Cultural Representations of Female Sexual Threat in Morocco

Generally, Moroccan women are not invested with continual cultural authority like men. In popular culture, they are stereotypically considered as inferior, capricious and untrustworthy. They by no means form a homogenous class. There are bourgeois and middle-class educated women who enjoy a larger degree of freedom by having access to the public sphere and do not give much importance to ritual social outlets, but lots of women from the subaltern uneducated lower social strata in urban and rural regions are relegated to a separate social existence and confined in the domestic private sphere against a social background of a changing society thanks to the education of the masses and the call for modernization and female labor force.

Underprivileged women find themselves restricted to a ritualized form of expression. Traditional society is still at work with its paradigmatic prejudices on women describing them as fitna (social chaos) if left uncontrolled. The anxiety of the male to control female’s sexuality has engendered a male-oriented education based on religious ethics as well as on the honour-shame code. The main feature of this code, as Amal Rassam (1980) argues, is “the female’s maintenance of virginity and strict fidelity after it.” If women leave the domestic sphere to go to school or work, they still have to depend on the male’s authority and protection, and render complete obedience.

Precautionary safeguards like the veil or scarf may be used by lots of them to give a positive self-image of themselves as respectable women and thus assure their agnatically related males or husbands that they secure masculine honor. Such safeguards show that women do not exist without the male gaze. Internalizing moral values for them does not seem to rank as significant as showing morals in public via external conventional symbols.

The anxieties of masculinity as a matter of fact has culturally constructed female sexuality as a source of menace to social cohesion if left unrestricted by the cultural authority of the male. Rachik (1990), a Moroccan anthropologist, has chronicled a very pertinent example of this stereotypy that we should further discuss its influence on local popular imagination and on the development of biased attitudes towards female subordination. His informer Ben Zidan says that left-hand slaughtering gestures are assorted as ill-omen in the Berber lore and attempts to convince Rachik of his argument by providing the example of female creation: “Eve is created from Adam’s left rib.” Thus he ends his argument thinking that this is proof to show that women are associated with evil schemes. For him it also explains why women sacrifice with the left hand in isgar, a High Atlas evil-expulsion sacrifice addressed to jinn. Isgar offerings follow strict ritual interdictions: no salt in food or blood, no speech in performing ritual tasks and no use of the right hand. That women often perform isgar evinces them as satanic and endowed with mystic powers.

Ben Zidan’s proverbial statement may be extended to the Moroccan adage deep-rooted in our cultural imagination that women are a deformed rib (dala awja). Moreover, many people imagine that the progenitor, Eve, was behind the cast of Adam from Paradise, and often cite a hadith from the Prophetic tradition to prove their debasing estimate of women: “annisau naqisatu ‘aqlin wa din (women are short of reason and faith).” Westermarck (1930) in Wit and Wisdom has collected a lot of proverbs from the Moroccan cultural scene in which women are stereotypically represented as sorcerers, satanic and capricious—in addition to Sidi Abderrahman al-Majdub’s poetry which is part of our folklore up to the present denigrating the standing of women in the-sixteenth-century Morocco. Here are some key verses from his poetry about female lechery as cited in Dyalmi’s study (1985), al-mara’ wal jins fi al-Maghreb [Women and Gender in Morocco]: “The Lark flew higher/It then fell on a rotting stick/Women are all whores/ except those who can’t be! (l-qawba‘ taret u t-‘ellat /nzlat ‘la ‘ud rashi/ nsa ga‘ qahbat ghir lli ma qaddat ‘la shi)”.

Another example is al-‘Akakkiza, a Moroccan Sufi heretical movement which appeared in the sixteenth century and was known for taking the cane (al-‘ukkaz) as their emblem. They were even named after it – al ‘akakiza or al-‘ukkaziya. One of their leaders, shaykh Abdellah al-Khayat dug his staff in the ground in Tassawet region in Tadla and a spring of water flew out. Also in Zarhun, a spring is attributed to his baraka and is named ‘Ain al-‘Ukkaz, the spring of the Cane” (Najmi, 2000, p. 315).

This Sufi movement has evinced dissident, disruptive and subversive inclinations for about four centuries. Its members advocated the free play of sexual desire by holding the slogan that “women are like prayer-carpets. Pray and give your brother to pray.” To kill the earthly pleasures of the soul in the neophyte, the shaykh of al-‘Akakiza would ask his disciple to bring his wife. Then the new disciple would prostrate himself on the ground with his wife on him. The shaykh would lie on the wife and copulate with her. When he reached his spasm, he would ask his followers, the fuqra, to follow one by one depending on their social rank in the Sufi group. For four centuries, al‘Akakiza were a well-known and powerful subversive Sufi movement in Morocco. They existed in different areas from Oujda to the Sahara (see Najmi, 2000).

In Berber mythology, male anxieties have also engendered mythic restrictions on female sexuality even after the male’s death. Take the example of baghlat l-qbur (the female-mule of tombs), i.e, the transmogrified widow after death who does not observe the grief period over her dead husband. The grief period is about four months and ten days and is called the right of Allah (haqq Allah). According to the Berber belief, the widow who makes love to another man during this moaning period may be turned in her death into the mule of tombs, a very sinister mule-jinni in chains that gallops every night in the cemetery and devours passers-by on its way before burying their skeletons in one of the tombs. This is a male threatening conception intended to protect male blood lineage in case of the wife’s probable pregnancy from her husband before his death.

Widows in Moroccan imagination are generally encouraged to put up with their new social status as unmarried, and endure the custody of their children. The customary linguistic use of condolence may read as follows: sebri ‘ala wlidatek (be patient and raise your children). However, when a man loses his wife, he does not face any mythic peril. He may rather hear sympathetic expressions like “May Allah renew your bed!” (Allah yejedded frashek); it is a male-oriented wish for the bereaved husband to fall upon a female spouse surrogate.

Face to face with such cultural bias against female gender resources, women at the bottom of social space ritually manoeuvre to contest male power using whatever capital available to them be it symbolic/ honorific, or cultural (like child-rearing, house cleaning, magic preparation skills) to influence the male and squeeze a position of power in the household. Yet, the social emancipation of subaltern women is strictly a blow-off of steam and tied to a cultural vortex of female ritual practices carried out through socially canalized channels like trance dances, jinn evictions, visiting saints, marriage ceremonies, weird pregnancy cravings (al wahm) and other magic rituals wherein subaltern women bargain from weakness to achieve a short-lived measure of control over their own destiny, and gain a sort of ephemeral “unassigned” power over the cultural authority of the male.

During these ritual outlets, the cultural authority of the male is challenged in a joyful moment of female becoming that permits the male cultural authority to rejuvenate its yoke of domination over women in the normal existing social conditions. It is a ruse of male social power that serves the interests of the patriarchal culture that it apparently opposes. Thus, masculine hegemony permits its ritual challenge; a safety valve for re-affirming the status quo, for renewing the masculine-oriented system that women cannot change in normal social conditions. In other words, it is a cultural resistance that spins in a vortex of authoritarian relations fixed up priori by the male establishment. The ritualized resistant female role bumps against the shields of the dominant male-oriented cultural and political structure and shrinks back to her initial subordinate position.

*Dr. Mohammed Maarouf, Chouaib Doukkali University, Morocco