Saturday, October 25, 2008

Moroccan Masculinity in Crisis

Alma and Manal are not the only unmarried women in Morocco. Apparently, the issue of “l-‘ounousa” is a major social problem. The causes behind it, however, seem to have less to do with women than they do with men.

A major issue, as Ilyas explained in class on thursday, is that marriage has become a lot less desirable for men since the major overhaul of the Family Code (Moudawana) in 2004. Men are threatened by the fact that women now have (almost) equal rights in marriage; unlike their fathers before them, married men now no longer enjoy the privilege of being head of the household, sole decision maker, and lord over a woman who is expected never to say no.

Another issue is that of unemployment (“l-bitalia,” or “l-shoumaj”). Both men and women’s unemployment is problematic (and not just in view of marriage, of course), but again, it is a problem for men more so than it is for women. When men don’t work, they simply cannot marry – because they cannot afford it. This is changing, however, especially in light of l-ounousa. In the past, a man had to be able to offer his prospective bride an income and a house. In return, he pretty much had the guarantee that if he was able to provide these two things, there was a very slim chance the girl was able to turn him down. But with so many women unmarried beyond the respectable marriable age, and thus quite desperate for a man, these requirements have become much less stringent.

When a woman doesn’t work, on the other hand, she is not desirable for marriage. As Ilyas explained, life in Morocco is expensive; especially if you want a good and comfortable life for you and your kids that builds in some promise for the future. In order to afford such a life, a man looks for a woman with her own income to supplement his – to enable them to pay for better schools and better housing, and thereby a better future.

Yet there is a paradox here. Because a woman with money is also threatening to a man’s masculinity. But hold on to that thought – I’ll get back to it in a minute.

Because first I need to mention another factor underlying l-‘ounousa: competition. In part because of the reasons above, there are simply not enough men interested in marriage for all women looking for a husband. It is especially difficult for a woman like Alma, who does not work – she cannot offer a man the supplementary income needed to increase his standard of living. But another factor adding to the dearth of interested men is the dream of a better life in Europe. For the same reason that men look for a woman with income, they look for women who do not actually live in Morocco. Online at the Cybers, they get in touch with women from Europe or from the United States, in the hope of establishing some kind of connection with them. Marriage to one of these women would provide not supplementary cash but papers, and the option of emigration.* Women are beginning to use this strategy as well, but it has long been difficult for them. The issue barring women from marrying foreigners is that there is a very strict rule about religion and children. Fathers dictate religion; this means that a man can marry a non-Muslim woman without consequences for the children, but a Muslim woman cannot in the same way marry a non-Muslim man; her children might very well grow up without Islam. As far as I understood this prohibition was never actually codified by law, but social convention was strong enough to make it virtually impossible. Only now is this beginning to change. Not because religion has become less important – but because the dream of a better life has surpassed it in primacy. **

What all these issues boil down to, ultimately, is the issue of masculinity and the apparent threats to it posed by the institution of marriage. Ilyas confirmed that masculinity is a huge issue in Morocco. Being a ‘man’ means being independent, having honor, and exercising power. It is exemplified by wealth and dominance. This is the reason why women with money are threatening to men; it confers a kind of independence that should belong to the male alone.*** Women’s emancipation in general is clearly a threat. It is difficult for men to live up to the ideal to begin with: between patriarchy and economic underdevelopment it is difficult for men to attain true independence. Now, however, they must compete for status not only with other men, but with women as well. But as I mentioned, there is a paradox here – because as much as a woman with money (or papers) can be threatening to a man’s dominance, it is also his ticket to advancement on the social ladder, which in turn would help him in attaining the ideal of masculinity.

And that is, I think, what the issue with marriage is ultimately about. I think that in some ways, the institution of marriage as it now stands in Morocco constricts men within certain contradictions and paradoxes that can be very dangerous to this already fragile sense of manliness. Marriage requires means, and is in that sense a confirmation of masculinity. But it is also itself a means (through a woman with cash or papers) to attain that ideal – and in that sense may also be a confirmation that masculinity has not quite yet been attained. Marriage confirms male-ness but at the same time underscores one’s imperfect manliness.

And of course marriage creates a small microcosm in which masculinity and feminism compete for legitimacy. Traditionally marriage bestowed supreme power onto the husband, but the family code reform has turned this monarchical system into a democracy in which both parties have equal say. The husband is no longer given his small dominion – in which he was lord, even if he wasn’t able to exercise power in the public sphere – and now has to compete for power even within the house.

It must be exhausting to be a man in this society. And what is there to do about this? Is this an issue that society will simply take a few generations to adjust to? Does the ideal of masculinity just lag a few decades behind the pace of socio-economic reform? Or does this problem run deeper, and therefore need a more hands-on solution?


* As happens everywhere with cases like this, many men abuse the rights of residence conferred by marriage, and lure women into matrimony under false pretenses of true love. Ilyas and I discussed cases in which, once the papers have been secured, the men divorce, return to Morocco, and marry the first girl they find.
** In 2006, apparently 7000 Moroccan women married men from Europe and the United States. This does not include those women who married Moroccans who reside there.
*** This is why it is completely unacceptable, when taking a woman out, to let her pay for herself or, god forbid, for both of you.

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