Posted in Features

Living abroad, studying abroad, thinking broadly

Equality issues in the Middle East are not as black and and white as Westerners like to believe

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Image Credits: Cecile Favron

“Setting foot on campus is like entering into a different world,” were the words my roommate translated from Arabic over coffee. And in the midst of my first semester abroad, those words could not have rung more true.

From the moment I arrived in Morocco, I felt my experience was atypical. After all, I am (almost entirely) anglophone and have only ever lived in a so-called Western society. On my university campus, I do not feel that either of these factors have changed.

My classes are conducted in English. My peers and our professors come from all over the world. We fulfill our role as students by complaining about cafeteria food and readings on weekdays and heading out for drinks on weekends. The local student confessions page is often a venue for the constant debate between conservative and liberal voices. The only thing I have found inescapable is the ascribed gender identity which arises from living in sex-segregated dormitories.

However, I think it is accurate to conclude that beyond the campus grounds, Morocco is a relatively conservative country. The freedom I experience here is not shared by every woman. That said, living here has challenged many of my own views which I had thought to be progressive, in very unexpected ways.

There are many stereotypes and preconceived notions about a country like Morocco, especially if you group it in with other countries in the “Middle East.” For some, this may conjure up images of oppression, especially of women, or a susceptibility to violence. Coming here, I hoped to find these stereotypes discredited. And I did.

The personal beliefs of the people I meet are as varied as in any other society. Choice of clothing ranges from the more traditional djellaba to a look that resembles something you would find on a street in any of Canada’s major cities. I have never felt my safety was threatened walking city streets at night in my neighbourhoods. To be honest, at first things did not seem this way but, if anything, it was only my own lack of understanding that was dangerous to me.

Morocco also, interestingly, has another reputation for being a leader in the region, taking steps to uphold the rights of women and allowing young people the freedom to express themselves. But this is not something I can get behind either. These are a few of the realities: sex outside of marriage is criminalized, as is homosexuality, and alcohol is, in some ways, if not prohibited, at least taboo.

Now, I want to be clear: such restrictions are not something that I as a foreigner experience. But they are human rights concerns and adopting them as my reality has been more challenging than I expected.

Before going abroad, I figured I had solved my ongoing moral dilemma about cultural sensitivity by resolving to at minimum respect, if not push myself to see the rationale behind others’ prevalent values, particularly those which are not so easily digested by secular, liberal society. But this is not so simple.

It soon became apparent that this was easy enough for me to do. There is a huge divide between the rules set for me as a foreigner and those for locals. When you are not affected by something, it is much easier to accept it.

Applying cultural sensitivity became, for me, just as problematic as defining a society by its conservative values or making a value judgement on something you are not familiar with. I found myself asking: how do I reconcile that?

This is not a problem I can confine to Morocco. At home, I am often torn between challenging others on their beliefs or trying to accept them. If anything, I am going home with more questions than answers, and quite possibly feeling I know less about Morocco than I thought I did in the first few weeks.

My time at Simon Fraser University has taught me many things. But what it couldn’t teach me was the experience of being here.

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