Saturday, May 16, 2009

Siham and the Fata Morgana of Europe

Siham is a young woman in her early twenties who lives in a Southeastern Moroccan city. She is the only daughter in a warm and friendly family that consists of her two parents and four brothers – some younger, some older. Siham is beautiful and kind; the first thing you will notice about her is her wide smile and luminous eyes. She is open and inviting, and her laughter and genuine interest in others are incredibly endearing.

In the few hours that I spent with her, I came to know Siham as a girl full of ambition. She talked of pursuing degrees and diploma’s, and of a brilliant career in business. Siham wants a future of freedom, opportunity, wealth, and love. But she has decided that the only means to such a future is migration to Europe – and she has decided that the only means to realize this plan is marriage to a European man.

She has undertaken action to pursue this goal: she is active in online chatting networks and makes clear in her profiles that she is looking for a husband. She seems to have success: she has gotten engaged to a resident of a Northwestern European country whom she has met online, has brought him to Morocco for an engagement ceremony, has studied the language spoken in this part of the world, and has applied for a visa in his country of residence. It seems, however, that he is not a strong enough candidate to figure as guarantor for another person’s residence permit,* and so the possibility of obtaining a visa through him seems to have become somewhat uncertain. She is thus continuing her online search, and is now engaged in conversations with other men who woo her with expressions of devotion, love, and promises – which she reciprocates.

I do not think Siham is an opportunist, and I do not think she should be condemned as an immoral and heartless individual. Siham is simply doing her best to secure a future for herself in the only way she thinks is possible. The real issue at hand – the real question – is why a girl like this sees no other way than this risky endeavor to secure a future for herself. How is it that she believes her prospects in Morocco to be so slim, or dim, that she is willing to literally put her life in the hands of men she hardly knows (because we all know how easy it is to be creative in your online self-presentation, and how dangerous it therefore can be to trust what you are told by people you meet in the virtual world. Her fiancé, for that matter, does not seem to have the best record of trustworthiness and respect for women) – to stake her future on a promise (on an image), the reliability of which she will not be able to verify until it is too late?

I think there are two issues behind this question. First of all, there is Siham’s unrealistic image of Europe. In this dream she has, Europe is a kind of promised land where everything she considers herself deprived of in Morocco is taken for granted as a regular part of daily life. Siham expects absolute freedom and opportunity. She realizes that the road to obtaining a visa is rife with obstacles, but once that hurdle has been crossed she pictures an open road and open arms ahead of her. From where did this dream emerge? I know that European Moroccans who return home for the summer with their cars and material goods often paint a somewhat one-sided picture of their new lives in the North. But aren’t there just as many stories about their hardships to match those images – stories about discrimination, poverty, and limits to freedom? And so I wonder – what are Siham’s sources? On what basis has she constructed her image of Europe? What has she read, and to whom has she talked? Her image is that of a dream-world. It is an ideal, a utopia – and it is bound to set her up for disappointment. She is staking her life not only on what is really no more than the idealized image of a man, but also on the idealized image of a place. It is such a gamble to choose these images over reality and to turn one’s back on the possibilities that the here and now may still hold – a gamble in which the stakes are too high, I think, to take the risk.

That brings me to the second issue: the perceived lack of opportunities in Morocco. I know that there are girls in this country who truly have very few options. There is great poverty in many parts of Morocco, and it is often women who bear the brunt of it. It can be difficult for men to build up a self-sustaining life, and even more so for women. So many people – and again, women more than men – have no voice in Morocco. They are politically disenfranchised, never heard and are powerless to change their circumstances. Marriage certainly still is the primary acceptable way for a girl to increase her social standing and ensure a better future for herself (though certain groups are pushing for this to change) – and yes, given the conditions in many dimensions of Moroccan society (see this, for instance) it seems more advantageous to marry a European than a Moroccan.

But for how many girls is it truly the case that there is no possibility for a good future in Morocco? Or better said, for how many girls is a future in Morocco so dim that it is worth staking their lives on no more than a tenuous promise for something better in Europe? And more concretely, is this truly the case for Siham? She comes from a middle class family that seems to be wanting in nothing. Her father has a stable job, and so does her older brother. Their house is of a good size, and the food on the table was rich and elaborate. Yes, as the only daughter it fell to her to set and clear the table at which we ate, but this is clearly a warm and good-natured family that loves its daughter and wants nothing but the best for her. She is surrounded by other individuals who seem successful: she talks frequently (and wistfully) of friends who have left her behind, who have moved to the coast to pursue a higher education in the big cities. Why did she not go with them to do the same? Why is it that she sees no opportunities for a future in Morocco? How is it that she sees only limits to her dreams, chains to keep her down on earth?

Perhaps she is stuck in a vicious cycle. Perhaps an initial set-back in her ambitions turned her gaze toward a future elsewhere, which in turn encouraged her to turn her back on any possibilities for enrichment in Morocco. With her lack of investment in the here and now, perhaps these possibilities come to seem ever dimmer and slimmer, fading into the background until they are no more than a mirage, even less tangible than that dream in which she invests so much of her energy. Perhaps this is how her dream comes to seem more real than her reality.

There is so much I want to say to Siham and so much I want to ask about her life, but I do not know what words to use. I felt uncomfortable as she spoke to me about all this, and was unsure how to react. I went back and forth – and even now as I write this I feel this alternation of feelings: between thinking on the one hand that someone must help her realize the risks of what she’s doing and encourage her to invest in her reality; and wondering on the other hand who I am to think that I’m a better judge of her dreams than she is – who am I to think I know better than she does about the possibilities that Morocco may still have in store for her? There is so much that I do not know about her life. Who am I to judge? Is Siham the problem, or is she simply a symptom of a malaise much greater? Does the cause of the problem lie with her, or with her society?

It’s a little of both, perhaps. But wherever the cause should be sought, it is important that girls like Siham be encouraged to see opportunities for themselves in Morocco. They must be given, and be encouraged to exercise, a sense of agency within their society. By this I do not mean an unlimited freedom to choose and act – that unlimited freedom exists nowhere and for no one, no matter what Siham may think about Europe. What I mean by agency is the perception of ‘meaning’ – a perception of belonging, of being a part of and thus having a stake in one’s environment, and of having a voice, of being a recognized and respected member of the social order. If a woman has such a sense of agency – if she feels that she has a stake in her surroundings and that she is a respected part of it, she will be encouraged to invest in it. I think this sense of agency can be encouraged (in part) by creating opportunities – for education, for a career, for political participation. It’s about the creation of ‘space’ or ‘room’ for individuals within the social order. If one is invited to take up ‘space’ in the social order, one is encouraged and inclined to invest in it?

Or is that itself a utopian thought?

* in many European countries, simply marrying a non-European foreigner does not guarantee that person a residence permit – it is not as ‘easy’ as obtaining a green card by marrying an American, for instance. In order to obtain a European residence permit, not only the immigrant but also the European spouse must meet a number of requirements. The spouse, for instance, may need to earn above a certain minimum salary, have a long-term employment contract, and be in good standing with the law.

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