The single mothers of Marrakesh

Single mothers in Morocco still experience social discrimination today. They upset the traditional image of the nuclear family, although that has long since become outdated. The "Amal" project in Marrakesh supports theses mothers, who are often among the poorest members of society. By Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

The clattering of pots has stopped and the kitchen is tidy. It's lunch break at the training centre. The trainees sit outdoors around a large table. The sun warms them gently without burning. Clad in white chef coats, orange aprons and black headscarves, they now take the time to eat some of the dishes they have prepared.

Around 35 women per course are being trained as cooks here by the non-profit organisation "Amal". They learn to prepare Moroccan dishes such as couscous and tajine (stews) as well as classics of international cuisine like pizza and pasta. Instruction also includes desserts, cakes and serving. The programme is open only to widows, orphans, divorced women and single parents who live below the poverty line and have children. For many this is the first formal education they have ever received and some can't even read or write.

Amal means hope – and that's just what these single women need, because they have a particularly precarious position in Moroccan society. Not only do they have to get by without the support of a family; divorced and single mothers also face discrimination. Until the 1980s the subject was completely taboo in Morocco. Meanwhile, things have changed, with reports appearing in the media and non-governmental organisations offering to help. But the women still have to deal with prejudice and being excluded from society. Even today they are sometimes abandoned by their families and left completely destitute.

Others do not want to return to their parents’ home. Rachida Lazrak, 32 years old and mother of a daughter, tells her story during her lunch break. After her divorce, she was without any means of subsistence at first. But she still wanted to leave because she just couldn't take it anymore. "At first my husband accepted the idea of a divorce," says Rachida, "but then he changed his mind and warned me that I would not be able to make do without any money." Rachida had completed her schooling only up to the eighth grade, had never learned a profession and was a housewife at the time of her divorce.

The right to divorce

Women have only been able to file for divorce in Morocco since the reform of the "Moudawana" family code in 2004. They are entitled to custody of their children and to alimony and child support, but the latter is only a meagre 450 dirhams (around 40 euros) per child per month.

"Amal" employees Oumaima Mhijir (left) and Rachida Lazrak (right) (photo: Claudia Mende)
A recipe for success: "we have about 270 applications for each course, but can only accept 30 to 35 women, says Oumaima Mhijir, head of the training centre at "Amal" (left in the picture). The training leads to a recognised qualification – those who are awarded the final certificate have a good chance of finding work as a cook in Marrakesh. During the training, the women receive a scholarship as well as travel expenses and free meals

Before the reform, divorce was very difficult for women, while men could simply cast out their wives in accordance with traditional Islamic principles. Today, women can bring their ex-husbands to court and sue for alimony. However, many do not launch proceedings because they can be lengthy and difficult, with an uncertain outcome. There are also high legal fees involved.

Rachida's husband refused to pay alimony and child support. But she didn't want to fight him in court. Going back to her parents was out of the question, as was looking for a new partner. She wanted instead to stand on her own two feet, so she took jobs as a cleaner in cafes and at a jam factory. But the pay was poor and sometimes her employers refused to pay her at all.

When she heard about "Amal", new prospects finally opened up for her. She applied and was able to start the six-month course in December 2017. The women receive a scholarship for the training as well as their travel expenses and free meals. "We have about 270 applicants for each course, but we can only accept 30 to 35 women, says Oumaima Mhijir, head of the "Amal" training centre. The training results in a recognised certificate and those who earn it have a good chance of finding work as a cook in Marrakesh. "Nobody leaves the course without a job," Mhijir notes.There are few such opportunities in rural areas. Women who get into difficulties have to go to the city to find work. One of them is 31-year-old Mona (not her real name) from Ouarzazate in the conservative southern region of Morocco. Mona is also divorced and she has two children. Her family was able somehow to accept her divorce because her ex-husband drank and beat her.

But then Mona met a new man who promised to marry her. She got pregnant and her lover abandoned her. Her son was born out of wedlock. "My family doesn't know about my second child," she says, "just my sister. I don't care about the rest of the family." It's not the man's betrayal that would have met with disapproval; she alone would have been blamed for her plight.

Standing on one's own two feet

Fearing rejection, Mona left her hometown to seek her fortune in Marrakesh. "In Marrakesh, it's easier for a single woman to get by. That's why I came here," she says. Being excluded from their own family is very painful for many women. In a society where family means everything, it is hard being cut off from these close social ties.

Mona lived from cleaning jobs until she heard about "Amal" and applied. Now she takes the bus every day to the training centre in the Targa district. At first she had a hard time because she still had to learn to read and write. So she didn't complete the training on her first try. In the meantime, though, she's one of the best.

Oumaima Mhijir knows how difficult it is for women like Mona to deal with malicious gossip and the widespread double standards in their country. People are so quick to use the word "shame". But Mhijir also believes that values are slowly changing. "Women are paying less attention to others and their idle gossip," she says. "But it is also important that women speak openly about what has happened to them and don't try to hide."

I'm single and a mother, so what? Morocco still has a long way to go before women can adopt that attitude, but single mothers are in fact no longer a rarity here. It is estimated that one in five families has no male breadwinner. And in many cases, women now make more money than their husbands. Young women today are better educated than their mothers, who were mostly housewives.

However, many laws still lag behind these new realities. In recent years there have been some improvements for women, for example the abolition of the unspeakable clause that let rapists go free if they married their victims. A new law passed in February 2018 is intended to protect women better against violence. Nevertheless, extramarital sex is still a crime according to Article 490 of the Criminal Code, even if this law is rarely applied.

The mothers training with "Amal" therefore still have some work ahead of them, even though family structures in Morocco have long since changed.

Claudia Mende

© 2018

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor