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The Danes and feminism

While I was strolling through the beautiful city of Copenhagen, not only organizations were on my list to interview. I was also interested in how individual people who live in Denmark experience gender (in-)equality in the country. One day I decided to visit the University of Copenhagen in hope of finding someone to talk to – the result are three conversations with four people who are currently living in Copenhagen. I have asked each of  them to tell me About their experiences with feminism.

Jerry, IT-worker

Experiences Denmark as gender equal, but that the topic doesn’t affect him much

I work in the IT-Department at the University. Personally, I have never had any direct experiences with feminism. I know that the situation for women is pretty good here in Denmark, just like Denmark is doing well in many other aspects as well. But I can also see that women are being treated equally at my work: There are just as many men as women working in IT nowadays. And in many other well-paying fields, there are even more women than men working/employed. There are certain professions that are prone to gender inequality but that’s not the case in the IT-department. I haven’t been working here long enough to say something about the past in IT though but today women are completely accepted if they work in IT, even if they do the ‘geeky’ stuff that would be considered as cliché men-stuff. In general, your job depends more on what you’re good at than on what gender you have. Gender unequal professions are maybe HR with more women, and in Public Health Sector nurses are often female while doctors are often male, although that is changing: today, more than 50% of medical students are female. But as I mentioned, the topic of gender is not something I think or talk about often with my friends. In the public debate it is often discussed, but not in my private life.

ME: And what do you think of the living Standards in Denmark in general? Do you like living here?

JERRY: I like Denmark. Our way of organizing society works really well, for example we have good measures that ensure that nobody will be too poor, everybody gets health insurance, and there are equal opportunities here. But to have all these things, we also have to pay relatively high taxes and share a lot of personal information with the government. And there are people that think it is intrusive what the government does with our private information, but for me that’s not a problem. I and many other Danes don’t see the government as something foreign but as a part of us, so that we can live with the intrusion into our privacy. Plus I don’t mind paying high taxes, because I know that it gives societal benefits in turn.
I think problem might be that people have fought hard for it in past, how our workplace is organized for example, it was a hard way. But nowadays people are getting a bit too used to how well we as a country are doing: more and more liberal voices are saying that we should pay less taxes. I think that is because people are getting spoiled; they forget how Danes before us have fought for an organized workplace and equal opportunities for everyone. And they also forget that high taxes pay off more in the long run, like when a family member falls sick and you need medical care for them. 

 


 

Diamond, international student from South-Sudan

A beautiful shot taken by Diamond herself

 

Denmark gives safety to the women living here

I am an international student from South-Sudan, and I’ve lived in Denmark for two years now. I don’t know all the updates on the feminism-debate in this country, but from what I can see, Denmark doesn’t keep a big difference between men and women. First of all, it is obvious that Denmark is a relatively safe environment for women to live in. For example, I don’t experience much catcalling here. I can go out at 2am in the night without major problems; in other places I have lived in that has been very different. I still remember the first time I went cycling in the night here in Denmark, all I could think of was ‘What if something happens, what if something happens’, because I had almost never done that before. So I feel very safe living here as a woman.
But it goes beyond just feeling safe: the government here is really taking measures to make things gender equal. The most striking thing for me in that sense is parental leave. After you have a child, the fathers actually also get days off work! I find that wonderful. And in general, I have seen that fathers spend a lot of time with their children here, be it outside in parks, going grocery shopping or doing other things together. It is really nice to see that fathers are so invested in their children’s lives. For someone like me who comes from a patriarchal society, that is very impressive.

ME: And how would you judge the gender equality in your study field?

DIAMOND: I am doing a full-time Master in Global Health with a specialization in Disease Burden, Challenges and Changes. I really enjoy my study, and I feel like my faculty is relatively gender balanced; the head of our department is a woman, for example. Also, the ratio between girls and boys studying with me in my faculty is 40/60 I would say. But I do feel like later in the job market, there is a global trend of men earning more than women; regarding this conflict, Denmark is making efforts to find a balance. In general I would say that Denmark is gradually trying to close the gender gap, for example their recently elected a female Prime Minister. All in all, I think Denmark is not completely at the top yet, but they are surely trying their best.

 


 

Ida and Laura, Danish teenagers

It can sometimes be dangerous for a girl here

IDA: I think men and women are really equal here, but I do feel like men get higher-paid jobs than women. Even though I feel like girls often give their best in school, sometimes even more so than boys, they still can’t manage to get certain jobs. 

ME: And if you compare to other countries in the world, are you happy to be a Danish woman?

LAURA: So if I compare to other countries, one really big and important thing for me is that in Denmark, women can choose who they want to be together with and who they want to marry. And the fact that women are easily able to get an education and a job here, that is also a big benefit about living in this part of the world. 

ME: And do you hear many people talking about gender equality in Denmark? Do you guys talk about it with each other?

IDA: No, we don’t hear it a lot. And we also don’t really talk about it with our friends. I think that’s maybe because gender-topics don’t affect us so much right now, as they may affect girls of our age in other countries. 

ME: And is there anything, any aspect of being a Danish woman, where you think ‘This needs to be changed’?

IDA: One aspect that I find difficult to deal with is the risk of being raped as a woman. You almost never hear that a man got raped, it’s almost always women who are victims of such crimes. And because of that, it can sometimes be scary to walk on the street at night. I don’t think you should be afraid to go out at night just because you are a girl or a woman. So that’s still an aspect that could be changed more – the safety of women. 

 


 

I really enjoyed talking to these people. Our conversations gave me a completely new look on feminism in Denmark: It is one thing to read about the progress Denmark has made in articles or on Wikipedia, but it is something entirely different to talk to people who actually get to experience the situation daily, in their everyday life. These interviews showed me how different your viewpoint about the same topic in the same country can be. While Jerry does not get affected much by the debate around feminism, Diamond, coming from a different country, can easily count the positive aspects of gender equality in Denmark compared to other places she has lived in. Ida and Laura, two Danish girls, on the other hand, are aware of the benefits of being a Danish woman, but also see threats that are still existing towards women in their country. This leads me to the impression that even though Denmark might have come quite far in gender equality compared to other countries, this does not necessarily mean that women or girls in Denmark feel safe or equally treated. Besides that, if you don’t want to be involved in the gender equality debate, that is also possible; the fact that Denmark deals with gender equality more than other countries, does not mean that everybody gets affected by this topic in their everyday life.

 

– Saira

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KULU – empowering women in development

I started off my series on Scandinavian feminism by meeting up with Kvindernes U-Landsudvalg (KULU) based in Copenhagen, an organization that is known to be a central contributor to women’s rights in Copenhagen and internationally. Even though the organization was on holiday officially, the Chair woman Janice Førde and secretariat coordinator Ruth Ejdrup Olsen were so friendly to give me an hour with them and have a talk in their main office.

ME: Thank you so much Janice and Ruth for sitting down with me! Let’s start at the beginning. How and why was KULU created?

JANICE: KULU was started 43 years ago in connection with the first UN women’s conference in Mexico in 1975. That was because even though that time was the beginning of the decade for Women’s development, development was still not really about women, they were rather left behind. So that’s how KULU actually started, with the mission to involve more women in development. The purpose of KULU was that member organizations would get together and ask: How can we achieve more gender equality in development? That was the start of it.
I myself became an activist in 1987/88, when I joined the Women’s House Association – it was called ‘Red Stockings’ back then – which is still a member organization of KULU today.

RUTH: 1975 was the International Women’s year and the start of the UN’s decade for women. In 1974, some Danish women organizations started to work together on giving information about women in developing countries. That was very rare information back then, because at that time people did not have so much knowledge about the situation for women in developing countries. Therefore, these Danish organizations decided it was time to spread such information. KULU’s mission today takes that a step further: We want to give information and also advocate for women’s rights in developing countries and in Denmark. And we do that by for example pushing government agendas to have more gender-sensitive policies. We have also started actual development coorperation with our Southern Partners.

ME: So do I understand it correctly that KULU acts as a lobbyist for its member organizations?

JANICE: Yes, but not entirely. We do things together with our 23 member organizations and advocate them on bigger platforms, but KULU has also had the role to actually influence their member organizations. For example, big organizations like Oxfam IBIS have asked us in the past to suggest women speakers for panel debates, and KULU has also been able to push for integrating women’s rights in macro-economic development issues. In that sense we have affected our NGO-partners. But yes, we do exist by fundraising.

RUTH: One important achievement that we had was in 1987, when we had a big role in the first ‘Women in Development Strategy’ for Denmark’s government. Back then we had invited partners from the South to advocate for this strategy. In accordance with the first International Women’s Conference in Mexico (1975), we agreed that all governments should include women’s rights and empowerment into their policies.

Janice Førde (to the right), Chair woman of KULU, and Ruth Olsen, secretariat coordinator of KULU

ME: Let’s talk about Denmark compared to the rest of the world: The fact that Denmark is positive about feminism is well-known. From the outer perspective it seems like you as a country have made it far regarding gender equality. Do you agree that you have come far, now that you have worked so closely around this topic for many years?

