Rachel Newcomb’s Women of Fez: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco was recommended to me by a professor of anthropology in Morocco. Over email I told her that I was reading Moroccan fiction, as part of my preparation for next year. Fiction is fine, she said, but you should read more ethnography.
Ethnography combines several different methods of qualitative research in order to shed light on a culture. Newcomb relies on interviews, participant observation, and historical overview to sketch one perspective of Moroccan culture: that of middle-class women in the city of Fez.
In 2003-04, Morocco passed the most recent set of reforms to the Mudawanna, the legal code that governs family issues and women’s rights. I learned from Newcomb’s book that the debate surrounding these changes dragged on for years. Many people, including women, did not support changing a law which regarded women as legal minors, under the guardianship of their father or husband. Several of Newcomb’s informants—that is, those people she interviewed as part of her research—objected to the proposed changes. Remember that we are talking about middle class, educated, urban women. Confused?
The strength of ethnographic work, I think, lies in the tendency to avoid passing judgment on a subject. To enter into contact with another culture and understand it on its own terms is tricky because the temptation is so strong to draw direct parallels with what we know. God knows I’ve many times suffered the brilliant analyses of American culture at the hands of French people! Everyone in the world is a social scientist when it comes to understanding the essence of American society (hint: it may resemble a cross between a cowboy and a hamburger). Similarly, an American might have read Mastering the Art of French Cooking, found that it confirmed their most fantastic visions of Parisian life, and continued to “love” French culture. What is maddening to me has not so much to do with whether or not these impressions are accurate. Rather, it’s the idea that an outsider has determined that they understand a culture to the point where they can judge it to be weird, romantic, exotic, boring, etc.
It’s indeed frustrating to be exposed to a set of beliefs that make no sense to me. I recently spent a week on a cruise ship and was baffled by how people can spend five straight days buying $15 cocktails and giving themselves second degree sunburns while seeing nothing strange about this. Incidentally, someone advised me before the trip to approach the cruise experience as if I were an anthropologist. It was damn difficult, and if the goal was to withhold judgment I’m not sure I did so well.
The lens of anthropology is extremely valuable to me as I learn more about Morocco. Newcomb has you appreciate the nuances of “women’s rights” in a specific cultural context. It’s a mistake to think of “progress” in women’s rights as a linear spectrum, originating from what we code “Taliban” and moving towards an ideal state of equality where men and women have identical roles. That being said, this is not about cultural relativism (the idea that no culture is better than any other). Remember that some “modern” Moroccan women object to the Mudawanna reforms. It doesn’t seem to compute. Newcomb is great at illuminating what seems unreasonable to someone unfamiliar with the culture. She seeks to show us how the women about whom she writes define “being modern” in the context of Moroccan norms and narratives. In other words, women in Morocco and in Fez are not simply becoming “westernized.”
By studying a specific segment of Moroccan women Newcomb reminds us that the issue of women’s rights is not black and white, as Moroccan women have different privileges to gain or lose depending on their socioeconomic class and the status of their families. Here in the United States, the issue of socioeconomic class is taboo. Consequently we forget to take into account the experience of working class and poor women when we talk about women’s rights and feminism. Your basic narrative of the history of feminism says that women fought for the chance to work outside of the home. In reality, many women already worked, and not by choice. Not everyone stood to benefit in the same way from the changes we enjoy today.
We should take care not to assume female solidarity. A middle class Fassi woman might defend the old Mudawanna because she benefits from the status of her family, whose prestige, wealth, and power has been consolidated over the years by fathers who brokered marriages to favor their own network of kin. She doesn’t necessarily object to her family being led by a strong patriarch. Her family being the source of her success, she might not want to shake up existing social structures. Ironically, as Newcomb points out, she may defend the Mudawanna as necessary to protect the interests of more vulnerable women who are either poor, or live in the countryside, or both.
Newcomb examines how her subjects occupy the shifting roles of women in Moroccan society. Those roles do not neatly fit into opposing categories of “oppressed” and “empowered,” and to think in these terms not only ignores the broader social system but also pigeonholes women into being either enlightened or brainwashed.