Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Another recent discussion led to the subject of how legitimate are the results of some of the research done on Morocco.  The general consensus seems to be that most researchers do not spend enough time here to really know the culture on which they become expert authorities in their home country.  Even researchers who might come here intermittently over a period of years do not always give themselves enough time to phase through culture shock and settle into place before launching their ideas.

A friend of mine who was an anthropologist said one must remain an observer on the outside looking in or the cultural observations will not be valid.  Rather they will be tainted by common human sympathies and prejudices if the observer comes too close.  One has to find a balance apparently where you can recognize the truth from fantasy or conjecture or lies.  Do the limited exposures of most field researchers really allow for that?  And what about getting rid of preconceived notions?

It seems it would be easy in the case of observing how things are done differently.  Not so easy in the case of why.  There are basic, shared human behaviors that can be easily observed and discarded.  There are culture-specific behaviors that are not so easy to comprehend or explain.  Sometimes, understanding these behaviors is key to making sense of everything else.  The question is how fast can someone delve into the mind of a foreign culture, understand and interpret it for their own culture?  How accurate would a hasty interpretation be?

The big concern of most Moroccans who are aware of this cultural observation and interpretation by foreign scholars is accuracy and legitimacy.  They know that people will tell researchers whatever they want to hear.  They fear the researchers don't always take the time to truly think about what they learn before passing it on.  Too often they pick up an article or a book and throw it down wondering if the author ever actually set foot in Morocco.  I, myself, have had this experience after living here and still do not consider myself an expert on Morocco. 

One of the things I learned quickly is that culture shock never goes away.  It sneaks back at unexpected times and just when you think nothing can turn your head again, there is another new experience knocking you down.  If this can happen to you when you live here, what can happen when you only visit every few years or spend only a few months at any given time?  A lot of that initial visiting time is necessarily spent reacquainting and reconnecting before settling down to business. 

And finally, how much of what one reads in books and articles can actually represent a real culture and people?  A culture is dynamic and changing, alive if you will, whereas a book might become outdated during the long process from conception to publication and is inanimate.  I know I hate it when somebody comes up to me and says, I know all about Americans.  You do this ...  You do that...and then tell me they know these facts from books. 


Saturday, October 24, 2009

Since I work in the field of education, I meet a lot of researchers who come to Morocco to study women's rights, gender issues and differences, and sundry other aspects of the "situation" of women in Morocco vs. men.  Invariably, the assumption is that women have it bad in Morocco.  Women need to be educated about their rights - politically, domestically, reproductively, educationally, etc.  In short, women in Morocco are third-class citizens and don't know it. 

Imagine my surprise when a Moroccan friend suggested that somebody needs to launch an offensive against the American media's insulting portrait of  American women and the resulting stereotypes it creates about women as equal human beings beside men.  This was not a new suggestion, but a renewed suggestion after watching an episode of the popular US TV show "Dexter".

For those who don't know, Dexter is a supposedly loveable serial killer who only kills "deserving" victims.  A self-appointed one-man vigilante, his heinous urges to kill were channeled by his policeman father into an "acceptable" outlet where he tracks down and punishes murderers who have escaped justice.  Dexter works by day as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami police force and is surrounded by various caricatures of modern women, including his sister, his wife and his boss, whom he must humor and tolerate with good grace.

First, sister Debra is a foul-mouthed detective on the force.  She suffers from low self-esteem, a strong case of the klutzes and believes that Dexter was favored by their father because he was a boy.  Debra has no idea.  She covers up her insecurities with some of the most foul language to ever hit the airwaves and this seems to suggest she is ultra-modern and on the same level as a man.  (My friend also suggested some men find this kind of filth from a woman's mouth sexy)  Debra reached detective with the help of Dexter and maintains her position with more help from her male colleauges.  Although story lines suggest she is competent, action seldom proves it as there is always somebody male who led her to the right conclusion.  In the most recent storyline, Debra distracts a male colleague and former lover during a big case when he is about to confront a longtime criminal adversary.  This results in both of them getting shot and the lover dies.  Poor Debra couldn't make up her mind between the old flame and her hot new gansta boy.  Back and forth, back and forth.  Will Debra survive and "solve" this case for him?

This particular branch of the Miami police is headed by a Cuban-American woman, Maria LaGuerta.  She is tough yet vulnerable, single yet longs for love, and is currently engaged in a secret affair with a subordinate where his masculinity dominates and she becomes all woman.  In the office, she barks orders and hands out assigmments like a military drill sargent with no back talking.  Maria seems to vacillate between her tough woman image in the office and her longing to be a sexy Latina and can't reconcile the two.  She also displays some resulting insecurities about who and what kind of woman she really wants to be.

Finally, we come to Rita, Dexter's recent bride.  The show started with Dexter dating Rita in an attempt to create an image of normalcy for himself.  Since Rita was the survivor of a violent marriage and carried pyschological scars from the abuse of her former husband, Dexter was under no pressure to perform like a "normal" lover.  Rita was happy to sit and watch TV in a semi-comatose state, then send him on his way.  Over time, Rita decided to want more and saw Dexter as perfect step father material for her two children.  She suddenly wanted another child and all the trappings of domestic bliss and Dexter was her candidate.  Now Rita has expectations, and lots of them.  Now, Rita clings to Dexter like a strong wind might blow him away from her.

Dexter has to account for his whereabouts at all times, he has standards to maintain and chores to perform and obligations to meet according to Rita's standards.  If he misses a beat or a step, there will be consequences.  Rita often organizes things without consulting him which conflicts with his own plans but is somehow meant to be humorous in an "insider" way - oh yeah, those wives are so unpredictable, they have minds of their own.  In one episode, following a car accident, Dexter downplays the seriousness of the accident since he emerged with nothing more than a concussion.  His biggest concern is finding the body of his most recent victim which may or may not have been in the car with him.  Rita takes charge of the insurance claim for some reason, sees the car and self-righteously walks into the police station to declare Dexter a liar.