JANICE: In general, Denmark has been positive about feminism for a long time, but having words on paper that are nice is something different than the actual practice. So that’s our job and our members’ job, to make sure that those words are put into practice and into policies.
I think it is true that we are doing well in comparison to the rest of the world. But still, women are not equal to men here in Denmark. There is still a wage gap for the same work, pensions are lower for women for reasons such as maternity leaves, and so on. So there are a lot of areas where gender equality has not been reached yet, it still has to be worked on all the time. But I think that people here tend to relax and think ‘Oh we’re doing so well, we’re among the top’, but actually you have to keep fighting for the things you want because if you don’t, then the things you achieved could be turned back, and that’s not what you want. So I would say Denmark is pretty good – but there’s still work to do.

Denmark is doing pretty good, but you have to keep fighting for the things you want.

ME: And what would you say is the biggest challenge for the Danish woman today?

JANICE: Certainly one big challenge we have today is the inequality on the labour market. For example, the type of access that women have to certain jobs like managerial positions, etc. Regarding women in leadership, Denmark is actually still very low compared to other countries, today we have up to only 6% of women in leadership positions. One factor that causes this is that men in leadership positions tend to recruit men, and you would think that women on the other hand would tend to recruit women, but unfortunately also some women might rather recruit men.

ME: Oh, that’s suprising!

JANICE: Yes, and this leads to the situation that we still have today, namely inequality on the job market. But it’s hard to say if that is the biggest challenge we have today, because there is still so much work to do.

ME: So as you mentioned, there is still work to do in Denmark, but you also work on the international platform. Where does the focus lay for KULU? More on the national or on the international level?

JANICE: It’s both levels: we have to advocate and influence our colleagues but also the government and the officials (that’s the national level), and since we are a part of the EU we also go up to the EU-level. In Europe we are members of the WIDE+ Network (Women in Development Europe Plus) which is based in Brussles since 1985. It has been our linking advocacy office towards EU policy: WIDE+ has member organizations but also individual members; and in 2012 due to the economic problems it was temporarily closed but later opened again. We’re part of the network, and we’re working on getting funds for it, as it has been a very important source of advocacy towrards the EU. On the international level there are UN bodies like the ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ each year in which we want to participate and do activities aorund the priority and review topics. So as you can see, we are active in a number of processes on different levels.


Info: The ‘Commission on the Status of Women’ (CSW) is a functional commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. The CSW works as the UN organ that promotes gender equality and women empowerment. The commission holds an annual two-week session with representatives of UN member states, civil society organizations (such as KULU) and UN entities at the headquarters in New York. Together they review progress in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action (1995) and its subsequent updates and dicuss processes and gaps in the global gender equality.


And not to forget, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is very important for us which also operates on the international level as well as national levels. Our main focus areas are SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 4 (Quality Education), 5 (Gender Equality), 10 (Reduce Inequalities within and among countries), 13 (Climate Action), 16 (Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions) and 17 (Partnerships for the Goals).


Info: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains a plan of action to achieve peace and prosperity for people and the planet. At its heart lie the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals that if achieved hope to make the world poverty-free, gender equal and prosperous.


ME: On the national level, how exactly do you try to press the Danish government to implement more gender-sensitive policies?

JANICE: Regarding our member organizations, we coorperate with member organizations such as MS-ActionAid and Oxfam IBIS because they are active around SDG 10. For example, now we are planning some joint activities, including a public meeting to get the word out there. Also, we have a Southern partner connection. If we want to influence authorities on the other hand, we have meetings and activites with different parliament members and/or government officials. We can count several political parties among our members: the Social Democrats, the Red-Green Party, the Socialistic Peoples Party and the Social-Liberal Party. We also have meetings with DANIDA which is the development wing of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here in Denmark.

ME: Judging from the broad range of activities that KULU engages in, I can imagine that your member organizations also come from diverse backgrounds. Can you give examples of the member organizations within KULU today?

JANICE: We do have some very big organizations like Oxfam IBIS and MS-ActionAid which are very busy with their own programs as well, so we are always trying to find ways to enhance our coorperation. Another one would be the Danish Women’ Society which has been very active sitting on KULU’s board and doing projects together with KULU.
Danish Women’s Society has been really pushing against the everyday sexism which has been like a campaign, looking at how women and girls are subjected to sexism daily. This campaign was started even before the #MeToo movement. People could write on their Website and share their stories for example. So we as a development organization are mainly focused on women’s rights and empowerment in development, while some of our member organizations like the Danish Women’s Society are busy with the national conditions here in Denmark, like the everyday sexism against women. Another big problem that girls are facing today is so-called ‘revenge porn’, where especially men are sharing intimate pictures of their girlfriends on the internet, and there have been Danish women who have come forward with their stories and have become spokespersons for this topic. We as KULU can then draw on their information and connect these members with our Southern Partners for example.

ME: It’s very interesting to see how your organization works to advocate other organizations, and how that works both on the national and the international level.

JANICE: Yes it is! I think the fact that we are an umbrella organization gives us strength to accomplish certain things. I remember that some years ago, there was a trend among organizations to form cooperations and communicate with each other; but some time later, another trend started where organizations wanted to prove and improve themselves, so the communication among each other got lost for a large part. But as an umbrella organization, we can now enhance the communication again, and we can show that all our member organizations have strength. For example, there have been moments when we have been working on something and one of our member organizations had the expertise on the topic so they cooperated with us on the issue.
Another benefit of being an umbrella organization is that we know a lot of people that are experts in their fields. And so it has happened in the past that we have been able to suggest such female experts to member organizations for a meeting, like ‘we can get you into contact with this or this expert’, and when we do that we mostly refer female experts to them. That is a really nice thing because most of these internatinal panels consist only of men and they don’t even know female experts that they could recruit for their panels, so we can bring them into contact with the female experts that we know. There are so many female experts in all these areas, and we are always happy to suggest such women to our member organizations. That is an important role that we have, and it is an example of how the national and the international level are linked.

Most organizations don’t know female experts themselves. [Therefore] KULU is always happy to suggest such women to our member organizations to improve gender equality.

ME: From what we have talked about so far, it seems that there is a broad range of activities that KULU engages in. I would be interested in how a day of work in KULU looks like?

JANICE: Yes that’s very true, we are working with far too many issues at the same time, and unfortunately we have too few people that are actively engaged here in KULU. So most of the time it’s like juggling balls in the air while at the same time trying to focus on the things that have to get out of the door. The daily work is trying to deal with multiple issues.

ME: And how many members do you have exactly?

JANICE: So we have 21 member organizations that all count as 1 member although they can have hundreds of members within their organization. Apart from these 21 member organizations we have around 300 individual members which is actually not enough for all the work we do here at KULU. Therefore we always try to engage more active members. But we also have working groups, for example on partnerships with women’s organizations in DR Congo and in Mali at the moment. When KULU and these working groups have meetings, we also try to encourage people to work together with us on issues and thereby become an active member of KULU.

ME: Do you feel that now that feminism has become more ‘popular’, there are also more people who are willing to be active in feminist organizations like KULU?

JANICE: So for a long time, the word ‘feminist’ was a radical, dirty word. Now it’s back ‘in style’ which is quite interesting. It’s not because the political content of feminism has changed, but just the way we look at it today has changed.

‘Feminist’ used to be a radical and a dirty word

But I don’t know if that is making people also more active in feminist organizations. I certainly hope so! One thing that I do notice is that there is the risk that other ‘popular’ topics may overshadow the topic of gender equality so to say, for example the topic of climate change. I completely agree that climate change calls for urgent action, and KULU has also worked with gender-justice in climate change in Mali, but we should not forget about the links to other topics that are also important such as gender equality.

ME: With so many issues that have to be worked on, how do you as an organization agree on which issues to focus on?

JANICE: That is mostly decided in our annual meetings. One thing we do is take the SDGs as a reference point. All SDGs have to be implemented of course, and one of our goals is to get a gender-perspective into all 17 SDGs. We try to do it in connection with the different partnerships that we have, like in Mali and in DR Congo at the moment. Also, our 2030-agenda working group has a goal which is to get 17 active members in the group.

ME: Janice and Ruth, it has been a pleasure talking to you both. Thank you very much for your time! I have one last question: How can you volunteer for KULU and become an active member?

JANICE: It would be great to see new faces here at KULU! If you are interested, you can join a working group that you affiliate with; and if it works out then you are able to influence something in that specific area and you can ‘own’ that issue. An individual can do a lot in KULU if they are active. And, also non-Danish individuals can volunteer with KULU, in the international work groups for example. We always encourage volunteers to send a CV along so that we can see how and where they can fit into what we are working on at the moment.

ME: That sounds great! KULU sounds like a great opportunity to achieve something for gender equality! I applaud the work you are doing here, and look forward to the next projects KULU will tackle! Thank you for your time again!


