A Woman Without A Husband

September 20th, 2006

by Emily McNeill


In the house of Fatna Elouafi, the day starts early. Just before six on an April morning, the sun is still hidden behind the foothills of the Middle Atlas Mountains. Elouafi squats next to the fire in the kitchen of her five-room adobe house. She is making reif, a thin, oily bread and a breakfast staple of Loutichina, a village just outside Boujad in central Morocco. Elouafi’s 19-year-old daughter Fouzia is awake as well. They begin a day of household work that will stretch past sunset until the last cup of tea has been served. Then Fouzia will lay out blankets and pillows on the floor for herself, her mother, her nephew and her two brothers.

For the women and girls of Loutichina, every day goes something like this, but the Elouafi women bear an extra burden. Fatna Elouafi’s husband died eight years ago, leaving her as the head of both the household and the farm. Since then, as she puts it, she’s had to be both a man and a woman.

The Elouafi family is one of at least 14 families in Loutichina which, due to death or immigration, are headed by women. In a poor community, these households are among the poorest, and in a society in which women bear a disproportionate amount of responsibility, these women are among the hardest working.

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Loutichina is a village in the Boukhrisse Commune, about a 20 minute drive from Boujad. The forest, which used to darken the hills completely, has been made sparse by decades of deforestation. What is not forest is covered primarily in wheat, barley and endless acres of wildflowers. One-story adobe houses are scattered throughout the area, sometimes standing alone and sometimes in groups of two or more. There are two mosques, three small shops and a school.

The population is poor. Most people work in agriculture, growing wheat and grazing sheep and goats. Due to climate change, the area is fast becoming semi-arid. Although this was a good year for farmers, there have been droughts recently and there is talk of encouraging the population to grow alternative crops like olives, cacti and medicinal plants.

Poverty and a lack of opportunities in the village have led to significant migration. Today, a number of houses stand empty, a reminder of the families who have left for the city. Some of these families come back every so often to care for their crops, but others are gone for good.

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Sitting in the house of Abderrahim Bghibgh, the sheik, or tribal chief, I watch his mother make tea. Hajja, as she is called in reference to her completion of the pilgrimage to Mecca, pours herself a sip, tastes it and drops in another chunk of sugar. She pours tea back and forth between the pot and a glass, mixing in the sugar, then pours herself another sip. At last it is ready. She raises the pot high, letting the air between it and the glasses cool the steaming liquid as it pours. She fills five glasses and distributes them to me; my translator, Latifah; Hajja’s two visiting sisters and finally herself.

As we drink tea and snack on peanuts, cookies and bread and butter, I talk with the older women about Elouafi and the other female heads of households in Loutichina. A woman without a husband is deprived of everything, Hajja says, including happiness. They are very poor and must work alone.

I ask whether they are respected. Of course not, says Aicha Asaam, Hajja’s sister, and a widow who lives alone. Latifah, a young woman who teaches at a private school in Boujad, explains to me that in the countryside, a woman’s husband is very much a part of her social status and perception of self-worth. Her face is her husband, she tells me.

These women are nothing without husbands, Latifah says, because they had nothing but husbands. If they were literate or worked outside the home or had some sort of skill, things would be different, and perhaps they could earn the respect of their community – and of themselves. For now, though, they are at the bottom.

Later, walking down a dusty road in the warm afternoon sun to visit two more widows, I ask the sheik the same question. He has a different answer. He respects them, he said, peeling a grain of barley and eating the soft white flesh. They take care of their families, they work hard like men and they have courage.

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I came to Loutichina, without knowing much about the village or these women, looking for this courage – for female agency in unexpected places. I came, somewhat naively, looking for triumph in the face of tragedy, for that something – beauty perhaps – that is found in places of struggle. I did find it in the courage of which the sheik spoke. These women know that they are on the bottom of the social ladder, and they often feel hopeless. Yet they plow through life anyway, feeding their families, running a household, sending their children to school.

But there is much more here than some romanticized vision of female power tucked away in a poor Islamic village. Female-headed households are places of female agency, yes, but in terms of what these households say about rural Moroccan society, and the place of women within it, that is not their dominant characteristic. Poverty – a scarcity of time and money – and traditional attitudes about the role of women keep the authority that female heads have within their households from translating into influence within society or the ability to change their condition.

