Many Americans are unfamiliar with the variety of approaches to femininity in the Muslim world. Morocco is a very liberal environment with women wearing many different styles of clothing; from the traditional djellaba, which is a long shift dress, to jeans and a t shirt, to formal caftans or modern work uniforms and suits. Many women in Morocco work outside of the home; women often hire help in the kitchen for large events; education is largely integrated; girls play sports and attend college. While many women wear hijab, many do not, though being conscious of modesty so as not to offend others is a good consideration when travelling. In Morocco, tolerance of different beliefs is emphasized. International women’s day is celebrated with flowers everywhere, speeches and commemorative posters of famous women in Morocco and abroad – the schools we visited even included students who placed highly on the exams on this wall of important women! There is still some division of social circles between women and men, and as a woman visiting Morocco I am invited into the women’s world. Parts of the moseques and some tea shops are traditionally reserved for men; but women’s spaces, though separated, are also valued.
The hammam or public bathhouse is an important destination for Moroccan women, who often visit once a week for beauty and relaxation. Some Moroccans say you have never been to Morocco unless you have visited the hammam. Morocco is a leader in the spa industry, with a 1000 year old tradition of the heated bath house. The hammams are separated by gender, it goes without saying, but the men’s and women’s hammams are located in the same building, in order to take advantage of the water source and the large oven used for heating it. The ovens are multi-use, and can also be used to heat community ovens where bread is baked, and pots of slow-cooked stew can be left for three or four hours. I have a mental image (which may or may not be correct) of a Moroccan woman dropping off dinner before she goes to bathe and picking it up when she is done! Women of all ages, backgrounds, and sizes attend the hammam.
Inside the hammam, there is a small store where one can purchase any necessary soap and small gloves used for scrubbing. Typically Moroccans will bring all of the toiletries they want to use, except for a black soap made with the moisturizing argan oil, perfume, and exfoliants like walnut shells. There are cubbies to put your things, and a proprietor who keeps track of whose bags are whose using a numbering system. The wall of the first room is lined with tiled benches, and after disrobing (except for briefs), you place your soap and supplies in a bucket. It’s possible to enter the hammam on your own, but more luxurious to hire a helper; women who will give a light massage, exfoliation, and shampoo and haul the hot water for you. The particular hammam we visited had two chambers, the first filled more with women bathing on their own, and the second farther in with assistants. We communicated with hand gestures as most of the conversation was in Arabic and other languages. But the women that were there were engaged in extended, relaxed conversation the whole time. The space is tiled, windowless, and steamy, with inset drains and a central faucet for warm water, filled with buckets (pink for hot water, blue for cool, white for personal effects). Those missing body wash, shampoo, or soap freely borrow from neighbors. The black soap is a special exfoliant, and after lathering one up, the assistant uses the glove to thoroughly exfoliate the skin all over the body, then shampoos the hair. With a few final rinses, the attendant braids your hair and sends you back out into the world. Women wrap their hair with towels on leaving to keep from catching cold.
The old city of Fez afforded me the opportunity to visit a women’s cosmetic store. There is a renaissance of traditional artisans happening right now in Morocco, and this particular store had some women in the store demonstrated how argan nuts are processed to produce the argan oil used in cooking and cosmetics. There is a sense of national pride in the tradition of Moroccan cosmetics, featuring ingredients such as argan, henna, rose, jasmine, almond, and honey. Some of these secrets are sought after in European spas. I received a facial treatment of clay, exfoliant, and argan oil followed with a rose water spray and purchased a few gifts to take home! My cosmetologist spoke perfect English, having attended middle school in Cleveland, Ohio before returning home to Morocco with family.
In the old market at Fez there is a district which is known for the purchase of linens for the home before the marriage. Traditional Moroccan marriages feature a dowry system, and a parade of goods purchased by the groom for the newlywed home is paraded through the festivities before the marriage. The bride and groom are dressed elegantly in light colored, elaborately beaded in clothing often sewn with real crystals and pearls, and paraded through the guests on palanquins carried by the bridal party before the ceremony and the feast. Wedding rings and gowns are also sold to the groom’s family in this part of the market. Moroccan weddings are elaborate and beautiful, with the couple featured as if prince and princess for the day. Many celebrities are coming to Morocco for their weddings, including relatives of Hilary Clinton.
Across the street from the old market and its labyrinthine streets is a modern shopping mall. Many of the stores are European or Turkish, and sell a wide variety of contemporary clothes. There is a food court, an amusement center for children, an attached grocery store (Carrefour) and a Nike store which featured an English advertisement of a woman running with text stating she can achieve her goals. Near the escalators, as part of the movement for the recognition of women’s handicrafts, sat several tables of embroidered tablecloths and napkins for sale, and the woman artisans who crafted them. Moroccans are consciously working to preserve their cultural heritage, elevate the status of women, and present women’s voices in the national dialogue. Maternelle, similar to the crèche system, is a public preschool which starts at age 3-6.
The world has much to learn from these practices. In our communities, what are we doing to ensure women’s rights, celebrate their traditional roles, and amplify their voices? Do we value the feminine enough? Do we tolerate differences or expect others to share our views on the question of gender?
I expect to visit a local tailor with my host family if we have time before I go. I may write again just about fashion – can you imagine the intersection of Medieval roman clothing, local Tamazight fashions, Muslim dress, subsaharn African style, and French couture?