If you are interested in the working groups KULU is working on at the moment, go visit their website www.kulu.dk (also available in English!)
For people who are interested to volunteer at KULU, you can send an email to kulu@kulu.dk

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Copenhagen – Impressions

Before I went to Copenhagen, I expected my visit to be rather underwhelming: My google-search made me feel like the city was comparable to any big European city. When I actually arrived here, I was on the contrary, verysurprised. I must admit that Copenhagen took my heart by storm. My prior expectations did come true in the sense that Copenhagen is ‘just’ another big European city with nice architecture and great shopping options. But what I didn’t expect to find here was the amount of personality in the city. Even though you are in a capital city, you don’t get lost in anonymity and in ‘mainstream’ shops and lokale. There are two big streets for the shopping lovers and brand-hunters, but otherwise, each street has its own charm, with pretty little shops that all have their own vibe going on. On top of that, Copenhagen is full of beautiful picturesque buildings, that all contribute to the old city charm – and I surely underestimated just how nice it is to walk in such old streets!. And not to forget, the ease with which Danish people seem to go about their day is highly contaminating!
Obviously I also had an agenda for coming to the city – to inquire on gender equality in Denmark. In the following, here are some impressions of Copenhagen and how the city deals with gender equality.

Female traffic Lights

 

I have not seen this anywhere else than in Copenhagen yet. In some crossings, the pedestrian traffic light symbols showed a female figure instead of a male! There are already some big cities around the world that have made traffic lights more ‘female friendly’, for example some streets in Melbourne, Australia, and in Madrid, Spain. We are all so used to seeing a red or green man up there on the street lights, that we probably don’t even notice anymore that it’s always a male figure and never a female. Copenhagen did notice and decided that a woman also deserves to tell us when to wait or when to walk. Something that never even crossed my mind!
However, the idea to show female figures on traffic lights is not taken up positively by everyone. The biggest argument against this change has been that cities should rather tackle more ‘serious’ problems such as unemployment and criminality.

Female Warriors

Part of the Nationalmuseet (Danish National Museum) is an exhibition on the Vikings, since they make up part of Danish history.
The exhibition is now being showcased in a prime place within the museum and pays a lot of attention to the women of the Viking era as well, to the extent that the only posters that I could find while roaming around the city, showed female Vikings and no men! A clear statement that says that women could also be strong warriors. This feminist message can also be found on the website of the museum itself where an entire page is dedicated to the Viking woman. Here, Scandinavia during the Viking era is called the ‘pioneer of equal opportunities’: women could already then choose themselves who they wanted to marry and had the right to divorce. In general, Viking women seem to have possessed more freedom and rights than women elsewhere in that time.

This poster has a clear feminist message: Women can also be warriors.

To be honest, I didn’t expect that at all. So for me, this was very interesting to learn and I can therefore recommend visiting this exposition in case you want to learn something new about the Vikings! But I must also say that it seemed to me as if the museum was trying to convey the most positive message about Viking women as possible, and the fact that I could only find posters with Viking women felt a bit strange to me. In general, there is a fine line between advocating for equal rights of the genders, of for more rights of women. And I find it quite interesting to see how different organizations, like the Danish National Museum, interpret feminism in different ways.

Prime Minister

Mette Frederiksen

In the end of June, Denmark elected its new government. For the second time in a row, a woman was elected for prime minister, this time a woman that is the youngest Danish prime minister to ever be elected (Mette Frederiksen is 41 years old). In addition to that, Frederiksen’s has recently selected a pregnant woman as Minister of Culture, a quite uncommon thing to see. This caused quite a fuzz in the country, since the Minister (Joy Mogensen) is a single mother and people are questioning her ability to raise her child single handedly and performing her job at the same time. By selecting her for this job, Frederiksen sent a clear message to employers across the country.

In general, my first impression of Copenhagen was very positive. So far, the general idea that Scandinavia, and therefore also Denmark are high up in gender equality, has been more confirmed than disconfirmed. What I don’t know yet however, is how people and organizations think about this topic. To find out more about this, my next post will be an interview with KULU, an organization that is a central contributor to the women’s rights in Denmark and for women internationally. After that, I will interview individual people on the streets on their experiences and opinion with feminism in Denmark. And lastly, on my way back home in two weeks, I will stop by the Danish city of Aarhus and visit their Women’s Museum. I am curious to see if the organizations and people in Denmark experience it the same way that the world does!

Stay tuned!

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Feminism – the Scandinavian story

Hey guys!

It is summertime again and for me it’s time to continue exploring feminism in a new corner of the world. And my second stop is – Scandinavia!
Starting from next week, I will go on a road trip through Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This means a lot of travelling but also new posts, this time about women in Scandinavia. I expect this to be veery different than what we saw in Morocco, not to say the opposite: while Morocco for a large part is trying to fix more basic problems in the gender gap like autonomous choice of partner and the right to pursue a certain job, Scandinavia has worked itself through most layers of the gender gap and is now busy with the top layers like equal respresentation of men and women in top position jobs. But let’s have a look at what exactly makes Scandinavia so interesting.

In many respects, the Scandinavian countries have made it to the top of the list. High living standards, good infrastructure, and a global leader in terms of green energy and innovation are only some of the positive aspects Scandinavia is famous for. One aspect that is of particular interest to me, is the quite low gender gap compared to the rest of the world. Many issues of gender inequality are already ‘solved’ in Scandinavia: gender equality in the public sector is as high as almost nowhere else in the world, there are genereous maternity leaves, and men and women are almost equally represented in parliament, just to name a few things. Sweden even calls itself the ‘first feminist government’ in the world – a quite bold statement. When taking a closer look at Sweden’s political parties, this doesn’t even seem so far-fetched anymore. Many Swedish parties have feminism included in their programme, and several political parties are led by women.

Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister Isabella Lovin surrounded by a group of women. This photo supposedly is a mock against Trump signing the anti-abortion measure.

However, issues of gender inequality remain. In the private sector for example, men are greatly overrepresented in management positions. And also Scandinavian people experience daily sexism, but it is definitely a completely different league than most other countries.
After having been to Morocco, I am looking forward to getting to know life as a woman in the area that calls itself the ‘most feminist part of the world’. Is it really that amazing to be a woman here? And what struggles do women experience on a daily? What is there to improve?

But let’s first dive into what and where Scandinavia is. Most commonly, the term Scandinavia includes the countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden. It’s still debated whether Finland and Iceland should be counted in as well but for convenience, we will count only Denmark, Norway and Sweden. One of the major reasons that the majority of people think of this specific array of countries as one group is the fact that the three countries all speak languages that stem from Germanistic languages. Also nice to know: Scandinavia is the birthplace of the Vikings!

Denmark

Being the southernmost country of Scandinavia, Denmark lies above Germany at the North Sea and the Baltic Sea and has more than 400 islands. Don’t get fooled by its relatively small size  – Denmark is repeatedly reported to be the happiest country in the world! Also, the Danish landsize is actually not even that small: the giant country of Greenland belongs to the Kingdom of Denmark as well. It is seen as one of the most liberal and open-thinking places in the world, also regarding women’s rights. The capital of Denmark is Copenhagen.

A look at Nyhavn pier with colorful buildings and boats in the Old Town of Copenhagen

Sweden

Apart from free-roaming Moose (which I would honestly loove to see), Sweden is a pretty amazing country as well. To the sides it lays imbedded between Finland and Norway and touches the Baltic Sea. In many ways, Sweden paves the way: for example in recycling. Sweden is so good at recycling that nowadays it even imports the waste of other countries like Norway. That’s the way to go! Also, Sweden has lifted the legal ban from gay relationships since 1944 (!) and has one of the smallest gender gaps in the world (more info about this in my post about Sweden!). Another nice fact for especially travellers: Sweden is one of the few countries in the world where it is allowed to camp anywhere in the nature you want. Considering the amazingly beautiful landscapes in Sweden – thumbs up!

Stockholm, the capital of Sweden

Norway

Last but not least, Norway is the biggest and northernmost Scandinavian country. The northernmost point of Norway is infact so much up north, that you might think yourself to be at the North Pole – lots of ice and twice as many polarbears as humans inhabit this area.

Honningvag, the northernmost city of Norway, illustrates how far up north the country reaches

This doesn’t make Norway a sad or depressed country, since it ranks quite high on the global happiness scale. Apart from Honningsvag, more interesting things can be found in the north of the country: during summer you get to experience the sun that never goes down (the midnight sun) and during winter the amazing polar lights can be viewed here for several weeks. Also, Norway is home to more than 1,000 Fjords which is the highest concentration of Fjords in the world and attracts many tourists to the country every year.
Like its sister countries, Norway can showcase one of the highest living standards of the world along with a comprehensive social welfare system. The capital of Norway is Oslo.

