In Marrakech’s Medina, the morning call to prayer, known as adhan, stirs both locals and visitors alike. Hundreds of Muslims are summoned into the city’s mosques to pray together. But that’s far from the only sound you’ll hear in the buzzing UNESCO world heritage site, once considered a significant political, economic and cultural hub of the western Muslim world.
A morning walk tends to be flooded by the buttery aroma of msemen, the sounds of pomegranates being hand-juiced, and countless craftsmen working with leather and copper, painting, wood carving and sewing. Everywhere you look, there’s a souk where you’re expected to haggle for anything from spices and Moroccan carpets to tajine and zellige, a tile-work known for its vivid colors and patterns.
But strolling through the medina will leave you wondering: Where are the women? I didn’t see many in the souk, though I know they are very much the backbone of this society. If they are not working, then where do they fit in Moroccan culture? As it turns out, they’re running businesses and expressing themselves creatively and spiritually — just not publicly.
Take the ancient tradition of carpet weaving as an example. In the Atlas Mountains, Berber (more accurately known as Amazigh) women spend their free time making rugs out of wool for their own homes. This practice started out as a practical way to keep their family warm during winter nights but has now shifted into a source of pride: The carpets are passed down from generation to generation as a form of tangible heritage — now a highly sought-after souvenir for tourists and international home design buyers.
You won’t see these particular rugs in the medina, though. I’m told that it’s usually middle-men who buy them directly from Amazigh tribes or even exchange and resell them to foreigners in the big cities or online, leaving the women artists with almost no compensation.
Ascertaining the value of one of these highly-coveted rugs is virtually impossible. In one of the sole industries mainly composed of women, each rug is more than a decorative piece; it is a symbol of self-expression, female solidarity and family unison. “[Carpets] are art. Each weaver creates its own design, from memory rather than patterns, in order to tell their own family story,” said Hassan Hilat, owner of Berber Rugs. “The rugs hold sentimental value to each woman. For the vintage ones, you’ll sometimes find figures denoting if a husband died or if a son recently married. It’s like a diary, especially for those who cannot write.”
But this tradition, passed down by mothers and grandmothers, isn’t the only way women are expressing themselves in Morocco. A new wave of young women are reclaiming the country’s hikayat (oral storytelling) tradition — and their voices are resonating with the masses.
“I didn’t have the freedom to express myself before. My family is very conservative. They would love to see me get married, take care of children and wear a hijab,” said Zakia Elyoubi, a 31-year-old storyteller from Fez. “But I’m a rebel. Storytelling changed my world and my perspective on life. That’s when I realized my parent’s lifestyle served them — not me.”
The ancient Moroccan tradition of storytelling is a dying art and form of entertainment that has been part of Moroccan culture for over a thousand years. Historically drawing big crowds in major squares, storytellers would perform old tales woven with riddles and moral messages. But women weren’t allowed to listen or tell stories — you couldn’t be seen, touched, or even be amongst men — even if they, in part, served as the pioneers for such art.
“The story of our people was never written, it was passed from generation to generation by grandmothers and moms who would gather their children inside their homes to tell stories,” said Elyoubi. “When I was young, the women in my family didn’t have stories in their mind to tell me, but in the summers, I would visit a 20-year-old family friend who had a big imagination and countless stories. Every night, she would tell me two or three stories. That’s how I learned about storytelling.”
Elyoubi remembers being shy during those first instances where she stood in front of a crowd, but she doesn’t fear the attention anymore. Women like Elyoubi are reclaiming a space that was always theirs. Choosing to tell your story is a subversive act, she said. “To stand and say, ‘Listen to my story, it matters and gives you power.’”
This passion for storytelling and the conviction that she was born to share this tradition with the world brought her to the world-renowned International Storytelling Festival in Marrakech. This past spring, the festival brought together 80 storytellers from every continent to celebrate and raise awareness of the tradition’s precarious place in modern Moroccan culture in the hopes to encourage younger generations to preserve this cultural piece of their heritage.
I was invited to attend the week-long event, where I witnessed how Elyoubi met dozens of like-minded individuals — in and outside of Jemaa el-Fna Square — one of the main cultural spaces in Marrakech where you can enjoy many performances by musicians, poets, snake-charmers, storytellers and Gnaoua dancers.
In a country such as Morocco, these third spaces are needed for female travelers like myself to connect with local women, and Elyoubi agrees. “Mingling with different viewpoints and mentalities from around the world inspired me to liberate myself from societal pressures,” she said.
Gathering the courage to tell her own story is a process Fatimezzahra Gassem, 20, knows all too well. “Seeing Moroccan women as storytellers is a beautiful experience. It makes me feel proud of myself as a woman,” Gassem said after witnessing a group of festival international storytellers at the Al Muniya Marrakech School of Storytelling in the medina. “I’m just a listener today, but it’s my dream to one day be like them. When I see them, a voice within me says, ‘Maybe you should do that too.’”
Gassem, who is also a volunteer at the festival, said seeing the confidence with which women are able to command the room when they’re performing is what initially brought her into the storytelling community.
“It’s a beautiful thing when you talk to someone and they pay close attention to what you have to say, I can see people value when you’re sharing a piece of your mind,” she said. “In the mindset of Morocco, women belong at home. [This] is the opposite of what Moroccan women are taught to be. We should change that mindset. Women also have dreams to pursue and stories to tell.”
At Essaouira’s Arganomade Cooperative, the veil covering Moroccan working women is lifted. Those who are divorced or widowed are welcomed to join the group’s workforce harvesting argan oil, a natural product they have long used in cooking but has now become highly prized by the global beauty industry.
For Merzak, making argan oil is an art; the product crafted from intention and cultural wisdom is a form of self-expression. “This is hard work,” she said. “It requires a lot of energy, strength and manual labor, as well as an almost perfect rhythm and synchronicity amongst ourselves to get the job done.”
When I observe the process, it tells a story in itself — one that highlights female agency and unity. Argan oil is extracted by drying argan fruit in the sun, peeling and mashing the fruit, then crushing and grinding the kernel with stones before the inner kernel can be pressed by a machine to extract the oil. It takes up to three days of grinding for every woman to get one liter of argan oil. They change tasks on a daily basis between each other in a well orchestrated operation that seems more like a Broadway performance.
Historically, Moroccan women have worked inside the homes, taking care of the family, preparing the meals and raising children while men provide financially. But women like Elyoubi, Gassem and Merzak are shattering a centuries-long system that historically dismissed their potential. Whether it’s weaving rugs in the Atlas Mountains, extracting argan oil in Essaouira, or storytelling in the middle of Marrakech’s Jemaa el Fna square, Moroccan women are finding ways to — discreetly and publicly — share their spirits through their art, a practice that transcends what they were socialized to do.
“I am proud to be a working woman providing an education and a healthy, happy life for my children,” said Kabira Merzak, 40, as she removes the hard shells of the argan kernels by pounding it with a stone. “I made myself an independent woman, there aren’t a lot of chances to live like this in Morocco.”