In October of 2019, I had just finished midterms during my senior year of college and was preparing to participate in the International Model Arab League competition in Rabat, Morocco.
Our teachers and counselors had warned us ahead of time that Morocco was a developing country, and that we would likely see things there that we had never seen before: not just sand dunes and camels, but extreme poverty and disparity.
Once we had finished our competition, we still had four days left on our trip, so we began to travel to each corner of the small Middle Eastern country. As our large bus emerged on the other side of the Atlas Mountains and navigated the precarious winding path down, we pulled into a small village with a mixture of tents and storefronts. Our professor encouraged us to explore everything.
I wandered down the dusty path with my friends, a wad of dirham in my hand. The American dollar was worth 10 times the Moroccan dirham, and the ATMs across the country were unable to keep up.
We all entered what my Moroccan friend translated as a cosmetics shop, with modern hues of green and fluorescent lighting. All of the women in our cohort (and even some of the men) excitedly bought bottles of Argan oil and saffron oil and extravagant perfumes. I bought a bottle of perfumed saffron oil and began to stroll out when I felt a tug on my elbow. My professor led me into a side room in the shop.
Seated against the wall was a line of Berber women, each with what looked like huge lemon juicers in their laps. They were working so hard that their hands were bleeding. Many of them looked to be in considerable pain as they made argan oil by hand.
My professor whispered to me something to the effect that not all women are as lucky as Western women.
Every now and then, I’ll see an article from a big-name Western media company romanticizing the Middle Eastern women who work for long hours making Argan oil, boasting that these women are able to get out of the house and contribute to their family’s well-being. One article that I read even went so far as to say that the women sang together and had a great time.
That is not what I saw. And while I cannot speak for all of the Middle East, I can share what I saw from my brief stint in Morocco.
Women in Morocco were often given the role of bathroom attendants — meaning that they picked up and disposed of the baskets full of used toilet paper, as Moroccans don’t usually flush toilet paper. The women’s bathrooms usually were in poor shape. At one point, a friend and I had been standing outside of the ladies’ room for half an hour. When we discovered that it was out of order, we quickly slipped into the men’s room at the behest of the female bathroom attendant. When we emerged, all three of us were berated by the male property manager, who didn’t seem to care about the state of the malfunctioning ladies’ room.
Women didn’t negotiate in the marketplaces — their male counterparts did. And when we went into the grand Mosque in the late afternoon where the imam gave us a tour, all women were expected to cover their heads, even in the outdoor courtyard — despite the fact that I am not a very effeminate woman — and weren’t allowed in the prayer area. Then, during the call to prayer, despite having heard different forms of prayer across the country throughout the days, a look of terror spread across everyone’s face when the prayer came in the form of a bellow across the loudspeakers, followed by the shout of ALLAHU AKBAR! Even the most progressive members of the party looked greatly troubled, as well as the queer members of the class.
Morocco was, for the most part, a beautiful place. But when we left the tourist-heavy areas, we were exposed to unfiltered poverty, classism, sexism and inequality. As a result, my worldview shifted.
Now, I often get frustrated at Western feminists, because I feel as though they’ve lost sight of the goal. While there are still instances of inequality here at home, I am able to go to school, own my own property, max out my own credit cards, wear what I want, and have received enough higher education to weave this story together on paper for you. But Western feminists are more concerned with sexism in video games than the state of our female counterparts in the Middle East, who are facing genuine oppression under the label of culture.
As someone with a bachelor’s in anthropology, I can confirm firsthand that anthropologists have often turned a blind eye to absolute travesties in foreign countries under the guise of culture.
I hope that moving forward, those of us with power and, dare I even say, the privilege to be in the West, work towards helping our sisters around the world who don’t have a voice and who aren’t allowed to reach their full potential.
That bottle of saffron oil sits on my shelf to this day and stares me in the face every time I enter the room. My friends threw their bottles away out of guilt, but I kept mine because of my shame.
I keep my saffron oil to remind myself that I am lucky, and that there is still work to be done.
Katie Zakrzewski is the associate editor for AY Media Group. A proud native of North Little Rock’s Baring Cross neighborhood, Katie is a graduate of Mount St. Mary Academy and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.