Norway has the biggest amount of fjords worldwide, and they all look like the playground for a mystical saga

As you can see, the Scandinavian countries seem to be quite comparable in terms of quality of life and happiness index. Earlier we saw that also in terms of gender equality, all three countries seem to have reached a high level. But are the countries really that comparable? Or are the differences within Scandinavia bigger than one would expect? And how is life as a woman in each of these countries?
These and more questions I aim to answer in the next three weeks. I hope you enjoyed the first post of this new series – and that you will stick with me on my journey through the Nordic region!

 

 

 

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The start of a new journey

If a few years ago anyone would have told me that I would be here writing my first blog post, I would have probably rolled my eyes up to the ceiling. But apparently, miracles do happen.

Hey guys!

My name is Saira and I am currently studying psychology. Like so many other students, I imagined my studies to be something like a magical wand that would open my eyes to the hidden secrets of life: Who am I? Who do I want to be? What do I want to do with my life?

And it went that way, well, at least kind of. I still don’t know the answers to the big mysteries in the world. And I still don’t know why dinosaurs went extinct. But apart from that, I do have a much clearer picture about myself.

I have changed the way I think about life. Up until two years ago, I followed a very boring and unsatisfying way of living. I was staying on the safe side, had a strict plan for how my studies would go, when and which job I would pursue, and I would punish myself whenever I failed to follow my plan. In short, I tried to live an unremarkable life that would please the people around me. This attitude led to a lot of insecurities, and no personal happiness. But the last two years changed my way of thinking. I definitely needed a push and some major life lessons… But that is a story for another time.

So, who am I today? I have grown into a positive-minded person who wants to pursue her dreams – even if that means going against all odds. Although for someone in my situation, that can be difficult.

Let’s talk about this blog!

The first question popping up in your head after landing on this blog probably was: What the hell does parindah mean? So let’s take care of that question first. Parindah is the Urdu word for bird (For anyone who has no idea what Urdu is: it is one of the official national languages of Pakistan). Next question: Why did I choose bird to be the name of this blog?  Well, for two reasons. First of all, since my childhood, my family and friends have been lovingly calling me parindah, and that is because of how my nose is shaped! When I laugh (and I laugh A LOT), my nose bends a little downwards, just like a bird’s beak. Yeah, I have a very funny family…

The second reason for this name is at the same time the reason I started this blog. As I said, I have not always been someone who stands up for herself. On the contrary, I used to bow my head down to what other people told me. In a way, I felt like my culture expected this behavior of me.

But let’s go back in time. My family originally comes from a small village in Pakistan. Since my birth, we have lived in Europe. This makes me someone who stands halfway in two cultures: the Pakistani culture and the western culture. I am extremely grateful to have grown up in both these worlds – both gave me their own valuable norms and traditions. Both have made me the person I am today.

But it was not always easy. In Europe, I saw how women could do basically anything they wanted, from being a singer to being a doctor. Not bound to many expectations, it seemed so easy for them to pursue their personal dreams. (Of course the situation in Europe was or is not that uncomplex – this is just how my young eyes perceived the world.) In my family’s village in Pakistan, the situation was a bit different. There it was more common to stay at home as a woman, with your own happiness being much more intertwined with your family’s happiness. I personally don’t think that this lifestyle made the women in the village less happy, in fact they seemed to be very content with their lives.

But that was not really the life I wanted to have. And at that point in my life, this was a very difficult situation for me.

Who is my rolemodel? Do I have to choose between the two cultures? And if I try both, which values should I pick from each?

Questions over questions. I didn’t know which side to turn to. I still remember so clearly that throughout my youth, I would have phases when I’d feel more western, and phases when I’d feel more Pakistani. But to learn how to get the best out of both worlds, man, that was a long ass way.

My Pakistani background didn’t force me to go a specific direction but still, I personally felt obliged to follow the cultural norms of my village. By now I know that I don’t want to live a life feeling forced to do this or that. I welcome and appreciate both my cultures, but I now want to choose myself which values of each will follow me along the path.

Just like the younger me, I know that so many young girls are in a similar situation – standing between two cultures and not knowing which side to turn to.

And this is why I started this blog.

I’m writing for like-minded people, or people who just want to follow my own journey. A journey of someone who is trying to find her happiness by going out of her way. Breaking free from expectations and conventions, maybe even going unconventional ways? Who knows… Just someone who is trying to spread her wings like a parindah. Among other things, writing this blog is my way of being free.

I want to share my own journey with you guys, and I want to go beyond that. In the following blog posts, I will be travelling to Morocco to talk to other women about their lives, struggles and dreams. This will be the start of a series of posts on women and their role in society.

I have always loved talking to other people about their unique life stories, and this topic in particular intrigues me very much. I have had problems finding my own worth as a woman in the past, and I am very excited to hear other stories about this topic.

So what can you expect from this blog?

A lot of talking about me. My personal life, travel blogs, basically just about anything. And unique life stories of other women around the world!

Are you just as excited as I am? Yes? Then I hope to see you around more often!

xx Saira

Disclaimer

All my experiences are completely subjective and do not intend to hurt anyone. I am not talking about the culture as a whole but rather about my very personal situation and experience.

Couscous – in conversation with a Moroccan cook

We have reached december. Four months have passed since my beautiful time in Morocco, and a lot has happened in the meantime. With a lot I mean studies, exams, and again studies. Right after coming back to the Netherlands, uni-life hit me hard in the face and brought me back to reality of sitting behind my study desk for most of my days. Well, it’s not all too bad, since I got to see my friends and family again, but I also do miss the carelessness that comes with being abroad.
Because of my hectic schedule at home, it was pretty difficult to work on my Morocco-blogpost series regularly. But, there are still three stories that I want to share with you all. It doesn’t matter so much to me that I am not in Morocco anymore, I still think these are beautiful stories that I should share. Forgive the use of present tense in this story, of course I am not physically in Morocco anymore, but using only my memories of the place.
For now, good-bye from my back-in-Europe-me, and hello from my Morocco-me!

 


 

It is one of my last days in Morocco. Me and my friends have decided to stay in the city of Essaouira for our last time, although at first, we were sure this would only be a quick stop-by. But after arriving here, we quickly realized that’s not possible: Essaouira is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It’s just wonderful. And I can’t even tell you why. It does not have the most breathtaking natural landscape. Or the most beautiful buildings. Or the best markets to buy things at. But the people here – have claimed my heart. The city lays by the sea, and I see the things people tell each other about beach cities come true here. Everybody seems to have forgotten what worries are, there is a light-heartedness in the air like I have never smelled before. On top of that, what makes this city distinctively different for me is the friendships I have made here.
Friendships. One of the most beautiful relationships that there are. During my stay in this country, I have mostly been focused on writing my blog for you guys. I have made many friends here, but it was never as easy as in this hostel. Everybody who works here is a person from the heart. And that is especially the case for one person – Couscous. Couscous is the name of a distinctly Moroccan dish, steamed rice with vegetables or meat. But, Couscous is also the name that people have lovingly given our hostel cook here.

Couscous preparing a sweet dish

Even before approaching him, I had to note how he made everyone arriving at the hostel feel at ease at once. Every evening at around 7pm, our hostel offers a joint dinner with everyone who is staying here. To prepare this dinner, Couscous spends his evenings in the hostel kitchen, typically with the radio turned fully up, so that he can dance to old Bollywood songs while cooking. For those of you who know some Bollywood classics: I’m talking about ‘Meri Mehbooba’ and the like! (did me and my friends join the dancing? – hell yeah we did. Never missing a chance to dance to good ol’ Bollywood music. Gotta shake them hips whenever you can! 🙂 ). During one of his cooking sessions, I approached Couscous to get to know him better. And it turns out that he had a lot to tell! So without further ado, we decided to sit down together for a cup of Moroccan tea on the rooftop, and talk about life.

ME: Thanks so much for sitting down together! Let’s see. Could you tell me a bit about yourself, your background?

COUSCOUS: I’m happy to tell you something and share it with the world! Well, what can I tell about me. So, I was born in the mountain area in the north of Morocco. Since I was small, I lived with my grandmother. What I did was, I used to look after our sheep, take them out to grass everyday, and come back in the evening. That was my life. And I never thought anything about it would ever change, I thought I was going to live there forever. But one day, my grandmother said to me: ‘Son, why don’t you go out into the world and do something with your life?’. My grandmother loved me so much. And she said this because she wanted me to be happy. And she knew I could do something big.
So, I left my hometown. At 15 years old, I went to Spain and started working in a bakery there. I stayed at that place for 5 years, and learned so much about cooking and baking there!

A look into the kitchen: food is about to be served!

But deep inside, I was missing my motherland. So after 5 years, I decided to go back to Morocco, and back home I worked in many different hotels and restaurants. I travelled around the country a lot in that phase of my life. But at some point I started to long for something more: to have something of my own, a place where I could be the chef of my own kitchen. But I had not gone to school or university, so I didn’t have any paper that allowed me to be a Chef. So, I decided to work in a place that was at least known to be very good. At 25 years old, I left Morocco again and went to Mali, Timbuktu, and started to work in the best hotel of whole Africa there! That place was like a treasure to me. I learned to make so many different foods there, and I met so many good people. I stayed there for many years. At the end, when I decided to leave this hotel, the Chefs gave me an enourmous gift – the biggest gift of my life – namely a paper that finally allowed me to work as a Chef of my own!

