I have never been so scantily-clad (or seemingly so) in my life as I was in Morocco. There, the women are covered completely, from head scarf to ankle, all loosely fitted, no shape showing beneath. We, our American team, went with our traditional Mennonite attire – modest but feminine – jeans, long skirts, knit shirts that hug our torsos just a bit, scoop-neck blouses – and we seemed bare in comparison. We spent a lot of our mornings checking ourselves out to be sure we didn’t seem scandalous and disrespectful. Who knew collarbones and calves could cause such a stir?
But this part of the trip was easy in comparison to the other ways we had to adjust as women. For example, we couldn’t sit in the front seat of the car/van if a man was driving – that was not acceptable, unless that man was our husband. Since I don’t have a husband, you can see the dilemma I was in (and I don’t even get carsick like one of my female teammates). In fact, if we were out in public, we weren’t to speak to men, weren’t to make eye contact with them, and certainly weren’t to touch them. This may sound simple, but it is not. I, as a single American woman, am used to caring for myself, taking care of what I need, acting in society like any other member of society – but this mode of behavior was not open to me in Morocco. In fact, this behavior would have been not only disrespectful but wrong in some serious way. So I found myself staring at the sidewalk a lot, hands folded under my arms, words racing behind my tongue. . .
But then there were these beautiful things that happened in this place – as I suppose they do in any system of oppression (and yes, I think women in Morocco are oppressed, at least in some ways). There, women walk arm in arm like sisters, talking close to one another, sharing secrets and ideas for themselves alone – we have lost that in the States where we get catty and protective around other women sometimes. There, women eat together (with the men in another room) savoring their own cooking, sharing their work, appreciating the fruits of their labor. And I hear that Moroccan weddings are great parties for women, where they sit for hours and celebrate the marriage of one of their own. There, women hold on to one another for support in ways that I rarely see here. That, that love, that community, that I could learn to love.
So here, in a part of the world that seemed so different, I learned to appreciate the great freedom I have been given to move in the world openly (for the most part), but I learned that I am also missing a great closely among my female friends – and I wish I could figure out how to bring that here. . . but I wonder if individual freedom and true community are mutually exclusive terms. I suspect they are.