Spanish is the second most spoken language of Tangier. While on this trip, I was able to check two things of my Moroccan to-do list: 1. Ride a Camel 2. Jump off a Cliff.  Both of these experiences were adventurous and life-changing. Both pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to go with the flow. For me, jumping off a cliff into the Atlantic was one of the most exhilarating life experiences.  I was nervous to jump, but with the encouragement of not only my friends, but also Moroccan strangers, I just went for the dive!

This bit about Moroccan strangers brings me to one of the many aspects I love about this country. No matter where we have traveled to, Moroccan strangers have been there to assist us. The hospitality of this country is outstanding and in some ways humbling. Being American, I am not used to random strangers being so genuinely kind.  For instance, while in Tangier, my friends and I were lost in the Medina looking for a Grand Taxi Station. A kind older Moroccan man noticed the confusion on our faces and took us under his wing. He not only walked us to the station, but also negotiated with the taxi driver for a better price. He asked for nothing in return, and before he left he shouted “You’re Welcome!” You’re welcome in this country is not used in the same context as in American culture. People on the street yell this phrase constantly to foreigners; they are saying we are welcome in their country.

The normality of this hospitality is one of my favorite aspects of Moroccan culture, but there is one aspect of Moroccan culture that I am still struggling to come to terms with. This brings me to my bad experience in this country.  Street catcalling and constant stares are some of the consequences of being a woman in this country, especially a foreign woman. After spending four weeks in Morocco, I am getting used to ignoring the men who feel that have a right to yell vulgar phrases at me from a street corner or moving car. I am even used to a car of men pulling over to beckon me in. However, last night one Moroccan man took these acts to another level. As my friend and I were walking into the town of Ifrane, where campus is located, a man ran up to us and violated my friend. The man, who was about our age, ran up to my friend, placed his hand down her shirt and grabbed her boob! We were both in such shock we did not know what to do. In fact, we just stood there for about a minute, both contemplating what were the next steps. In the United States, we would have had our pepper spray on us ready for an attack and would have immediately called the police. Here in Morocco, pepper spray is illegal and violations of women are not taking as seriously as they should be.  In fact, if you are not aware of Article 475 in the Moroccan Constitution you should be.  This article makes rape legal if the rapist marries his underage victim. I am becoming accustomed to many of the different aspects of Moroccan culture, and although this violation is rare, it is difficult for me to look past this mistreatment of women. Whether it is a loud catcall or a physical violation, I am still shocked at how these actions are in some ways socially acceptable. The United States has a lot of improvements to make in terms of women’s rights, but last night, I will admit, I missed my home country and its legal system.

No More Skewed Representations

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For my next blog I was planning on recapping my recent trip to Rabat the capital of Morocco, but do to recent events from yesteyday and today I am choosing to discuss a different topic. Yesterday (September 11, 2012) events in Egypt and Libya have led to deaths, a strong Muslim v. Western debate, and in my opinion a misrepresentation of many things that I know both Islam and Christianity stand for. The protests sparked from a movie that an American produced and displayed on YouTube. This movie depicted the prophet Mohammad in a very negative and skewed light. In response to this move, Muslim protestors in both Egypt and Libya attacked American consulates; protestors were seen burning American flags and the protests in Libya led to the deaths of Americans.  I do not condone any of these violent activities, but I wish that the media did not only show these protestors, but also the majority of Muslims in these countries that are not participating in these violent activities. Many of my SUSI sisters have posted in our group and apologized for the actions of their fellow citizens.

Here is a post from one of my good friends from Libya:

On behalf of all true Libyans, I would like to apologize to my SUSI colleagues, mentors and instructors for the vicious attacks on the US envoy in Libya last night. Ambassador Stevens played a crucial role in ending the NATO action in Libya last year and was one of the very few figures that expressed his faith in the Libyan people. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the victims during this difficult time. I assure you that many of us are very disgusted by these actions and we will do everything in our power to prove that this is not who the Libyan people truly are.

After spending time with Muslims from several different nations this summer, I am well aware that these actions only represent a minority of the Muslim population, but sadly many Americans have a skewed representation of both Islam and followers of the religion. Like any nation there are different factions with different views. I am sick of the media only representing the Muslim population in a bad/dimmed light. I hope that people will take a step back after these attacks and know these actions were by individuals making a choice.

I am currently residing in a Muslim country, and although AUI has sent out emails regarding these recent attacks in order for us to be careful while traveling, I am not one bit uncomfortable being in Morocco during these attacks.  This experience has also made me very thankful for both participating in the SUSI Program and for study abroad here in Ifrane. Without these life experiences I do not know if I myself would have a biased opinion on these protests/attacks. I thank my SUSI sisters for positively representing their countries, religions, and themselves as individuals.