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Female-headed households in Loutichina fall into one of two categories; households headed by widows and households where a husband has emigrated. Both categories are becoming more prevalent in Morocco as emigration increases, and widows become more likely to live on their own as opposed to joining their husbands’ families. In Loutichina, as in Morocco as a whole, widowhood is the more significant cause of female headship. There are at least 12 households headed by widows and two headed by women whose husbands have emigrated. (There were no divorced female heads, nor were there any who had never been married. Women in these situations nearly always live with their families.) What is common among all the female heads of households in Loutichina is the increased responsibilities they bear since taking control of their households. Regardless of financial situation, life on a farm in Loutichina requires long hours of work that is often very physically demanding. For women who are caring for young children, the work load is even greater.

While women who become heads of their households due to immigration face many of the same challenges as widows, they also have some clear advantages. The two women in Loutichina whose husbands had emigrated were better off financially than the widows, according to their own statements and those of the sheik. Moulouda Aisam’s husband, who works construction in France, sends back 2000 dirham every month, which she says is sufficient to provide for her family. Khadouj Kamili’s husband, who works in agriculture in Spain, sends money irregularly, but she estimated the amount at 1000 DH every two months, which she also said was sufficient. (Kamili’s mother-in-law was present at the time of the interview, and thus her responses should be viewed with some skepticism, as mothers-in-law have a significant degree of power over daughters-in-law in rural Moroccan society.)

Their vision of the future is also brighter than the widows’. Whether or not their husbands will indeed bring them to Europe, both Aisam and Kamili said they were happy that their husbands emigrated, partly because they hoped it would mean they would also be able to emigrate. While many of the widows in Loutichina see no opportunity for their situations to improve, Aisam and Kamili, whether realistically or not, believe this opportunity exists.

The widows face a much more challenging situation. Most have very limited income from selling carpets, goats or chickens and, when the crop is good, a little wheat. Because their friends and family tend to also be very poor, most of the widows do not have any regular source of assistance. They must simply try to make ends meet with the little that they have.

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Tajenia Bakhtowi is one of the poorest people in Loutichina. She lives in a small house behind a patch of cacti, next to the main road that runs through the village. She is a petite woman who is quick to give affection and just as eager to receive it. Bakhtowi is a mother of three. Her husband, a man much older than she, died 8 years ago. Even before he passed away, she was responsible for most of the work. Still, since he died, she’s felt more alone and more vulnerable. He used to help her with their problems, she says, but now she has no one.

If her husband used to provide some companionship and support, he was never able to provide enough income. They lived in poverty when he was alive, and they live in poverty now. Her income comes from selling carpets (about 400 DH a month – roughly $40 US) and a little money from looking after someone else’s goats. It’s not enough, she says. Not enough to give her daughters an adequate diet, to buy clothing or to have their own goats. While many homes in Loutichina have solar panels now to power electric lights and black-and-white TVs, Bakhtowi’s does not.

I’m not proud of myself, Bakhtowi tells me. I’m facing problems, especially financial problems. Sometimes I don’t like myself, because I wake up and don’t know how to deal with my situation.

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Just down the street from Bakhtowi, Suma Barazowi lives in a house with her son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Her husband died 14 years ago, leaving her to care for the farm and three children under the age of ten. On a warm, April afternoon, Barazowi, the sheik and I sit on handmade carpets on the floor, drinking tea and eating bread and butter. The sheik and Barazowi have been talking for awhile in dialect that I don’t understand. Now, he turns his attention to me, and his voice gets softer and more serious. He speaks slowly so I can understand, and, though I don’t catch every word, the gist of it is clear. It’s a theme he’s repeated a few times today, as we’ve traveled from house to house visiting the women. What I see around me, Barazowi has made for herself – the carpets, the bread, her home. She has no money, he says, and no one to help her but Allah.

Everyone in Loutichina would be quick to agree that Barazowi works hard to care for her home and her family. But the way they view that work says much about the status of women in this community, both economic and social. Next to “occupation” on Barazowi’s government-issued ID card is the Arabic word bedoun, meaning “without.” The same is true for the ID card of Barazowi’s daughter-in-law. On her son Mohammed’s ID Card, though, his occupation is listed as felaha, “farmer.” In reality, the family shares the agricultural responsibilities. In terms of hours and nature of work, Barazowi and her daughter-in-law are farmers, too. But they protest when this apparent inconsistency is brought to their attention. Like their government, they see Mohammed as a farmer and themselves as unemployed.

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According to the gendered division of labor in Loutichina, women’s responsibilities encompass a wider range of tasks than men’s. Women and girls are involved in almost all agricultural work, from caring for livestock to grazing sheep and goats to cutting and transporting wildflowers and grass for animal feed. In fact, according to statistics from a 1995 report by the FAO, more than 50 percent of agricultural work in Morocco is completed by women. But while women share agricultural responsibilities with men, they are exclusively responsible for household tasks like cooking, washing and weaving.

