Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Passing of Bodily Seasons

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Passing of Bodily Seasons

Article excerpt

For Moroccan young women, sexual awakening rhymes with danger. In the countryside, girls are often married off at 14 and deemed old by 30. But in cities, the young are starting to hold their ground

During recent fieldwork in Bni Meskine, in southern Morocco, I felt disarmed, worthless and at a loss before the cruelty of what turned out to be a veritable slave market. For the first time in my life, I lied to conduct my study. My ploy: Sanaa, one of my students, is seeking to marry off her two brothers with 13- or 14-year-old girls. As for myself, I'm supposedly looking for a spouse for my uncle, widowed at 70. My goal: to prove that this market indeed exists, and that parents in the countryside pay little heed to the legal age of 15 for marrying their daughters.

In this region and many others, the smasyra, brokers who supply city dwellers with child labour, are also sought out to find potential brides. From one home to the next, we witnessed scenes like these...

We are greeted by three women belonging to different generations: the matriarch, her daughter-in-law and her 14-year-old granddaughter. The young girl busily skirts around us, wiping the table, putting away our shoes, shaking the cushions. I observe her, a budding beauty, her body charged with promise. Is her father prepared to betroth her without a marriage license? "Yes, he married the eldest when she was 14. The girls have nothing to do. As soon as their zmane (destiny) arrives, we marry them." Then the paternal uncle greets us. "I'll give you 15 girls if you want. They] are educated, never lift their eyes from the ground nor raise a voice of complaint. They'll put up with anything without a whimper."

Another home: the wife of the household greets us. She is pregnant with her seventh child. "Choose the one you like. They've all had the same education. All they do is work. They never go out of the house. They get pregnant on their wedding night."

I felt like screaming at the thought that these girls would be married so young, savagely deflowered and left disgusted by the sexuality forced upon them. Men keep a close watch on their daughters. Their honour lies in controlling the female body. Women uphold this tradition by muzzling their own bodies which they learn to do from puberty on. Female sexuality is channeled by marrying off young nubile bodies. Such dramatic practices are part and parcel of everyday life in a countryside mired by poverty and isolation, where nine out of ten women are illiterate.

Our research in Casablanca found that in cities, puberty is no less of a painful experience. Young girls are taught by their mothers, aunts and grandmothers an outdated sex education revolving around taboos. The young woman's body beholds danger. Her sexuality does not belong to her. She cannot be entrusted with something so fragile yet potentially explosive, for it can lead to her loss and that of her whole family. So every sexual drive must be stifled. As one young woman explained, "My mother controlled my movements. I was told not to jump or to spread my legs for fear of losing my virginity I was terrified by my sexuality."

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