I am more than excited to be here in Morocco and learn more about Islam. Today I booked my tickets to visit my SUSI sister in Tunis for the Islamic holiday of Eid Kbir. I cannot wait to experience this holiday with a good friend!

 

Muskegon to Morocco

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I haven’t had a chance to blog in quite a while, but I am happy to be writing this next entry from Ifrane, Morocco.  Just over a week ago I embarked on 27 hours of travel to reach my final destination of Al Akhawayn University.  When I took off in Detroit I was still not able to grasp the idea that I would be studying in North Africa for four months, but when I arrived at my first layover in Paris it began to sink in. For the first time I was in a place where English was not the first language.  Not knowing any French I was very much out of my comfort zone. How was I supposed to get to my next gate? How do I order my lunch? As I weaseled my way around the large Paris airport, I began to become a bit nervous about this new adventure. If I could barely get around the Paris airport without speaking French, how was I supposed to get myself around the country of Morocco without any French or Arabic? I began to think of families that immigrated to the United States without speaking English and I instantly respected them even more. As I boarded my next plane for Casablanca the nerves began to switch to sparks of excitement; I was finally going to be in the country of Morocco! After a long layover in Casablanca, I flew to Fez and finally arrived in Ifrane very late at night.

It was not until the next day that I was truly able to appreciate the beauty of this campus and the town of Ifrane.  Al  Akhawayn stands for the “The Two Brothers” and was founded by the late kings of both Morocco and Saudi Arabia. In Morocco, this University is known as the King’s University. It is located in the middle of the Atlas Mountains and has an Alps feel to it. Pictures on its website do not do the University justice. One of my first experiences on campus was eating in the dining hall. Again, I do not speak either Arabic or French, and although my classes are in English, most of the workers on campus do not speak even a little English. As I walked down the restaurant aisle to receive my couscous and chicken, I was again out of my comfort zone. I was not familiar with the foods in this country and merely just pointed at the dishes to order.  A group of Moroccan students kindly invited me to join their table and began to laugh as I sat down. They explained that eating couscous with a loaf of bread was seen as very odd to them.

After my lunch, a group of International students walked into Ifrane to check out the town. The International community here is composed of students from America, Germany, France, Italy, Denmark, Puerto Rico, and Germany. Everyone was so nice and welcoming. It was comforting to be around students that were going through the same experiences.  Although, many Moroccans students had not yet moved in the dorms yet, there were several International student ambassadors that made the transition to AUI easier. They brought us to the Marche and helped us get some necessities for our time on campus. (Note: NEVER TRAVEL WITHOUT A TOWEL. THEY AREN’T THE SAME EVERYWHERE YOU GO).

I have now been to the Marche several times, but every time I go I am still pushed out of my comfort zone. The people that own booths/stores at the Marche usually only speak Arabic of French. I usually travel there with someone that can speak a bit of either of those languages, but when alone it is very difficult to barter for your products in only English. I came to realize that hand gestures and the calculator on my phone would be some of my best friends while traveling abroad.

The Marche opens your eyes to an entirely new culture in Morocco. AUI is the best university in Morocco and many of the students that study here are very privileged. However, when you walk outside of the security gates you are introduced to the people of Ifrane and some Berber people. The Atlas Mountain region of Morocco is one of the poorest areas in the country.  Unlike the United States, the majority of the Moroccan population is very poor. A very small percentage of the population is considered middle class and an even smaller portion is considered extremely wealthy.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to travel to the Old Medina in Fez (one of the world’s oldest cities) and for the first time I saw young children begging on the street and in the market place. It is truly heartbreaking to see young children, skin and bones, begging in Arabic for just 10 durham or a small bit of food.  Here, many children drop out of school in just fourth grade to either work or beg to earn income for their families.

My experience in Morocco thus far has been eye opening and has me questioning things about both my American culture and myself as a person. I am looking forward to traveling throughout Morocco and learning more about its culture and its people.

 

Campus

 

 

A Sisterhood that Spans the Globe

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On June 16, 2012, Martha Smith, the administrative director of the Saint Mary’s SUSI program, and I hopped on a Royal Excursion bus and set out for Chicago, Ill. After weeks of hard work and preparation we were finally ready to pick up the SUSI program participants. We proudly held up our “SMC-SUSI” signs at the airport arrival gate and anticipated meeting the five delegations that were to be represented in the program: women from Burma, Egypt, Libya, Mongolia, and Tunisia.

Looking back on this moment, I never would have guessed that these young women would make up an international sisterhood to which I now belong. Each of these individuals has a unique story; they practice different religions, speak various dialects of different languages, and, most importantly, each young woman expresses her own leadership style.