ME: And what kind of paper was that?

COUSCOUS: Well, you can compare it to a degree in cooking. This paper allows me to work as a Chef anywhere I want! 

ME: So that’s why it was possible for you to start as a Chef in this hostel?

COUSCOUS: Exactly! I started working here in 2012. Ever since, the people that  I work with here have become my family. This place makes me truly happy. 

ME: It’s really nice to hear that after travelling around so much,

On the rooftop of our hostel

you seem to have found your place! So do you plan to stay here forever?

COUSCOUS: Actually, no! Actually, my true dream is to own a restaurant of my own. Don’t get me wrong: I do love this place! And what I love about a hostel in particular to see so many different people from all around the world coming together. But I think it would still be something different if I would have a big place of my own, where people only come to eat, morning, afternoon, evening. And I could still continue to work here once a week! I have already been talking to some people to make this dream come true – to become a restaurant Chef.  

ME: Wow, that’s so ambitious! But really, after trying your food I’d say – you should totally go for it!

Couscous laughs.

ME: You mentioned that you grew up with your grandmother. And I also know that you are a brother to several sisters. It seems to me then that you have always had a close bond to women?

COUSCOUS: Oh yes, that is true. I have so much respect for women. Without them, we would not even be in this world. And it is true, there are many women in my close family; that is also why I have learned to appreciate and value them so much. 

ME: Really nice to hear you talk like this about women! Especially because many men that I see do not treat women very well.

What I mean by this is that most of the time that I have walked through the streets of Morocco, I have felt male eyes on me. Staring male eyes. And at times – not even rarely – men have cat-called me and my friends. It is not really a nice experience and definitely does not make me feel well treated.

COUSCOUS: I know exactly what you mean. Most Moroccan men don’t know the value of a woman. They very often treat them as something small, vulnerable. But I must say, here in Essaouira things are a bit better! Women can walk on the streets without being called after every 5 seconds, and it feels safer. I think this is probably because there are so many tourists here; people in Essaouira got used to the sight of a woman with bare legs and arms by now.

ME: But what do you think this problem thoughout Morocco comes from? That men think women are smaller than them?

COUSCOUS: I think, a misinterpretation of the religion. There are some verses in the Qur’an that address the topic of men and women, and a lot of people interpret something into these verses that is according to me, not right. They think that a woman is only supposed to be doing the household and nothing more, because that is what Islam says. But they don’t realize that Islam and islamic rules were established centuries ago, and that they should be re-interpreted to apply them to today’s world. I think that is how God wants it to be. And, to be honest, I don’t really like the fact that politics and religion are mixed up in Morocco. I think it would be better if they would be seperated. 

ME: Sadly, a lot of people don’t agree with you.

COUSCOUS: Yes, it makes me sad as well. But I don’t want to talk about the bad things only! There are also Moroccan traditions that pay the woman high respect. I don’t know if you are familiar with the traditions in Moroccan weddings? 

He chuckles a bit.

I remember my sister’s wedding. We all had so much fun. But back to the story: In Moroccan weddings it is tradition to bring the bride into the ceremony in a special way – by sitting on a throne! We call it the Amariya, and it looks like a big chair that is carried by four men and paraded through the whole room so that everybody can see and greet the bride. A huge gesture of respect if you ask me!

Bride sitting on her Amariya

And also, the way a mother is respected and loved by her children is something that I have rarely heard in stories about Europe. So as you see, there are not only bad stories to tell! There is also deep respect and love for women rooted in our culture. It has just gotten a bit rare and forgotten, but it is there. And I am happy that at least here in Essaouira, that love and respect can be seen again. And maybe at some point in the future, people throughout Morocco will remember it again, who knows? For now, I will try to do my part on spreading love through what I can do best: making food. 

I have to laugh and close my notebook. Time and again, I am fascinated by how people look at the world in different ways. This one, Couscous, has somehow managed to be light-hearted in these sometimes difficult circumstances, to see hope where there seems to be reason to despair. In our conversation, he has showed me that there is still room to hope for a respectful treatment of women. If not today, then tomorrow.  Encouraged by the light feeling of hope, I go downstairs to eat a plate of Couscous.

 

And this is me sitting at the dinner table along with newly acquired and old friends, wrapped in my pakistani shawl, for the culture (just jk, this was actually the first time that I was freezing in Morocco). If you can’t spot me – I am the one sitting at the table top only looking at her food (#classic). This table was one of my favourite spots in the hostel: everyone came together here, people and cultures from all-over the world. And of course, this was the place to eat couscous!

Walaa and Aiko – let’s talk about Moroccan relationships

We have reached the end of our journey in Morocco. It’s been almost six weeks since I left Germany, but it feels like I know this country much more than my short time here would let you expect. Our last stop is Essaouira, a small town at the coast of Morocco. At first I thought it would be nice to relax here for a few days, but this town has claimed my heart by storm- and I decided to spent my whole last week here. I am staying at a hostel inside the Medina (the old town), and I got to meet a lot of people from all over the world there. At night after dinner, we usually go to the rooftop and spend the evening there with music and long talks. During one of these nights, I met a young woman from Rabat; she was travelling across the country for her summer holidays. We sat together and had a very interesting talk about relationships in Morocco.

ME: Hey Walaa, thank you a lot for having a talk with me! Could you introduce yourself?

WALAA: Yes, sure! I am Walaa, 24 years old, and I just recently started to work as a French teacher for highschool children. I was born and raised in a small town close to Rabat, but I have studied and now work in Rabat. And I am happy about it. For someone with my mindset, it is much easier to live in a big city.

ME: For someone with your mindset?

WALAA: Yeah, compared to many Moroccans,  I have a very open mindset. That can be quite difficult here in Morocco. The society is very judgy, especially the old people. And in small villages it’s like, everybody knows everybody. And that makes people even more judgy about each other; they keep talking about any possible mistake you would make. And, their bad talking reflects back to your family as well. So in short, it is difficult to live an open-minded life in a small town. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to be in Rabat.

ME: Have you experienced these differences between big and small cities yourself?

WALAA: Oh yes, for sure! Just two weeks ago for example, me and some of my friends went to Agadir, a beach city in the southwest of Morocco. We didn’t have a place to stay, but there was a family in the village that was friendly enough to let us stay with them for some time. We had a really great time there; their family consisted of the mother and two adult daughters. They lived the village life; the girls were living at home, learning the household tasks, etc. I was there with my male friends, and one day we saw how a few people from the village were standing by the door and looking at my friends and at the two girls in a really judgy manner – because the girls were not supposed to be around boys if they were not married! That was one thing that really hurt me to see. And then, after we left for home again, one of my male friends told me that one of the daughters had sent him a pornographic video via their chat – I was shocked. But then I thought about it and I realized, that this is all the result of unreleased sexual tension. The girls and boys that live in villages, they at some point get in touch sexual information, but no one can ever talk about it; it’s a taboo topic. So it’s no surprise to see that if there IS an opportunity, people from villages will try to express this topic. And that is a difference to the big cities in Morocco: There, people are more and more openly expressing themselves about the topic of sex. You see a lot of people with boyfriends and girlfriends, and in general the two sexes can hang out with each other and it’s no big deal.

ME: And how does that work in an islamic country, having a relationship before marriage? There are always these stereotypes about Arab countries that these kind of things are NOT possible, so could you describe the situation a bit more for us?

WALAA: So in big cities, there is a huge influence from Europe. I feel like in Europe it is so easy to have a boyfriend or girlfriend before marriage, and a lot of other Moroccans are seeing that as well. And especially the younger generations in bigger cities are developing a new mindset: more open to western norms and values. In my personal friend circle, almost everyone has or has had a boyfriend or girlfriend. It’s relatively common I’d say. BUT, these relationships do have their own issues. You see, we are still Moroccans. Even if we try to adapt western norms, we are still Moroccans at heart. So one problem that I have experienced, is that Moroccan boyfriends are super macho. They might be open enough to have a girlfriend, but this girlfriend gets super restricted on so many things. For example, I was in a relationship with a Moroccan guy, and at first it was cool. But at some point, he started to get angry at me when I talked to other guys. This is something that happens so often in Moroccan relationships. Even people that claim to be ‘open-minded’, do have traditional values in actuality that they can’t leave behind. And these traditional values often entail that the woman – in this case the girlfriend – is treated like an opbject, like a possession of the man. I despise that idea, I don’t know why people are so stupid.

Walaa has introduced me to another woman who is staying at our hostel – Aiko from the US. She has recently had a relationship with a Moroccan man, and adds to our interview with her experience.