The inequality in the amount of work done by men and women in Loutichina is part of a global phenomenon. Researchers and international organizations have pointed to the undervaluation of women’s work and the inequality between men and women in the number of hours worked as factors in the feminization of poverty and the subordinate status of women.

Women throughout the world work longer hours than men, and their work disproportionately falls in sectors that do not provide economic compensation, yet are vital to the survival of families and communities. According to the United Nations Human Development Report of 1995, women in developing countries shoulder 53 percent of the work burden, based on hours worked in productive activities. (Productive activities are defined as distinguishable from personal activities, such as eating, which cannot be delegated to a third party.) Women spend 66 percent of these hours in non-market oriented activities, meaning in work that is not economically compensated and is not acknowledged in statistics of national income. If their unpaid, productive work were to be valued at prevailing wages, it would account for $11 trillion of global output, out of the officially estimated $23 trillion. Women’s work is significant (and undervalued) in market-oriented activities, too. Globally, wages for women remain lower than those of men doing identical work.

It is no surprise, therefore, that heading a household in an area like Loutichina does not give women greater status. If the involvement of women in economically productive activities were the primary determining factor in their status, then women in developing countries would already have a status equal to or greater than men’s. Yet it is not just the quantity of work that a woman does, but also the value given to that work by society and herself that determines her status. Even though women like Barazowi are taking on more responsibilities, their contributions are not recognized economically and socially and do not provide an opportunity for them to improve their socio-economic status.

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While the work that female heads of households do in Loutichina is economically and statistically undervalued, they do not have the opportunity to pursue other, more lucrative economic activities. Much of the reason for this is a scarcity of time and money, but it is also because they lack marketable skills. The women of Loutichina are experiencing the consequences of a way of thinking that, in this village, is just starting to change. They were raised to have a family, not to study or to be economically independent. (Fatna Elouafi’s father even paid a school headmaster not to accept her.) Yet widows like Bakhtowi and Elouafi, whose husbands were decades older than they, were married into situations that were destined to make them widows. Brought up to be wives, they were soon left without husbands in a society where economic and social security is located within marriage.

Would their lives be better if they were educated? According to them, there is no question that they would. Many of the women regret that they were not educated. As Elouafi put it, it would have been better to study than to marry. But, for the most part, they feel that it is too late to pursue an education. While in theory, they would like to take a literacy course, there are none offered. Even if there were, these women don’t have extra time to devote to study. We’d rather work than read, Bakhtowi says.

As it is, these women feel they have few options to climb out of poverty. To pursue any other economic activity takes capital that they don’t have.

So what chance do they have to improve their lives? Their children. For Tajenia, everything is riding on her oldest daughter, who is studying in Beni Mellal. If she succeeds, they have a chance. If not, life will stay pretty much the same.

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Rabea, Bakhtowi’s middle daughter, brings in a tray of tea to supplement the tajine of chicken, green olives and French fries. While Bakhtowi’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Fatimah, is away at school in Beni Mellel, and her youngest daughter, 9-year-old Nebila, goes to a school down the street, Rabea stays at home to help with the housework and look after the goats. She is quieter than Nebila and doesn’t eat with us but rather sits off to the side drinking a glass of tea. Nebila is shy, but flirtatious, catching my gaze for a second and then burying her face in her mother’s shoulder. Rabea lets herself disappear into the space where she sits by the door.

In a situation that often appears to her to be hopeless, Bakhtowi places her hope in her children. The greatest expectations rest on Fatimah. In Bakhtowi’s eyes, she is their ticket out of poverty and the only chance they have. If she can succeed at school and get a good job, she could bring her family to Beni Mellal. But while Fatimah and Nebila represent possibility and hope, Rabea represents the reality of the present. She is not in a position to invent herself in the way that her sisters are. Maybe that’s why around me, she seemed to let herself fade into the background.

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Girls in rural Morocco are much more likely to go to school than their mothers were. According to 2004 statistics compiled by the Haut Commissariat au Plan, 30.6 percent of 10-14 year-old girls in rural Morocco are illiterate, compared to 81.4 percent of 35-49 year-old women and 98.5 percent of women aged 50 and older. Yet these statistics still put rural girls behind rural boys (15.9 percent illiteracy for 10-14 year-olds) and urban boys and girls (2.8 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively) in terms of illiteracy.

The first time I visited Loutichina, with a group of 26 other American students, we had a discussion with a small, multi-generational group of women. The only ones who had been to school were the youngest. The older women who had not sent their daughters to school said that, if they were raising daughters in today’s cultural environment, they would send them to school.