So regarding the American woman, what do we have in this media portrayal of the women of Dexter?  We have a foul-mouthed, incompetent relying on the help of her brother and male co-workers to maintain her position; an overcompensating, wannabe sex goddess torn between her professional life and her fantasies; and finally, a caricature of the American housewife that makes them look like a twisted cross between a dictator and clinging vine.  All of these characters focus first on their relationship to the male in their life and second on their jobs as detective, bureau chief or housewife/mother.  Interestly, Rita did have a job at some point, in a hotel, where she was distracted by her home responsibilities/children and incompetent.  Now she walks blithely around her little house, baby on her hip, smoothly organizing the lives of five people and participating fully in the community.  Hmm.

Media has a huge impact on popular cultural perceptions.  The fact is, despite educational advances, career opportunities and political advances, women are still seen as "women" - meaning, something less than men.  It doesn't matter if it's America or Morocco or somewhere else, women are seen as distracted and distracting in the public arena.  Their focus is domesticity and it clouds their vision. It's the woman's job to create home and family and it's the man's job to pay visits.  The woman may want a career, she may have a career, but ultimately, she will sidetrack toward her "true" nature and leave all that career stuff to the men. 

You've come a long way, baby, but not far enough.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Public space and private space in Morocco are two very different worlds.  You often read about how the Moroccan home is a sphere of tranquillity and privacy and a shelter from the outside world.  This is true and people inside the home treat each other with respect and love and men act courteously and worship their mothers.  Well they should be because the streets are a harsh and unforgiving place where these same men can do just about anything they want and women are only tolerated. 

It is not uncommon to see men spitting, peeing on trees or walls and hear them making rude or obscene comments to passing women.  Trash goes on the ground, garbage piles up and the city streets take a real beating.  For anyone who imagines strolling peacefully through wide boulevards lined with beautiful gardens, Fez can only partially provide that experience. Women on the street find protection in numbers, often walking with family members and girlfriends, but when seen alone they are automatically judged as prostitutes. 

One of the things I quickly discovered, too, is that driving a car does not necessarily provide protection from the street.  Male drivers are aggressive and it is commonly assumed women are poor drivers.  They will also try to attract you when stopped at red lights and intersections.  Moroccans like a good cluster-fuck at the intersection, jamming their cars into gridlock, then blowing the horns full blast.  I find it helps to look straight ahead, just like when walking down the street, drive like I know where I am going and aggressively maintain my space. 

For the most part, my experience on the street is probably less stressful than that of a Moroccan woman but it is still not the place I want to spend any amount of time.  I do my business and get inside.  
I was robbed while shopping at the Central Market in Fez during Ramadan.  It wasn't a huge amount of money, a couple of hundred dirhams at most.  After making a purchase, I was writing a note on the envelope containing my money and young guy reached over my shoulder from behind and snatched the envelope away. 

People noticed, a couple of guys ran after him, but there was no chance of recovering the envelope.  I don't get hysterical over a couple of hundred dirhams disappearing, but I am much more aware now that people are watching me.  An incident like that takes away the innocent belief the street is safe in broad daylight with other people around.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I have had an interesting series of conversations over the last week with my daughter and various friends.  We were talking  about her experiences in Morocco over the last year and whether she should stay here.  My daughter's life here has been very different from my own.  She came on her own, walked the street til she found a job, has been learning Arabic as she goes, and prefers living on her own to living with me.  Her experience has been an adventure.

People ask me all the time what it is like to live in a place like Morocco full time.  Frankly, it is like any place and despite the differences in language and culture, people are people.  My neighbors have daily routines, disagreements and problems like everybody else.   Some of the people I meet are nice and others are not so nice.  I walk down the street now and I don't always see the "differentness".  But, there is one element of society here that is particularly difficult for women.  I hear about it consistently and it can be the single most annoying problem one encounters in Morocco - street harrassment of women.

My daughter tries to save money by walking part way to work and part way home each day.  Lately, strangers have been following her, slapping her bottom and pinching her bottom.  Cars pull up beside her, encouraging her to get inside.  She is so disturbed by this now that some times she arrives home in tears.  She no longer wears her headphones to block out the catcalls, because she can't hear the "touchers" coming up behind her.  The outright aggressiveness of these men on the street frightens her at times.

There is an unfortunate general perception that foreign women are open to this rude behavior because of their more liberal beliefs and behaviors.  They travel alone, walk the streets alone, sometimes live alone and most obviously, often come all the way to Morocco alone.  These are not common behaviors for Moroccan women, although they also share their part of the harrassment.  Throw in the added the misinformation from satellite television and the idea that foreign women "want" it does not require a quantum leap of logic.  Rather, understanding that women don't "want" it is much harder.

The effect all of this has had on my daughter is disturbing to me as a mother.  I see her becoming angry and defensive and now, even fearful on the streets.  She believes she has every right to walk there as she wants, but I see her looking for ways to avoid it.  There is nothing she can do to confront the situation and there is nothing she can do to find help or a remedy for it.  It is what it is and although people frown on it, nobody can stop it.  There are laws against it, too, but they are almost impossible to enforce.  Women must grin and bear it for now.  And yes, to do anything but smile and take it results in worse harrassment and hefty insults.

I wish I could see my daughter happy and enjoying her experiences here.  I wish I could see her full of confidence in the kind of future she could have.  But right now, sadly, her focus is on whether or not she can achieve her dreams without having to justify her right to that achievement and without having to constantly defend her territory.  I hope there is a balance,