AIKO: My ex-boyfriend thinks he is very very open-minded. But just a few weeks into our relationship, he got super jealous when I would talk to any male person. Even if it was one of HIS friends, that HE introduced me to! He also started to tell me what to wear and what not. It was really strange for me. I’m from the US, I don’t know or like to be commanded in anything. I mean, my ex was a really really nice person, super friendly and helpful. I got to know him when I was travelling around Morocco and at some point didn’t have a place to stay. He offered me to stay with his family then. Everybody was so friendly, but I definitely saw the problems that can be present in a relationship with a Moroccan who only pretends to be ‘open-minded’.

ME TO WALAA: And what do you think is the root of this problem?

WALAA: I think it’s the fact that so many people think they HAVE to be religious here. From the older generations, and in small cities, almost everybody is supposed to be Muslim, but people don’t actually practice the Islam in the right way. That’s why I always say there are two types of people practicing the religion: there are real muslims, and there are the hypocrites. The real muslims who have actually studied the Islam, don’t believe in these stupid traditions that degrade women. But the hypocrites who just pretend to be good muslims, but actually have no idea about the Islam, they participate in these disrespectful actions. For example, there is the wide-spread thought among ‘open-minded’ guys, that a Moroccan woman can only have sex if it is with her boyfriend. But a guy, he can have as many one-night stands as he wants. Ridiculous right? It’s really sad. As far as I know, most people here are hypocrites.

There are real muslims, and there are the hypocrites. And as far as I know, most people here are hypocrites.

Something else that is very hypocritical, is how women are treated on the streets. Among all nationalities, Moroccan women experience the most sexual harrassment on the streets. This is because Moroccan men expect all Moroccan women to be ‘good muslims’, so any woman that is walking around on the streets or maybe even showing off some skin, has ‘deserved’ to be harrassed. ‘She is asking for it‘, is what many Moroccan men think.
But, not everybody is in Morocco is Muslim. Especially among the younger generation, there are many atheists as well. In my own community, my friend circle, most people are not really into religion. And that is becoming something super normal nowadays, especially if you look at the big cities in Morocco. All my friends think just like I do, and that makes life much easier.

ME: With your experiences, what would your message to fellow Moroccan girls be?

WALAA: As an open-minded Moroccan girl, go to the bigger cities. Life will be much easier for you there. And, something that I strongly believe: Every Moroccan woman can be free! You just have to express your freedom with the means you have. Be it a small cooking business next to your household tasks, or be it a teacher like me. Every woman can be free.

A beautiful message from a beautiful young woman. I thank both Walaa and Aiko for sharing their very personal stories with me, take my notebook and go to bed. Tonight I can sleep well – and feeling empowered.

Alae – trying to fight society’s fear

If I’m not travelling around Morocco on the weekends, I am mostly sitting in cafés with my two dutch friends. We are all three participating in the Nour Project: a project that is focused on bridging the gap between the Arab and the Western world. And my way of doing that is through this blog: by sharing personal stories of Moroccan people with you guys and hearing about the country directly and getting rid of possible stereotypes. (Not all of my future blogposts will be connected to the Nour Project though: this is only about my posts in Morocco).
By now, me and my friends basically know all the good cafés in our area. One day, when we were sitting in a new coffee shop, I got into a conversation with a young Moroccan man named Alae. Since I am interested in the male point of view on womenrights as well, I asked him if I could interview him about it. Yesterday I met up with him again, to get to know about his story and his experiences with gender inequality in Morocco.

ME: Hey Alae, thanks a lot for coming here again! Let’s first start with your story. What are you working as and what path brought you there?

ALAE: No problem, it is my pleasure! I am working as a marketing assistant here in Fés. A lot of different companies come to us for help in marketing; my job is then to help them sell their products.

ME: Ah, that sounds like an interesting job!

ALAE: Yes, it is indeed a very interesting job. Especially because it sometimes is closely related to psychology: the psychology of how to make people buy a certain product. Another thing that I really enjoy is my personal space to develop myself – my job gives me the space to make mistakes and learn from them. That makes things much more relaxed. But I must say, one thing that I am missing in my job is the space for creativity. Most of the time, I have to follow old logistic rules, and I wish I could have more space regarding that.

ME: So what made you choose for this profession?

ALAE: I chose it myself, kind of. After I had finished highschool, I had no clue what to do with my life. What education to get, what career to pursue, I had no idea. And here in Morocco, it is very difficult to inform yourself as a young person about the options that you have. So, I turned to my parents for help. And they suggested that I should study logistics and transportation.

ME: And why did they choose this field for you?

ALAE: This is a relatively new field in Morocco, and the job perspectives are pretty good. And it’s expanding quickly. In Tanger (a big port city in the north of Morocco), many many companies are starting to invest in this particular branch. So my parents saw this as a good opportunity for me. Actually I could have stayed working in Tanger, but because my family lives in Fés, I had to come back for them. But in Fés, there is actually not much. Not many companies, conservative mindsets, and so on. I only came back for my family.

ME: You say conservative minds. What do you mean by that?

ALAE: Well, let’s take the example of men and women. In Tanger, people (especially girls) are not limited in anything. Religion does not play an influential role on people’s behavior, girls can dress and behave like however they want, no restrictions on them.
In Fés on the other hand, girls can’t do much stuff. Most families are very conservative, as you can see in the huge amount of hijabis in the city. I have studied 3 years in Fés, and 2 years in Tanger, and I could see a huge difference in the girls. In Fés, the girls would almost never talk to guys, never go out with them, even if it’s in a big group with both girls and boys. I must say that not everybody is like that, the girls that I just described mostly come from Errachidia, a small town  close to Fés. In Fés, I feel like young people’s mindsets are slowly changing: they see the trends in Europe and want to imitate them. For example, I know some people that have a boyfriend or girlfriend here; that is something that was not here before. But now, you see more and more unmarried people in relationships. Although, most parents don’t approve of this. You see, there is a big clash of mindsets happening: the youth looks to Europe and wants to imitate the western norms, but the parents stay in their more conservative mindsets and oppose this movement. 

Errachidia – a small town close to Fés

ALAE: So, to give a concrete example of the clash of mentalities: During my studies, me and my friends went for parties sometimes, or came home with a girl by our side, our parents didn’t like to see that – and insisted that I either stay outside or leave the girl outside. The same stories can be heard by many students that have differing mindsets from their parents; there is this intense struggle.

ME: And what do you think is the source of this difference?

ALAE: First of all, in Morocco, being different is not tolerated. If you show thoughts and behavior that are different from the rest of the society, poople will not look at you in a favourable way. No, people will start to accuse you, even without any facts! They will just say anything against you, because Moroccan society is scared. They are scared of new things, and scared to lose their old traditions. Of course they have a point, but in my opinion, change is very important. If everybody would be the same, then why are we in this world? We should accept different types of people, and embrace their differences in a warm way. But sadly, I see a lot of Moroccans that are too scared of new things and just stop thinking in their fear. They rather push away anything different without asking themselves: ‘Why actually?’. Yeah, people often don’t really question their actions, don’t think about it. I am very different in that sense.

‘If everybody would be the same, then why are we in this world?’

ME: Do you know many people that share your viewpoint on this topic?

ALAE: Well, most of my friends are more open-minded. In general, among students your can find more openness than among the older generation. But really my mindset, I don’t know a lot of people that share that. That can be difficult and lonely at times. But I am fine with that; I am certain about some things that I find important, and being open and accepting to new things is one of them. Another thing that I find important is the freedom of both genders. I see a lot of women in Morocco still stuggling. Especially in small cities, like Errachidia, the city we were talking about before, women have so much to do. Their husbands give them tasks, their children, and the household. And some of them even combine their housework with work outside. It is a bit better in big cities though; in Fés for example, women have more freedom, they can take the big decisions in their life themselves, like choosing their studies or the person they want to marry. But one thing that does limit women, independent of living in a big or small city, is the family’s financial situation: If a woman comes from a poor family, then she cannot really choose her husband herself, but she has to keep her familly in mind. Her future husband has to be rich in order to sustain her, so that limits the options of course. But as a rich or upper-class girl in a big city, you are basically free to do anything.
But, only BASICALLY. In reality, the society and their judging eyes is in the way quite often. There is this inofficial rule in Morocco, that a husband always have to be in a higher position than his wife. So this means, a woman that has a better job than a man, cannot marry him! So you see, that people often find money and social status more important than love. And IF a couple still gets married and the woman is in a better position than her husband, then this couple will be criticized their entire life. For me, mutual understanding is most important in a relationship – if I would meet a woman that would have a higher or better job than me, that would be completely fine for me. I’m not scared of what society thinks about me. Of course I would talk to my parents about that future relationship, but otherwise I would take the decision and not the society around me. And in my opinion, that is how it should be like.

ME: That is such a nice way to see things. This way of fearless thinking can be an example to others! Thank you so much Alae, for sharing your point of view with us. I wish you lots of success with your career!

