In the midst of culture clash

In my former working life, one of the things I was well known for in the medical community of Colorado was being a cultural consultant.  I regularly taught and presented at conferences, groups, committees, etc., on issues of multiculturalism in health care.  I try to be very respectful of cultural differences.  When we’re in a new environment, I try very hard to respect the culture of that area, even if I personally find a practice or norm challenging.

Living in Morocco has given me plenty of opportunities for culture clash.

Essaouira, medina, Morocco, culture clash

For starters, you won’t see a lot of adult men in shorts here.  Actually, I haven’t seen any.  Even among the youth it seems to be a bit rare.  Of course, it is late fall and chilly.  Unless it’s a huge cultural offense, though, I wear shorts when it’s warm.  It’s obvious by my skin color I’m not a local, so I automatically get more wiggle room.  And I do make Tigger wear a shirt in public.  That would be pushing the acceptability envelope a little too far.  If we were going to a religious site or something, I would, naturally, dress appropriately.  But when it isn’t a really big issue, comfort will always win for me.

Even though it rubs against my equality grains, I accept that women are generally not spoken to directly.  It varies a bit, and I just go with the flow.  I try to avoid too much eye contact when speaking with a woman, even though the chaplain side of me says it’s important to maintain eye contact.  When getting on the bus, if there is 1 seat open next to a man and another seat open next to a woman, I have Tigger sit next to the woman since that’s more culturally appropriate.

I constantly mute my desire to go up to an almost fully covered woman and ask, “How do you stand it?”

Being someone from the States in rural, conservative Morocco, has created quite a bit of culture clash for me.  It always helps to hear the other side of things, though.  I recently met an expat French woman.  She wears a hijab covering her hair, but otherwise dresses as a Western woman.  She  does not hesitate to touch a Western man’s arm when chatting and is very vivacious.

She spent much of her younger life traveling the world and trying on different religions before she adopted Islam and became a Muslim.  She found it to be “the only religion that truly respected me as a woman.”  What?  This boggled my mind.  To me, women here are often treated as subservient chattel.  Walking behind their man, only their eyes peeking out from the colorful fabric hiding their bodies.  Dressed from head to toe while at the beach as their nearly naked children frolic in the waves.


Maktub by Tatiana Nasser (tatiana_nasser)) on
Maktub by Tatiana Nasser

Our Swedish host told me she has seen similar respect here.  In Spain, men at stores and shops will barely give her the time of day.  Here, however, the men are attentive when she is describing what she needs.  Where Spanish men barely even listen to her statements about what she wants, the Moroccan men are more diligent.  This surprised me, and I chalked it up to the men here knowing damn well that she’s going to be spending money.

Then I was having a chat with our handyman.  He’s lived in this oasis his whole life.  While I do pride myself in being open-minded, I think it’s natural to have some . . . feelings during some discussions regarding cultural issues.  My blood was boiling, however. as I listened to him explain the requirement that a woman must submit to a medical exam to be certified as a virgin (if she’s never been married) before she can marry her betrothed.  He shared with me how he has heard of women who have surgeries to restore their virginity so they can get married.  “Isn’t that cheating?” he asked me.

I bit my tongue hard.  Not my country. Not my religion. Not my culture. Who am I to judge? I reminded myself.

He went deeper by discussing dating practices here.  They don’t exist.  Men and women do not date.  You see someone you like, you approach the family about marriage.  She can reject the suitor, though, which gave me some relief.  It’s a bit expensive to marry here as well, since you have to give the family “gifts” and buy the woman a lot of new things.  Plus the big dinner.  It basically costs around $1000 USD for a couple to get married.  That’s a lot of money for someone who probably earns the equivalent of just over $2 a day.

“You don’t date? Do you even talk? I mean, what if she’s a complete idiot, or you have absolutely nothing in common?”  I asked.

He shrugged.  “It can happen.”

“And you don’t have divorce here, do you?”

“Oh yes!”

I was shocked! “Really? I wonder what the rate is.”  He didn’t know, so I googled it.  In 2010 it had “plunged” to 46%. Still doing better than the US, though.

If an unmarried woman is seen in public with a man holding hands or kissing a man (even married couples don’t show public affection), she is pretty much ruined and will be lucky to ever find a man who will marry her.  But for the man, of course, there’s no similar damning smudge on his reputation.

Skala in Essaouira, medina, Morocco

Then he entered the potentially dangerous waters of the issue of gays.  Interestingly, the idea of two men being together didn’t seem to bother him, but he was filled with revulsion as he shared with me that he has heard of, gasp, women only wanting to be other women.  His face contorted with disgust as he explained how unnatural this was.

