Book review: Hicham Houdaïfa looks at Morocco’s forgotten women

Away from the glittering malls and cafe-bars of Rabat and Casablanca exists another Morocco, an unknown country where women endure hardship and worse

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 January, 2016, 4:00am

Dos de Femme, Dos de Mulet

by Hicham Houdaïfa

En Toutes Lettres

Look around certain areas of Morocco, and you could be forgiven for thinking the country’s women have their feet planted firmly in the 21st century. In upmarket cafe-bars in Rabat, young women wearing jeans and boots sit chatting and swiping smartphones. In the cosmopolitan Morocco Mall in Casablanca, Spanish and French fashion is displayed in dazzling shop windows. It all seems a portrait of the progressive.

Hicham Houdaïfa’s fascinating book Dos de Femme, Dos de Mulet (A Woman’s Back is Like a Mule’s) reminds us with a jolt that another reality entirely exists outside these enclaves, whether in the quartiers populaires of Casablanca or in the isolated corners of the High Atlas mountain range, where snow and poor roads often leave villages cut off for weeks during winter and few girls go to secondary school.

We hear eight unique stories. There are teenage girls pressed into underage marriages by their families, often without official paperwork; women who rise at 4am daily in the hope they might occasionally get a back-breaking day’s work picking fruit; women who have never been able to grieve for fathers and husbands who disappeared in the backlash against a rebellion in 1973.

In each story, Houdaïfa paints a detailed and evocative picture of these little-known places. We visit seedy drinking holes in downtown Casablanca, where the barmaids fear losing their jobs if they are unwilling to sleep with clients at the end of the night.

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“These smoky places, where the lights are low, the music so loud you can barely hear yourself think and the price of beer sky high, attract a very particular clientele; men who come just to drink beer and be served by a woman. These men are all of a certain age, fairly well-off, frustrated by life; they come for the barmaids and the hostesses,” Houdaïfa writes.

We hear direct testimonies from the women themselves – in this case, the barmaids are often teenage girls who became pregnant outside marriage and, fearing their parents’ anger, fled the countryside in shame. Penniless and alone, they arrive at Casablanca’s Oulad Ziane bus station, where networks of men encourage them to become prostitutes or beggars, or to sell their young babies to childless couples.

The plight of Houda is typical: “My father and brothers would have killed me if they’d known I was pregnant. I left home that night, I took the first bus I saw to Casablanca. I only get paid for the nights I work and only if a client drinks. The boss gives me five dirhams for every empty bottle – for example, one Heineken for my client and one for me. I try not to count how many beers I’ve drunk, but it’s usually more than 20 a night. The money I earn goes towards the girl who looks after my son, his nappies, his milk, the rent.”

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Honest and straightforward in its approach, Houdaïfa’s book aims to illumine the complexities of Moroccan society. There is little judgment to be found, either of the women or those who may have played a part in the situations in which they find themselves.

In Morocco, where much of the mainstream media debate focuses on business and economic stories of interest to city dwellers, Dos de Femme is a welcome addition to the relatively small collection of books dealing with social and community issues.

The Guardian