 

Fatima Moradi – working out modern mindsets

This interview is a bit different than other ones. This time, we will shed light on the topic of gender inequality in Morocco in a different way – from the perspective of sports. Meet Miss Fatima Moradi and her husband: a Moroccan couple that has recently opened up their own gym. I meet them in the entrance hall of their gym – a modern and comfortable room in a relatively new area of Fés. Today, a monday, is their free day; still the Moradis have taken their day-off to answer some questions.

ME: Hello Miss Moradi! Thank you so much for having me today, even though it’s your day-off! Can you tell me something about how this place here came to existence?

FATIMA: Yes sure dear! Well, it all started with my and my husband’s interest in sporting. We first pursued an education in this field in Morocco, but then realized that somehow, what we were learning here in the country, was not enough. So to enlarge our knowledge, we two went to France and Spain and gained a lot of new valuable information there.

ME: Oh, that’s a lot of dedication! What new things could you learn abroad that were not possible in Morocco?

FATIMA: Well, we learned a lot about the anatomy of the human body there, and about how to cope with someone who has a health problem and wants to exercise. In my opinion, this is very important information, especially for Morocco: in general, people follow a rather unhealthy lifestyle and eating behavior here, which can easily lead to health problems. That is why a lot of people that come to our gym come on doctor’s orders. And then it is very important to know how to treat sick people, and on what workout routine to advise them on.

ME: And do you also see a lot of women coming to your gym?

FATIMA: Yes, a lot! Women of all ages and life stages come to us. Older women, housewives with children, and young girls. I would say that more women make up our clientele than men!

ME: I have heard (and observed) that Fés is a rather traditional city. To me, working out seems like something less traditional then, especially for women. Do you think that because of this, going to the gym in Morocco is different from the Western world?

FATIMA: Yes, the traditonal and cultural norms do influence Moroccan gyms. Something that is different from Europe, is the strict seperation of men and women. In almost no Moroccan gym that I know of, men and women train in the same rooms. And why is that? Because neither men or women would like it. But both for different reasons then. Men very often have the mindset that a woman should not do things like working out around a man. And this thought comes both from the husbands of the women working out and from random men just working out at the gym; almost every man shares this mindset.

Fatima and her husband: always in high spirits

ME: And what do women think about this seperation?

FATIMA: They are happy with it! Most women that come to me, would be very uncomfortable exercising around men. First of all, because of the mindset of their husbands, but also because men would most probably stare them down in the gym room – that’s not comfortable at all of course.

ME: Yes, then it is very understandable that both genders are in favor of seperate gym rooms. But are the rooms for men and women having the same equipment? Like, do men and women here work out in the same ways?

FATIMA: Hmm, not completely the same. We have one floor for men, and two floors for women. The men’s area mostly has stuff to train your muscles of course, since that is what men come for to the gym in the first place. And the women’s area has one room with similar equipment like for the men, but not as heavy. And the other floor that is designed for women, that consists of rooms for group lessons; dancing, yoga, and spinning are one of the things that our clients can do there.

ME: So if the second floor is for women as well, does that means that only women participate in these group lessons? And second question, what exactly do you mean by women’s equipment is ‘not as heavy’?

FATIMA: No, strictly speaking the floor for group lessons is not only for women. Men also like to go to spinning classes for example. But we have to be careful with the seperation of men and women then – first of all, we let men and women enter the group area only on different days; some days of the week for men, and some for women. And secondly, we have two seperate entrances/exits of the building, so that men and women never have to cross each other’s ways. 

Wow. So many preparations just so that men and women would not see each other! Unimagineable in the gyms that I know. But, very understandable in this context.

FATIMA: And to come back to your second question, what I mean by the women’s equipment is ‘not as heavy’, is that women here in Morocco generally don’t exercise their muscles a lot. Here, the ideal or trend is not to be strong, but just to look fit and keep their figure. So for that reason, we don’t have all the same heavy equipment in the woman’s room. Because there is not really the demand. But, I’m also observing a slow change: it seems like slowly, more and more women do want to get stronger. But that is not the majority in Morocco yet. 

ME: Oh, that’s interesting! Such a difference to Europe as well. I only know gyms for both men and women mixed, and there are many many women that use all the same equipment as men. And as a final question to you: Is there something about the sporting behavior in Morocco that you would change if you could?

FATIMA: One thing that I don’t like and wish I could change, is some people’s attitude towards sporting here in Morocco. There is a considerable amount of women that only exercises to please their husbands. What I mean by that, is that their husbands encourage them to go and workout in order to look physically good for the husband. And in my opinion, that is absolutely not what exercising is about. I would wish that everybody, men or woman, married or unmarried, would only workout for themselves and no one else. I don’t really like the old mindset. That is also what our gym’s slogan is about: ‘Choose to be different’ – in other words, work out because you want to, not because you have to! But at least, more and more people in Morocco are turning towars sporting – that’s always a good, healthy thing, be it because of doctor’s orders or because working out is the latest trend. 

ME: Miss Moradi, it was a pleasure to get this very different, and very interesting view on Moroccan women from you. Thank you so much!

I leave the gym with a good feeling in my stomach. This is a different way of empowering women: By encouraging them to do something solely for themselves. Exercising may seem like a rather normal thing to us in the Western world, but for a woman here, to workout only for herself and because she wants it –  that is a step towards more freedom and equality.

 

Mehdi – medical student with an open mind

Today I met up with an interesting young man – Mehdi, a medical student at the University of Fés. He is currently in his 6th year, as he tells me, at the end of his studies. I first met Mehdi in a café that I go to very often: Café La Terrasse, my and my friends’ go-to place (it has airco, WiFi and coffee – what more could you ask for?). I am at this café almost everyday, and last weekend, after coming back from a trip to Rabat, me and my friends stopped at the café for some coffee. We have become friends with the waiter there, Youssef, although he doesn’t speak English. So, like many other times, Youssef asked one of his other customers to help him in translating to us. This someone turned out to be Mehdi – after he had helped us in translating, I got into a conversation with him. He was friendly enough to talk with me about men and women in Morocco.

ME: Hello Mehdi, thank you so much for your time! Can we first start with introducing yourself?

MEHDI: Yes sure! I am a medical student at the public University of Fés. Right now I’m in my sixth year, which means that I’m in my internship year. After this, I will take my final test in november of this year, and hopefully after that I will be able to start with a job.

ME: So you’re almost at the end of your studies! How did you experience your studies and your co-students?

MEHDI: Well, there was definitely a difference to my studies during highschool. I went to a private highschool in Fés, and all the people that were around me shared the same or a similar mindset. I grew up with those people. And things were loose. I was hanging around with boys and girls, and no matter what gender you were, we all greeted each other in the same way: with three kisses on the cheeks.

ME: So did the situation change when you started to study at your university?

MEHDI: Yes, things changed a lot. First of all, I went to a private highschool, but my University is a public one. In Fés, there is a shortage of private medschools, so I chose to go to the public University of Fés. A public university means that all kinds of different people come together. In my highschool, there were not many girls wearing a hijab (= islamic headscarf), but in my faculty there are a lot, I would say around 40%. I always think that girls wearing a hijab are more conservatively thinking, so I don’t really approach them from my own initiative. And even girls that used to go to highschool with me, are different now. They have changed the way they behave, they have changed the way they greet me: we shake hands now. Even though we used to kiss each other’s cheeks before!

ME: Oh wow, that really is a remarkable change! Why do you think this change happens even in girls that used to be different before?

MEHDI: It is because of the dominant opinion among students. That a girl should be a certain way: Not talk or hang out with boys, don’t smoke or drink alcohol. Although smoking is completely fine and tolerated for men.

ME: Okay, so it seems like men are granted much more freedoms than women. Is that also the case regarding work opportunities? I mean, is it as easy for a woman to get a job in the medical field as it is for men?

MEHDI: No, there are differences regarding the job opportunities for men and women. There are certain fields in medicine that you could say are ‘typical men jobs’: all the surgical specialties for example are mostly done by men. Why is that, I ask him. It is because in these jobs, doctors often have to work in the middle of the night, and that is not something women want to do. Working during the night – that is something for men. And, surgical jobs require more strength, again something that is more suitable for men.

ME: Interesting! And what is the popular opinion about women and work, marriage and family life?

MEHDI: Of course almost every girl dreams about having children at some point. 

ME: But what about their careers then? Would they stop working or studying after givng birth? Or balance family and work life?

MEHDI: Well, it depends on the girl and her specific situation. Some of them get married during studies, and in that case it can happen that they stop with their studies because their husband says so. Others just keep studying or working after marriage, but it all depends on the mentality of the girl and her husband.

ME: And how does a couple find and get to know each other here? Is the idea of having a boyfriend existent here in Fés and in general Morocco?

