A big component of this class is unwed mothers and the infants they often abandon. From the textbook we are reading, to the guest lecturers, to my own preconceived notions, the picture that has been painted for us of unwed mothers is one of a desperate, sad, and lonely woman who society has shunned and forgotten.
While this can definitely be the case, it is not one that I have experienced so far. When we visited l’Association Solidarité Féminine in Casablanca, the unwed mothers that worked there were smiling and laughing amongst each other. The founder, Aïcha Ech Channa, showed so much care and compassion for these women, and while we were there a couple showed up to give a donation. To me, it seemed that society was doing their best to help these women, and that if these problems of stigmatization existed before, they had now largely disappeared from society.
In lecture, we spoke about how anthropologists always pick up on the most extreme and marginal behaviours of a society in order to make their research more interesting or exciting. For example, we studied Moroccan ideas of trance healing and incidents of djinn possessing people, but it’s clear that this isn’t still a common frame of mind.
Applying this to the unwed mothers, it’s easy to think that our perceptions of the downtrodden single mother is just hype, just people trying to find a cause to fix. However, we visited Solidarité Féminine, an association where the unwed mothers are amongst peers who they can relate to, facilitating the formation of friendships. Aïcha Ech Channa spoke about how difficult it was for the women she works with to accept their title of “unwed mother” and work at the Association’s restaurant, because everyone would then know that “ooh, she works here so she must be an unwed mother,” and she would be stigmatized. She also discussed the fatwa (legal opinion) issued by a radical Islamist imam in 2000, condemning her and ASF as supporters of immoral behaviour. The ASF staff then had to be briefed as to the procedure should Mme. Ech Channa be stabbed, because that was now a very real possibility. Clearly, not everyone was as accepting of unwed mothers and Mme. Ech Channa’s work to help them as the couple bringing in a donation.
It’s very hard to try and reconcile the preconceived notions with the “reality” that I saw, but it’s even harder to come to terms with the idea that as an outsider, I will never be able to know what the true lived experience of these women is. To assign a human being, full of all kinds of hopes, ideas, and contradictions, a singular label and expect everyone with that label to behave in the same manner is naïve. From a science background, I can see why human trials are so difficult – a single common factor does not mean that two people are identical, and thus trying to figure out, for example, the body’s response to a certain medication is complicated by the multitude of uncontrolled variables. Not all unwed mothers are rejected by their families, not all unwed mothers are unemployed, and not all unwed mothers lack formal education.
I still don’t know where I stand, whether with the “mountain out of a molehill” group or with the “turn a blind eye, wilfully naïve” group. However, I think that as a non-Moroccan, and as someone who has only briefly been studying this topic, it is not my place to be in either camp. While I do believe that it’s better to be safe than sorry, all I can do is be an ally by supporting the Moroccan voices speaking out about this issue and not try to drown them out with my own (frankly unnecessary) opinion.