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Emancipation of women the Moroccan way

By Koh Lay Chin


SHE was over 70 years old, bare-chested and barely five feet tall. But Zahara, an elderly Moroccan grandmother, had me at first grunt. We were in a bare-bones "hammam" in Marrakech, and I wondered what I was in for when I handed payment to several similarly half-naked Moroccan women there. The basic and spartan hammam was obviously for women only, and once you passed through the huge wooden door, the hijab-wearing Moroccan women I had seen outside were stripping off nonchalantly, chatting in a mixture of Arabic and French.

I thought I was the modern, liberal and Westernised young lady getting a relaxing traditional hammam scrub and massage, but it turned out to be an eye-opener and a little nerve-racking.

There is something about being humbled by a silver-haired matron ordering you about in French, commanding you to take off all your clothes and then scrubbing you down like a rag doll.

I obeyed her every order in silence. The setting of this scene probably added to the surrealism of the entire experience. This old and non-luxurious hammam looked like a bomb shelter, dark and dank, with steaming hot water flowing from taps, and just a few golden rays of light coming through tiny holes in the ceiling. At one point Zahara made me lie on the floor as she doused hot water over me. Looking up at the rays through the clouds of steam I could not help but think, "Good God, I have completely submitted myself to this woman".

Two other ladies nearby were also au naturel, sitting on tiny stools and bathing themselves. I didn't even whimper when Zahara combed my hair with what seemed like a toilet brush.

This was no tourist spa. I left the place thoroughly grateful to Zahara, my dear "Hammam Torturer". My surprise at my own reaction to the experience, I mused later, was probably due mainly to my having grown more accustomed to the sight of mostly head-scarved Moroccan women in the streets around Djemaa el Fna -- not totally unfamiliar territory to a Malaysian.

Here, they were totally unabashed, together in a hammam. Women, young and old, with their babies, in a private space -- a sisterly solidarity, bonding over water and skin.

This year, Morocco announced that the kingdom would celebrate National Women's Day on Oct 10 every year. The decree follows legislative changes on that date in 2003, which advanced women's rights and the improved political representation of women in the country. In Morocco, the king is seen as a champion of women's rights, and theoretically, the country's women are now among the most emancipated in the Arabian world.

King Mohammed VI took his nation by surprise by announcing a far-reaching range of reforms for women. Among others: wives and husbands are now jointly and equally responsible for their households and families, and the previous duty of wives to obey their husbands has been abolished.

Polygamy has been strictly restricted; divorce has been made easier for women (the utterance of talaq being no longer legally sufficient for divorce); and the minimum age at which women may marry was raised to 18.

Moroccan women have gained significant ground over the past years, with family code amendments as well as the election of 34 women to Parliament and the appointment of seven female ministers to the present cabinet. Not too shabby for a country where Islamists still wield much influence. But the consensus thus far is that the monarch has been a successful unifier, positioning his arguments within an Islamic frame of family rights.

Certainly there is much more to be achieved for the country's women, as with other nations. More than two-thirds of the kingdom's women are unable to read and write, and many would not have the opportunity to exercise their rights. The situation brings to mind the women of Pakistan, where reforms made in the spirit of Fatima Jinnah's and Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan's efforts have continued to be snagged between theory and practice.

In Pakistan, official attempts to elevate the status of women run smack into traditional and cultural impediments; where societal norms and pressures are considerably stronger than governmental will.

In Morocco, women are perhaps luckier in that they boast an able and impressive defender of their rights in their king. The women I met in the country had a charming calm and sense of quiet confidence about them.

I remember my last glimpse of Zahara as I left the hammam. She walked out with that slight hunch, wearing her hijab and jelaba, a sturdy pair of black glasses and a prim, proper beige handbag. She smiled at me in the sunlight, her face immeasurably softer and gentler than I remembered inside.

And -- wait a minute, was that a wink she gave me as she walked away?

Copyright 2008 The New Straits Times Press (M) Berhad. All rights reserved.

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