“Well, I don’t know,” I began carefully.  “They have documented it in over 400 species of animals.  So, if it’s happening in nature, I don’t think we can call it ‘unnatural.’  I just think sometimes when in the womb, chemical changes get mixed up, connections don’t get made or broken that should and so on.”

He hadn’t been expecting that.  “It happens with animals?” he asked.  I went on to describe similar observations of ram-to-ram and ewe-to-ewe mating patterns in sheep, an animal that is prevalent in these parts.  He admitted he had heard of that.  I had a glimmer of hope, even though that could very well be ego talking since this topic is quite near to me.

Then he brought up transgendered people.  I again brought up connections, disconnections, hormones, chemicals, etc., and how miraculous it is, when you really think about, that most of us are born with 10 fingers and toes.  “Perhaps some connections don’t break like they should, or some aren’t made.  I know some of these people, though, and I’ve learned enough to know that we just don’t completely understand it.”

From here he moved into how women are treated in Europe.  “Don’t you think they’re treated horribly?”

I forcefully had to tighten my jaw muscles to keep it from falling open.  Yeah, women’s equality has come a long way, but there’s still room for improvement.  I didn’t think, though, that was what he was alluding to.  “The way they use women’s bodies to sell things.  It’s disgusting.  It’s completely disrespectful to women.”

I opened my mouth to say something.  Then I closed it.  There definitely was truth to his statement.  Women are objectified in Western culture.  We don’t celebrate the intelligence of women.  We give very little recognition to their abilities.  We have one woman get a position that typically has been filled by a man, and suddenly we’re singing and dancing that women are finally equal. And really the list goes on and on.

Recently, I shared an article on Facebook about how the appearance of some art showing male nudity had caused a great controversy.  This in a museum filled for decades with carvings and paintings of the bare female form.  For some odd reason, once a penis is shown we’ve suddenly moved into a different, prohibited realm. Why is male anatomy more sacred than the female?

I had to agree with him.  And I remembered the lovely French woman’s comments about why she had converted to the Muslim faith.  I also remembered that, at least in Morocco, a woman has the option of how she dresses.  I have seen younger women dressed more as Westerners, and I’ve seen their exact opposite, with a woman even working hard to keep her hands covered by the fabric enclosing her.  Even in print ads, women are dressed more like Western women.

One of the beautiful things about travel is how, if we leave ourselves open to it, we get to see the other side of an issue.  When we don’t go somewhere to change it or the people but allow ourselves to be open to be changed by the experience itself, well, we could find no better experience or university.

When we let travel change us, we open the door to changing the world.

When we leave Morocco in January, I can definitely say I’ll be leaving, once again, a changed man.

What do you think?

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  1. Fantastic post, Talon.

    “The way they use women’s bodies to sell things. It’s disgusting. It’s completely disrespectful to women.” It is indeed. Women are objectified pretty much anywhere in the world, at any level, in any culture. Discrimination may take different forms: “forcing” (is it really forcing?) a woman to go out fully covered; staring at her breasts as she talks; expecting her to be stupid because she is pretty (she can’t be both pretty AND intelligent); asking questions about her private life during a job interview…

    As you say, traveling does open one’s mind in many ways.

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    • In many cases it IS forcing a woman to go out covered, which I disagree with. If a woman wishes to do so, that’s a different story. It is pretty disturbing how we objectify women. Looks like things are changing albeit slowly.

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  2. (We) Americans often feel like the American way is the best and only way. It’s amazing what one can learn when one listens before speaking, without sliding into the cesspit of relativism. Good stuff, Talon.

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    • So very true. When we leave ourselves open to new ideas, we can be surprised at what we find.

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  3. Awesome post…I recently wrote about a similar experience of biting my tongue when I was in China and our private guide took us to Tiananmen Square. It was tough not to ask the hard questions about what he felt, etc. but in the end I was glad I didn’t. It is definitely odd though to hear the woman’s perspective on respect…not what I’d have imagined..

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    • Thanks! When we were in Cuba, I had a lot of people want to start conversations with me, and I so badly wanted to “go there” with them, but there was no way I could risk it. Tiananmen Square . . . wow, that had to be a major temptation to chat with him!

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  4. Bloody brilliant-I admire you, I’m trying to learn to bite my tongue more often, it is soooo necessary when travelling!

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    • Sometimes more than others for sure. LOL Thanks!