MEHDI: Here in Fés, there are some families that allow their children to have a partner before marriage. But it is not the norm. Still, the girls want to choose their parner themselves more and more. This happens especially here in Fés, and not so much on the countryside. There, in the rural areas, people’s mindsets are still very conservative: everybody sees the woman as made for being a housewife, studies and work are not even up for question. And, the women themseleves participate in this way of thinking as well! Also, in those areas the families mostly arrange the marriages. But to come back to Fés, here you can see more and more young people walking around with their boyfriend/girlfriend. 

ME: If I may ask you, what does your family think about this topic?

MEHDI: My family has always been very open-minded and loose regarding this topic, and I am very grateful for that. My parents have both studied in France, so they adapted the European mindset, and now they don’t like to interfer in their children’s lives. My two sisters are currently studying abroad, one in France and one in Canada, and they are not married yet. But unlike many other parents, my parents are not putting the idea and pressure of marriage into their minds. I personally am not a big fan of the general Moroccan mentality: to interfer into your children’s lives and to treat the woman as inferior.

ME: That is so nice to hear! But if you don’t like this mentality and it seems to be an option for your family to study abroad, why did you stay in Morocco?

MEHDI: Because of my parents. Now that my sisters are gone, I am the only left they have. So I can’t just go and leave them. Although I do really like the European way of thinking.

ME: And what do you think is the source for the problem in Morocco? Why is there this mentality to treat men and women that differently? it sometimes not allowed that the children can choose themselves who to marry?

MEHDI: I think, that the main poblem is the fact that the Islam is mixed together with our constitution. In my opinion, the religion has nothing to do in there. It can be practiced by everyone that wants to, but should not be mixed with a country’s laws. But, it’s not really allowed to talk about this: A law in the constitution itself forbids to raise the voice against the king, and any uprising against him is punished by 20 years in prison(?). So, this issue cannot even be tackled.
Another big problem here in Fés is that a lot of families that are Faissi (coming from Fés) want their children to marry another Faissi person. And often, they don’t accept anyone else, you have to be born and raised in Fés in order to marry a Faissi person. This very conservative rule stems from the past: Fés used to be the first capital of Morocco, and thus the first city in which the king resided. Since then, a lot of Faissi people feel like they are more worth and more noble than people coming from other Moroccan cities. This can be a very difficult situation for young boys and girls that don’t share this old mindset and want to marry someone outside of Fés. 

ME: Yes, I can absolutely imagine.

I really can imagine how these young Moroccan people must feel like. Many Pakistani families have similar thoughts – and want their children to only marry someone who is Pakistani as well. This puts a lot of young Pakistanis with other values into a difficult situation. The struggle is real.

ME: Considering that your family does not set you such boundaries – may I ask you what you are looking for in a future partner?

MEHDI: For me it’s very important that my future partner feels like she is equal to me. I don’t like this different women-treatment at all. And, I would like for her to work as well – we can both share our household together. I would like to cook for my wife!

ME: Very well! Thank you so much for your time Mehdi, it was really nice talking to you!

It was really nice, indeed. To hear someone talk who is on the side of women.

Assia Chergui – and her fight for the vulnerable ones

Today marked the day of meeting a very inspirational and strong woman with a passion that touched my heart. Meet Assia, president of three self-made NGOs, fighter for the rights of the vulnerable in Morocco.

ME: Hello Assia, it’s a pleasure to meet you! Can you tell me something about yourself and your work?

ASSIA: Yes of course! I work as the president of three NGOs which I have set up myself – one advocates for the rights of disabled people here in Morocco – that was the first one that I started back in 1991. I am disabled myself, I suffer from a walking disability, so I experienced firsthandedly how difficult it can be as a disabled person in Morocco. The roads for example are not made for us: You don’t find wheelchair friendly places you can go to, so it can be quite difficult. Also the work opportunities are quite scarce, the education system for handicapped people is not very far developed and the same goes for jobs. 

ME: It is very impressive that you started this on your own! Was your disability not an obstacle in doing so?

ASSIA: No, my disability has been with me since I was a baby, so I learned how to cope with it from a very young age. Today, I don’t feel like it is holding me back in life – I even am a champion in swimming! Sports is very important, also for handicapped people, and my organisation encourages disabled people to participate in sports. 

ME: And can you tell me something about the two other NGOs that you have set up?

ASSIA: My other two organisations I set up in 1995. One of them is concerned with the protection of both men and women from domestic violence, and the other one seeks to protect divorced or widowed women in Morocco.

ME: And how does that work? How can you help the people coming to you and with what kinds of problems do they come?

ASSIA: Well, most people that come to me are women who are facing some kind of problem with a male person. I get to hear stories of divorced women who after their divorce STILL have to fear abuse by their ex-husbands, because some men still see their ex-wives as some kind of possession that they have a right over. 

I hear stories about housemaids that have to endure harrassment by the man of the house they are working at. These women are so dependent on their job in order to support their family, that they can’t even speak up about the horrible things that they have to suffer. Quite often, the man of the house forces them to sex in exchange for their job. And even if the maid would go public and tell others about what is happening to her, she is likely to not get any help – but rather victim-blaming. Still, I try to encourage them to go public, because abuse of this kind does get punished by law. But the women argue, that even if the rapist gets sentenced, they themselves get punished as well: The society and even their own husbands very often think it’s at least partly the woman’s fault. 

And I hear stories of women whose husbands deny any responsibility for them. Especially on the countryside, this happens to women: quite often, they get married without any legal papers, but only through islamic marriage. They are considered as a married woman then, but if the husband wants to deny the fatherhood for his children or if he doesn’t want to pay for financial matters regarding his wife, the woman can’t do anything against him because she cannot legally prove her marriage. This makes her very vulnerable. Though, there is some movement happening in this area. There used to be the law 4110, a law that is supposed to protect women’s rights, but it was never really implemented into practice. Since 2016, this has changed, and the law is actually being practiced now. Also, a law was introduced that now allows the children of a woman to testify their parent’s wedding. A proof for the wedding is especially important in the case the husband of the woman dies – it can happen that the woman’s in-laws want to get rid of her and don’t let her be part of her husband’s last will and properties. So a wedding-proof can act as a life savior for some women. And as you can see, slowly but surely, little steps are being taken.

ME: And how exactly can you help such cases of women?

ASSIA: Usually, when I work on a case, one social worker, one psychologist and two volunteers of my organisation are present. So we basically offer legal and psychological help to the people coming to us.

ME: So as you mentioned, for women that work as housemaids it can be very difficult to seek for justice if something happens to them. But other clients, do they take a step against their abuser often?

ASSIA: No. Also women that seek justice against an abusive husband don’t just go to court. If they would do so, they would have to fear even more abuse after their husband returns. And in the case that a woman does go to court, she most of the time does not want her husband to go to jail: She rather wants him to get publicly humiliated. And that is enough. If her husband would get sentenced to jail time, she runs the risk of serious abuse afterwards. So public humiliation is the worst punishment a husband gets here.

ME: And what do you think is the source of these problems that women are facing here in Morocco?

ASSIA: In my opinion, the main problem is a misinterpretation of the Qur’an. Most of the people interpreting the holy book have been male, and women’s rights often are forgotten then. Since some time, there has been some effort going on to change this situation – women are now also allowed to be adouls. (Check out my blogpost about islamic feminism to know more about adouls)

ME: Do you consider this a big step towards the right direction in gender equality?

ASSIA: Actually, to be honest, I don’t really like this change. Women always think with their heart, they can’t take rational decisions. So enabling them to take decisions regarding religious matters, is not a smart idea in my opinion. I’m not saying that the men do it any better, no – they mostly think about themselves while taking a decision.

ME: But if you don’t really like either men or women deciding – what do you then consider the solution to the problem?

ASSIA: I think the best way to solve the problem, is first of all changes in the educaional system: students should receive sex education at the right time, when they are old enough, so I would say at the age of 18. And, very important: To put all the important events like weddings and divorce on proper legal papers. That will put women in a much better position. 

What an inspiring woman. To set up an organisation for women or disabled people in Western countries is something completely different than to do it here. Here, you stand much more alone in your fight. Assia tells me about one of the struggles she had to face in the beginning.

ASSIA: When I first started my NGO against domestic violence, I did that with the thought in the back of my mind, that men can just as well be a victim of domestic violence as women. So, my NGO was dedicated to protecting both genders. But apparently, some men here in Fez found that thought outrageous. Some time after I opened up my NGO, a group of men started a protest in front of my door. They were compaining about how did I dare to say ‘A man can be a victim, too‘? They were saying, ‘We are the abusers, not the abused ones’. It is really really sad that men here have that kind of mindset. They are even openly saying that they are abusers, as if it was a good thing! People here were just not open to a different kind of mindset. Later however, it turned out that men from exactly that protest group, came to my organisation for help against domestic violence. So it does happen to them as well. Therefore in the end, I am happy that I have set up my NGOs, as they are very much needed. 

To know more about Miss Assia Chergui, check out her facebook page!

Pictures by Marlieke van den Tillaar.