I went into this program thinking I would be a mentor to two international participants. By the end I learned that all 20 participants had mentored me. Whether it was in a session with Professor Sapra, a Saint Mary’s political science and gender and women’s studies assistant professor who taught many of the SUSI sessions, on a bus traveling to New York City, or in the Regina Hall lounge, every minute spent with my peers in this program was enriching and life changing.

Times were not always easy and cultural differences can result in misunderstandings.  Although all of the women spoke English very well, there were still words and phrases unfamiliar to them. Their perception of the United States was very limited and much of it was based on how America is portrayed in the media. Many of the participants were shocked to see not all American teenagers were like the characters in “American Pie” or “Friends”. Within the first couple of days they were introduced to parts of American culture they had never heard of before. For instance, many thought the majority of Americans were very well off and few lived in poverty. As a program we volunteered once a week in the South Bend community. We went to places like the Homeless Shelter, Young Women’s Christian Association, and Saint Margaret’s House.  It was these experiences that broke down different barriers and allowed the participants to not only get to know their mentors better, but allowed them to also see different parts of the South Bend community.

Many of these young women have been through hardships I could never imagine. Each story is different, but the one common thread that runs through every participant is the desire to move forward with hope and courage in order to establish true social change.

I was an American ambassador to two participants from Burma and Libya who expressed strength and optimism I had never witnessed.

Mary is a Burmese student originally from the Kachin state. As I write, this ethnic group is subject to extreme violence. The Burmese Army has committed serious abuses to this region and has blocked humanitarian aid.  The army has attacked villages, blazed homes, abused women, and displaced thousands and thousands of Kachin civilians.   Young children are being forced to the frontlines and families are living without access to food, shelter, medicine, and other necessities. Many of Mary’s family members continue to live in the state, but Mary was able to move to the capital to continue her education. Just one week after she returned  to Burma from this institute, she went to refugee camps in her state to teach young children English and other subjects. Her tool for social activism is using education. Throughout the institute, Mary repeatedly acknowledged how grateful she was to be given the opportunity to advance her education; she expressed her desire to use this opportunity for the good of her entire community and country. She plans on spending her life teaching in rural areas to empower individuals that would otherwise be subject to ignorance and violence.

Like Mary, Sarah plans to use the tools she has gained from this program to positively change her home country of Libya. Just over a year ago, Sarah was in the midst of what is now termed as the Arab Spring. Libya fought to gain independence from the restrictive Gadaffi regime, and Sarah witnessed violent acts that many individuals in America and other parts of the world could not even fathom. She heard stories of women being raped and witnessed her own neighbor being shot by Gaddafi loyalists. However, she also saw the extremes to which men and women would go to obtain freedom. It is this notion and this pride that she hopes will linger in her home country. After being inspired by watching “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” a film about a group of visionary Liberian women who came together to put an end to the civil war and violent acts of Charles Taylor’s corruptive rule, during the institute, Sarah would like to start a program that would work on getting the many weapons still roaming around Libya returned. The Liberian women  brought peace to their country, and after the war worked to have their sons, brothers, and nephews return the weapons that were once used for violence in their country.  During the Libyan revolution both Gaddafi loyalists and freedom fighters had weapons, and once Libya gained its independence these weapons were never returned. Today, these weapons are still roaming the streets or in the homes of many civilians who previously fought for freedom. Instead of focusing on hate and violence, Sarah is moving forward with her life with hope and optimism. She expects great things from her country and believes it is her duty to use her skills to contribute to the future success of Libya.

Before this program I held a very strict definition of leadership. I saw a leader as someone who started a movement or managed a company, but after spending time with these young women I realized there are a million different ways to express leadership. In each session the directors and instructors emphasized the importance of being a global woman leader.

During each activity, participants and mentors took on different roles. Some days certain participants would take on the traditional “dominant” role of leader and the next day they would follow their peers. This idea of following and allowing others to step up to the plate is a very important characteristic of leadership that is often forgotten.

Participating in this program made me realize that in order to be a true leader you must have self-awareness. Knowing who you are is critical to learning how to lead. For me, being a leader is not about building something extraordinary, but rather about being a leader within ourselves. Today, I do not have one definition of leadership, but realize the definition is constantly changing.

Much of our leadership training was taught outside of a classroom setting. It was then that friendships were made and stereotypes were debunked. The participants learned that Americans were very hospitable and began to become accustomed to strangers smiling and holding the door open.

Friendships strengthened through late night chats and the telling of personal stories. We shared laughs and tears, but after five weeks together, we were not an institute of 30 individuals—we had become an international sisterhood. I know I will stay in contact with many of my SUSI sisters for years to come and I already have plans to visit some of them within the next couple of months.

Each participant left with a passion for social change and a newfound style of leadership, but the most important gift this program gave us was each other: an international community of support, encouragement, knowledge, and love.

Mary and me at the SUSI Closing Ceremony.