I will upload this post in 3 parts. I have changed the names of my friends to protect their privacy.
First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to Morocco and Marrakesh made me reflect deeply on the struggles of girls in my community to achieve an education. When I look back upon my year’s work at the dar shabab (youth center), the majority of those who have benefited from my classes, activities, and events are boys or young men. This makes me wonder why there is not equal participation among boys and girls. The program Let Girls Learn renewed my interest and commitment to work with girls during my last couple of months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco. In each part of the posts, I will describe a different obstacle that girls in my town face and highlight it with a story.
My community is a small, conservative town of 5,000 near Marrakesh. There is one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. Around my site are 15 duars (farming villages), which only have elementary schools. There are often one or two teachers for grades 1-6 in a one-room schoolhouse with limited resources. If the girls in the duars want to attend middle school or high school, they have to travel into town. It is common for girls to drop out because their parents don’t want them to travel in addition to not being as prepared in their schoolwork because of the education they received in elementary school. The school provides transportation or for a small fee they can apply to live at the dar taliba (girls’ dormitory) during the school week.
When I say that my town is conservative it is because gender roles are traditional. Most girls aspire to get married and have children as early as 17 or 18 years old. Men are the breadwinners. In comparison to my liberal upbringing, this is a conservative outlook.
The first obstacle that prevents girls from staying in school is housework. Girls are expected to help around the house. They have many responsibilities like cooking, cleaning, and taking care of siblings, all which gives them less time to do their homework and study for quizzes, semester tests, and final exams, or going to the dar shebab. When I asked my students if they wanted to continue English classes during Ramadan, the boys said yes and the girls no. The girls explained that they were needed to help prepare the evening meal to break the fast. During the last Ramadan, I didn’t see any girls in the dar shebab for this reason.
Fatima Zahara’s story
Fatima Zahara is 15 years old and in the 9th grade. When her mother went away for a week to visit her sick father, Fatima Zahara did all the housework. One day I stopped by her house after work and found her kneeling in the kitchen, putting bread into the oven. She had on a scarf to keep her hair out of her face and was in her pajamas; she looked like any other housewife. We later devoured a delicious fish tagine she had made, and I complemented her on her expert cooking.
I mentioned my surprise that she did all the housework and explained that for me it was normal that my parents take turns cooking. They laughed when I mentioned that my Papá takes pleasure in cooking his famous seafood paella for me. Fatima Zahara and her family said that in Morocco a girl is expected to learn how to cook and clean in preparation for married life. There is word for a good housewife in Moroccan colloquial, Darija: hedga. So a girl must be hedga before she gets married.
Around this time, Fatima Zahara dropped out of school, but she hid it from me. However, I learned that it wasn’t because she was busy with housework. Her parents, Nadia and Mohamed, cornered me one day and pleaded with me to find out what happened so that Fatima Zahara would return to school. They said they had tried everything- they had talked to her teachers and the principal, talked to Fatima Zahara, even told her that she needed to go to school, work, or get married (though they thought she was too young to get married). They revealed that they had not finished primary school, but they wanted Fatima Zahara to at least get a Baccalaureate degree (high school diploma). Nadia told me about the literacy classes she had attended at the mosque a few years ago, and taking out her cellphone, she proudly showed me how she could use her it in Arabic.
After that, I tried to find a time to talk with Fatima Zahara alone and find out what had occurred. I was concerned that she thought I would disapprove of her decision to drop out, but with luck she might open up to me. When we finally spoke, she confessed that she had had a problem with a teacher. She had raised her hand to point out something wrong in the lesson and this wasn’t received well by the teacher. He apparently mentioned this to other teachers, and Fatima Zahara started feeling uncomfortable at school. She spoke with the school principal, but she said it didn’t help.
I thanked her for sharing this, and advised her to apologize to the teacher and principal, forget about the past, and do her best on her final exams. I placed the emphasis on the value of high school to teach basic knowledge and skills for life and provide better opportunities for her future. With a high school diploma, she could attend vocational school or university, which would then quality her for higher paying jobs.
I also wondered what Fatima Zahara did when she was not in school. She said she did “walo” (nothing), watched TV, cooked and cleaned, and later she got a job packing vegetables in a nearby factory. I asked her if she got bored doing walo because her friends were in school or studying. Fatima Zahara replied she did miss being with her friends, and (relief!) she planned to return to school in September. She’ll have to repeat 9th grade but she didn’t mind. I offered to help with schoolwork or to put her in contact with someone that could provide tutoring.