Untold stories: Moroccan women's participation in the nationalist and armed resistance movements
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|Tuesday, 02 August 2011 05:19|
Review of: Alison Baker, Voices of Resistance, State University of New York Press,1998.
Alison Baker's, Voices of Resistance, is a collection of previously untold stories. For anyone familiar with Morocco's nationalist and armed resistance movements, the names Abdellah Senhaji and Allah El-Fassi, as well as the dates, 1953-56, carry resonance. But who has heard of Malika El-Fassi or Saadia Bouhaddou? And what do we know about women's participation in these historical events?
The vast majority of publications on the Moroccan nationalist and resistance movements only pay lip service to the role of women. The process of historical construction raises fundamental questions as to how information is accessed and controlled, whose experiences are considered legitimate and consequently retained, and how history serves to create and maintain particular versions of past and present realities. Voices of Resistance seeks to address these historical gaps. It is a thoughtful, welldocumented, and much-needed source of information on women's diverse roles as "agents and interpreters of history," as well as on the often tense and contradictory links between feminist and nationalist movements. Through in-depth interviews, Voices of Resistance is a vivid source of documentation and analysis of the multiple ways in which women contributed to the independence movement, as well as the latter’s impact on their roles as wives and mothers in post-independence Morocco.
The past and present experiences of women in both the nationalist and the resistance branches of the independence movement in Morocco underscore the gendered nature of colonial, nationalist and state discourses and policies, and how these in turn relate to women's experiences and construction of their identities. The diversity of women included in Baker’s book cuts across class, generation and regional divides, thus adding to our understanding of the spectrum of women's activities. While nationalist movements tend to stress their inheritently unifying character --and several of the oral narratives speak of the importance of solidarity among women of various classes and between men and women-- power dynamics in the post-independence context took on new forms. Oral history techniques enable the various experiences to unfold throughout the women's narratives and provide insights into the role of myth and story in the construction and interpretation of women's realities.
Baker's fieldwork was carried out over a period of six years. Oral interviews were conducted in both private and public settings; they were primarily non-directive and interviewees were privy to make modifications to their narratives. The author interviewed most of the (approximately) twenty-five women nationalists who are still living and sixty women from the armed resistance. Included in the book are fourteen narratives, seven women from each of the two groups.
The nationalist women were pioneers. They were among the first women to be educated at home, to attend school, to graduate from the Qaraouine, to publish in the Arabiclanguage press. One of them, Malika El-Fassi, a nationalist, assisted in the drafting and signing of the Independence Manifesto in 1944.
The experience of the nationalist struggle was the first time that these women organized collectively. They joined the nationalist movement through their families who were actively involved. Beginning in the 1940s, women sections of political parties were formed. Among the first of these were the Akhwat Assafta (Sisters in Purity), the Union des femmes du Maroc (the Moroccan Women's Union) and the Women's Association of the Istiqlal Party. While the initial focus of these women's groups was on the education of girls and the provision of various social services, they also played a critical role in galvanizing support for the political platform of the Istiqlal Party, the leading movement for independence.
The nationalist women interviewed: Zhor Lazreq, Rqia Lamrania, Fatima Benslimane
Hassar, Oum Keltoun El Khatib, Amina Leuh and Khadija Bennouna, also assumed many different roles and functions. They collected funds to support the nationalist movement, assisted imprisoned militants, took care of the wives of resistance fighters, taught literacy courses, encouraged girls’ education, and raised the political awareness of women. When most of the leaders of the independence movement were either exiled or imprisoned in the early 1950s, those women provided the leadership for the movement The options for mobilization available to the women members of the resistance movement: Fatna Mansar, Saadia Bouhaddou, Ghalia Moujahide, Aicha and Mina Senhaji, Zohra Torrichi and Rabiaa Taibi, differed from those of their nationalist sisters. Most came from proletarian families and many participated actively in the armed resistance from 1953-56. Some began as early as the late forties in the first resistance cells. They were brought into the resistance either by becoming involved through their husbands or by joining independently. Some were able to operate publicly, carrying weapons, delivering messages, visiting prisons, etc. Others, confined to their homes, participated from within those boundaries. They hid weapons, nursed wounded fighters, cooked their meals, and performed needed domestic tasks for them.
