Crossing Borders: Women’s Associations In Morocco – A Source of Inspiration

Nov 29, 2017

Facilitated by an International Initiatives Grant through the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, a nine-person research team from Utah State University traveled to Morocco to find their academic objectives spark realizations of global proportions. 

“My goal was to introduce others to how the majority of the world lives, which is not how we live in this country. And insure that those who go, come back understanding that not every Muslim is a terrorist.”

That’s Peg Petrzelka, Utah State University professor of sociology, describing a recent study-abroad trip to Africa, specifically Morocco, in a rural community near Marrakesh.

The research team focused on the role of civil society organizations, or women’s associations. Rebecca Walton, professor of English explains.   

“Our research focused on identifying and learning from the expertise of the local women. This was not research to learn about what they were doing so that then we could make suggestions for how to improve. It was a learning from their expertise and considering what expertise looks like in different environments, and then reflecting back on what might be applicable in our own communities.” 

PP: “And what can be accomplished when you think about the community or the collective rather than the individual.”

Women’s associations are burgeoning in Morocco in part due to economic incentives created by not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations. Take a community rug making enterprise, for example. A grant might pay the initial cost of the loom, and establish a community location to conduct the work and store supplies. All expenses individuals cannot afford.

PP: “Their biggest money making venture is production of honey. And they’ve been given some bees and the bee boxes and the outfits to wear, but they would like to expand that production because what the women tell us is that they’re the only ones producing honey in the region and they sell out every year.”  

A viable market for these emerging enterprises exists. The capacity for further development is evident. Yet, there are significant hurdles to progress. Emily Richards is studying environment and society.

“Some of the barriers that came across time and time again were literacy.”

UNESCO places overall adult literacy in Morocco at 69%. The number falls to 59% for women, even further in rural communities.  

ER: “Another barrier would be education. It’s a very male dominated society. It’s difficult for the women to continue education through a higher degree. A lot of the women would have to send their daughters away to a neighboring city for the entire week and they would come home only on the weekends.” 

“And there’s difficulty convincing fathers to let their daughters leave the home for that long at a time. There are dangers involved in that, as there are with male students going into the city, but it’s more pronounced I guess with female students.

“I’m Beth Shirley. I’m a PhD student in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric Program.

“My particular area of research interest is environmental communication. I’ve read statistics and I’ve read studies from the International Panel on Climate Change that developing nations are going to be hit hardest and first from anthropogenic climate change. The developed nations are the ones that are impacting it the most and reaping the fewest consequences. So it was really eye opening to see those consequences first hand, and how this community is having to adapt to it with more limited resources than what we have here. When we have these debates about climate change, we have to be considering these factors that are going to impact people who we will never meet, and will never see, and are completely invisible, and don’t have a voice.

“Together they are a lot more powerful. They have a lot more agency as a unit, as an association than they did as individual women trying to achieve these goals for themselves.”

Here’s Emily Richards again.

“The ability to communicate through laughter and music and observe the work and the selflessness of the people there in the community. What I witnessed every morning, before five a.m. was people were up, they were working. It was sun up to sun down, and they helped each other. But their livelihood, their survival was dependent on that. I felt that our society was so disposable. It was a completely simplified way of living and liberating in a sense.

“It was also fascinating to see women fighting for the things we take for granted. I mean we all have our issues in the United States or elsewhere that we’re fighting for, that we’re passionate for, that we’re striving to achieve for ourselves, for women, for families. And to see that there – it was just as passionate.

“And it was so important to see how those very simple things, things like education, things like equal rights. When those things are absent, how different your opportunities are. How different your life becomes. And to appreciate how hard the struggle is and how hard people are working. And that they’re working through these associations. The government’s aware that there are opportunities now arising through the diligence and the passion of the people there, that are lifting themselves and fighting for the things that will make the biggest changes in their lives, and for the lives of their family and their children.”

The research team accomplished many of their goals – creating meaningful cultural exchanges, seeing how the rest of the world lives, and observing civil society organizations in a non-industrialized country context. The next step in this journey is applying the inspiration of Moroccan women’s associations to community life at home.

Music selections from Traditional Arabic Music:

Instrumental Music, Instrumental Maqamaat, Dolab Farah Faza

Music of the Arab World, Volume 1, Ana fi Intizarak

Old Classics & Tarab Music, Old Traditional Songs group 1, Taqseem on the Oud

The UPR Original Series "Crossing Borders" is a yearlong storytelling project between UPR and the USU Office of Global Engagement - providing services for international students and scholars; and facilitating study abroad opportunities for students and faculty. Details found here.