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  5. I really loved this article. We talk a lot about how travel changes us and our view on life, but I love how you dealt so honestly with how hard it can be to be non-judgmental and consider both sides.

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    • Thank you! It was quite an interesting experience for sure.

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  6. Bravo for a beautifully considered piece. It is refreshing to read someone who can share their thoughts on cultural differences without sounding judgmental.

    As a Western woman who has been living in Saudi Arabia for the past few months, I would like to add that I have found a surprising level of freedom in many of the things that I thought I would feel were restrictive.

    I love my abaya (the black tent-like over cloak) that I am required to wear. Not having to worry about what to wear when I leave the house is fantastic. Gone are the days of feeling fashion pressure and no-more ‘does my butt look big’ in this dilemmas.

    I’ve learnt to take a step back when I am with my husband as it is more appropriate that he speak with the men. At first I found it hard to bite my tongue – I’ve always been the organizer, the dealer of foreign arrangements, the one with the strongest opinion and therefore the most to say. But now, much to my surprise, I find that it’s quite pleasant to have someone else deal with the daily life stuff.

    Of course I realize that as a western woman I have the best of both worlds here, as I am treated with the respect and consideration that men are required to show towards women but many of my behaviors are overlooked because I am Western.

    Looking forward to more of your Moroccan observations.

    And to Tigger’s blog posts!

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    • Wow! Thanks for sharing your unique perspective!

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  7. Definitely rewarded. You are so right. And, yes, VERY difficult to argue with that one.

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  8. Terrific post. I think I would have had great trouble being as restrained as you were in these conversations, but I think you handled them brilliantly….and were rewarded with some great insights into how people in other cultures think. Certainly, it’s hard to argue with the Moroccan man who expressed disgust as how women’s bodies are used to sell things in Western culture.

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  9. Wow very good post… you voiced so many thoughts I always wonder, but after spending more time in a Muslim country you really learn more about why they do the things they do. I’ve always wanted to ask women ““How do you stand it?”” as well, but like you mentioned it’s optional in many muslim countries. Of course most people in the west, don’t understand that part of it. Everything you have voiced I’ve honestly thought about while living in Cairo. We all know these aren’t small issues… they are huge issues, but for them it works, they understand it. I don’t know if I am making sense at all because it’s not easy to explain. We just have to be open to new cultures… let our cultures clash & embrace it instead of fear it. When more people embrace each other the more the world can move forward as one. For now the media does a great job at dividing us… (even within one country) and keeping us from moving forward.

    P.S. the last photo… yum!

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    • Yes indeed. I found it interesting, and a relief, that he was against how women are treated in some other Muslim countries as well. It is such a unique situation to be able to be on other side of things and have a window opened into another world really.

      And serious yum!

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  10. Great post Talon. I agree that at times it is very hard to keep an open mind on these type sof things that we consider well a given! I admire your ability to grit your teeth and listen but even more then that let it soak in and challenge your way of thinking…that is travels true gift!

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  11. i keep pondering your words, for they are powerful – as is your listening, questioning, and thoughtfulness. bravo, talon, for braving this discussion, and being open minded in presenting it. it IS hard, when we’re forced to confront issues that are so very different from our own. i’ve been there, in japan – it’s really hard to keep our mouths shut, and truly be ethnorelative.

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    • Yes indeed! Some things are easier than others, too.

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  12. Really enjoyed this post. I think it’s great to talk to people and I admire your ability to talk about potentially controversial subjects! This is one of the best parts about discovering new cultures—it really does open your mind.

    Also…that last photo. WOW!

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    • It is one of the things I love about new cultures for sure.

      I was so tempted to make that photo the main image. LOL Originally, I was going to post a photo of a sculpture, but I just couldn’t resist using this one instead. 🙂

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  13. I admire your tact and diplomacy. Short-term I can be polite and respectful with these issues, but once I get to know someone better, especially if I respect their intelligence I find it a lot harder!

    If I’m not mistaken in Rita Goldman Gelman’s book “Female Nomad” she talks about having to restrain herself somewhere in Central America, when picnicking with a local family, they chuck their paper and foil food wrappings onto the ground. She muses that it would be culturally inappropriate to remonstrate with them, yet knows that this country has to learn to take better care of its environment.

    Knowing where to draw the line is awfully hard. Well done!

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    • Thanks, Linda. It was quite difficult to keep my mouth shut for much of our discussion, but then I did find his feeling about how their practices respect women to be fascinating. So interesting to be exposed to someone else’s vision.

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