What strikes the reader, especially as regards the stories of the resistance fighters, is the complexity, vividness and richness of the oral narratives. These women are story tellers who have mastered the art of weaving together references to the past and the present in the creation of what Baker refers to as "the myth-biography of a female hero of resistance." The oral narratives are about women constructing their lives and hence giving structure and meaning to their existence, and to their role as subjects during the historical events they relate. The oral narratives speak of the courage of women and their resourcefulness, the strategies they developed as mothers, wives and fighters, and their keen sense of having contributed in a fundamental way to Morocco's independence. While women's roles after Morocco's independence did not evolve as rapidly as many women had anticipated, the long-term impact on their consciousness, their approach to women's role in society, their progressive inner transformation, surfaces throughout the narratives. Their desire to share their experiences with others, and hence have them presumably legitimized, is an integral part of the narratives.
The role of gender as a "fundamental social organizing principle affecting all approaches to life," and the gendered nature of women's contributions, is deeply embedded in the narratives. Gender roles and expectations simultaneously circumscribed women's activities while providing them with unique possibilities unavailable to men. While most women were not in positions of leadership, they were indispensable for certain tasks as wearing the veil allowed them greater mobility in the public space. The fluidity of gender relationships during this discrete period is highlighted as women worked for the first time with men who were not their direct relatives. The oral narratives do not discuss women's involvement for any personal reasons, but instead their accounts are grounded in nationalist discourse; their battles were fought "for their King, their country, and for God."
The gendered policies of the post-independence Moroccan State are captured in how women were able or not to benefit from the status of veterans. Currently only three hundred women as compared to thirty thousand men are considered veterans of the Moroccan armed resistance. Various factors contribute to the lack of recognition of women’s contributions. At the outset, in order to be considered for veteran status, it is necessary to compile a dossier with personal and witnesses’ testimony in writing, a daunting procedure for some. Furthermore, women's roles in general are often deemed insignificant, or, at best, only secondary to those of men. Finally, women's involvement and motivations, especially the ones who participated in the armed resistance movement, were considered suspect by some. Questions regarding the reputation of women who moved about in the armed resistance unconstrained, and interacted freely with other men, were raised by men and women in general, and by women nationalists in particular. In addition, questions on the forms distributed by the Commission on Veterans of the Resistance raised doubt as to the "moral character" of some of the women petitioning for veteran status. The frustration some women experienced due to the lack of progressive change in their gender roles subsequent to the Moroccan independence is highlighted in some of the narratives.
An appropriate question, then, is "what was the impact of women's participation in both the nationalist and armed resistance movements on gender roles, and on women and society in general?" Women nationalists and those active in the armed resistance learned indispensable organizational and leadership skills and developed new perspectives on gender relations that impacted the way in which they raised and educated their sons and daughters. Baker argues in her conclusion that the activism of these women developed into a new consciousness that helped lay a foundation for the next generation of women activists. Yet today, women's issues in general and their demands for equal rights in particular, are not considered a priority by most of the political groups, and are even considered divisive by some. A basic contradiction remains: nationalist movements and political parties have greatly benefited from women's participation, yet that substantial contribution has not lead to any changes in their positions on gender roles.
Baker's book is an important contribution to our understanding of the complexity of colonial and nationalist activities and experiences, and the links between Moroccan feminism and nationalism. Through the use of oral narratives, the author provides unique and rich insights into the lives of the interviewees, the subtle and overt transitions in their lives, and their link to social change in Morocco. In addition, this work should be situated in the larger context of emerging research across the Middle East and North African region interested in re-examining what we know about our past, why we know it, and the gendered nature of that knowledge.
* Independent researcher.Source: http://www.wmf.org.eg
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