I am just returning from a trip to Morocco (June 2012). What a beautiful place with cultural transformations occurring before your eyes. Many would say occurring not fast enough. The old and the new, the secular and the religious, the pounding heartbeat of change reverberating across the desert sands. It was an awesome journey and one I will always remember.
Most striking are the women. Some wearing burkas, many with intricately tied scarves covering their heads, and a few with no head covering at all. Slim fitting jeans and other “western wear” could be seen. But then again, I spent most of my time in the capital city of Rabat, and the cities of Casablanca and Marrakech where the women have more exposure to Western and non-Islamic traditions. And, where there is perhaps more tolerance for breaking with tradition.
Across the countryside, outside the major Moroccan cities, some 80% of women are illiterate according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Illiteracy makes these women dependent on others for all information and interpretation of civil laws and religious doctrines. Under these conditions, why should we be surprised when women fare poorly? Illiteracy has a way of doing that. It is most encouraging to learn of major initiatives in the country to eradicate illiteracy, particularly among women.
I met the woman in this photo as she sold bracelets outside one of the shops in Marrakech. She was proud and beautiful, unthreatened by me, nor I of her. In that brief moment we connected.
My most riveting story is however not about illiterate women in the countryside, or women selling jewelry in the cities. Stamped in my mind is a situation at one of the airports as we waited to take off. The tour guide boarded our small aircraft thoroughly exasperated as he shared something he had just witnessed. A short distance from us was another aircraft whose pilot was a young Moroccan woman. She had been waiting far longer than necessary to get clearance from the tower to take off. The tower was staffed totally by men. The pilot had repeatedly called the tower with no answer. Not even an obligatory “we’ll be with you in a moment” did she receive. She waited. Waited, watched, and listened as male pilots communicated with the tower and got clearance to take off. Although well educated, trained, and certified to pilot an aircraft, at that moment she was as powerless as an illiterate woman in the countryside. Perhaps she was being taught a lesson by the men in the tower – a lesson with the goal to render her invisible and voiceless. But like her sisters in the countryside and around the globe, her presence is illuminating and her quiet persistent voice deafening.
This, for me, represented the fragile state of transformation in the role of women in that country and everywhere in the world. It would be easy to take a superior position and haughtily declare, “American women would never tolerate such treatment”. Yet, I easily saw parallels between that female pilot in Morocco and some of my own experiences. I immediately recalled those occasions working in corporate America when I silently screamed, “Can’t you see me? Don’t you hear me?” That was of course before I came to understand they indeed saw me and clearly heard me. What they saw and heard threatened their world, as they knew it. Ignoring me was a vile tactic to erode my confidence, and more importantly, it was a way to preserve the past and unfortunately what is too often the present.
The unknown can be frightening and threaten our sense of security. Change is messy and slow – depending on which end of change you reside. Around the world, the changing roles of women are in forward motion. Forward motion. A veiled woman. A woman in a crazy hat. A woman in the cockpit of an airplane. A woman in the C-Suite. Surely we see. Clearly we hear.
Just as I connected with the Moroccan woman in the street, each of us has an opportunity to connect, to communicate, to see and to hear. To respond!