Although sending girls to school is much more culturally acceptable now than it was when Elouafi’s father bribed a headmaster to keep her out, poverty sometimes makes educating girls impossible. Illiteracy and schooling statistics and my observations in Loutichina suggest that, in households where children need to be kept at home, girls are still much more likely to be kept out of school than their brothers. While illiteracy rates for rural girls are lower in younger age brackets, the rates for girls remain roughly twice those of boys. In Boukhrisse Commune, 10.4 percent of females over the age of 10 have attended primary, college or secondary school compared with 31.2 percent of boys.

Because female-headed households are more likely to be poor, daughters in female-headed households are particularly vulnerable to illiteracy and a lack of education. In turn, the education (or lack thereof) of girls in Loutichina will affect the circumstances of future female-headed households. If current trends continue, the number of female-headed households in Loutichina can be expected to increase. Girls like Fouzia and Rabea could someday find themselves heading households, and their lack of education will be a disadvantage as it has been for their mothers.

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Although children in female-headed households are vulnerable to poverty, they also may benefit from the tendency of women to invest more resources in their children than their male counterparts. In Loutichina, it is clear that their children are what female heads of households value most. I am never proud of myself, Elouafi told me, only of my children. When they are happy and well-fed, I am happy. This idea was repeated by every one of the mothers I interviewed. Happiness and satisfaction are found not in their own well-being, but in that of their children.

This tendency of women to focus resources on their children has led a number of researchers and international organizations to conclude that targeting women is one of the most efficient approaches to development. Some specific approaches to development have also been shown to be more effective with women than with men. Microcredit organizations, for example, have found that women are much more likely than men to pay back loans. The prevalence of female-headed households, and the fact that their number is increasing, is in itself a reason for the international community, and researchers and development organizations in particular, to focus on women.

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Both the social and economic undervaluation of women’s work and the inequality in education between boys and girls are symptoms of a patriarchal system that, in Morocco, has recently started to be challenged more fiercely and effectively. The past few decades have brought increasing opportunities to women in Morocco and worldwide. In Morocco, women are now represented in Parliament, in business and in academia. The 2003 family law reform significantly improved women’s legal status within their families. But while the gains made in women’s rights in Morocco are significant, they are not universal. Morocco’s most vulnerable women, those in poverty and especially the poor in rural areas, have in many ways been left behind.

Why, in Morocco and around the world, have poor women missed out on the benefits of women’s advancement? Part of the answer lies in the nature of poverty. A scarcity of resources – including money, education or other skills, and time – leaves little room for change. To change from a subsistence lifestyle requires a surplus of some kind, whether it be a surplus of capital or of time. Women in Loutichina have no extra time or money with which to take advantage of increasing opportunities within their society. Even though today Morocco offers more opportunities to women than ever before, the poorest women are unable to take advantage of them.

The relative isolation of rural society also prevents rural women from benefiting from advances in women’s status. In urban areas, vulnerable women, including female heads of households, have greater access to services that can improve their situations, such as literacy or job training. They also have access, although limited according to economic circumstances and education, to a job market that is steadily opening up to women. The women of Loutichina, on the other hand, have access to neither job training nor the job market.

Women in urban areas in Morocco also benefit from a cultural environment that is more accepting of independence in women. There are a number of factors contributing to the cultural divide between rural and urban areas in Morocco, not the least of which is poverty itself. Poverty, along with geographic isolation, limits the contact that rural areas have with people and organizations that are embracing new ideas about the role of women.

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Night falls on Loutichina, and the sky is a magnificent dome of stars. Outside the sheik’s door, there is no artificial light to overwhelm the heavens’ brilliance. All is quiet. The world appears at peace.
Inside, light from a kerosene lamp floods the room where we sleep. Bouchra, the sheik’s 14-year-old daughter, is finally done with her evening chores, after spending all day outside with the goats. She leans on a pillow against the wall, watching an Egyptian movie on the black-and-white TV. Next to her, her brother Hicham, two years her junior, reads his French textbook. The sheik lies with his head on a pillow watching the TV.

The clock strikes 11:30. The sheik turns to me. Do you want to sleep now? I nod. Sunrise is just about six hours away. I’ll sleep through it, but I know Bouchra will be up soon after. We stand up. Bouchra takes my arm and a flashlight, and we step outside together into the arresting beauty of a clear night in the countryside. I brush my teeth in the yard as she waits with the light.

Inside, she and the younger of the sheik’s two wives spread out homemade carpets and blankets on the floor. Bouchra waits until everyone is settled. Then she turns out the light. •


Emily McNeill is a junior journalism who never once got sick of couscous during her time abroad. E-mail her about it at emcneil1@ithaca.edu.

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