Judith Butler once argued in her book Gender Trouble that it is not biology that determines gender, but society and culture. I have lived in various Western countries, like the United States, Greece and the UK, and have travelled to many more. Whilst in my 3rd year at university, I stumbled upon Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism Project, an online archive of over 80,000 women’s daily experiences of sexism across the world. Throughout my life, I have witnessed differing expressions and treatments of gender identities, and consequently been subject to everyday sexism. When travelling through Morocco and Greece, it became clear to me that performances of gender in these nations are culturally distinct. I therefore endeavoured to unveil the cultural power structures, social variables, and performances of gender identity which instigate and condone everyday sexism.
Shaping Identities throughout History :
Morocco is simultaneously a Berber, Arab, Muslim, Mediterranean and African country and has adopted a multidimensional history. In Islam and in Islamic societies, Fatima, is the quintessential icon of maternal care, loyalty, and female dynamism. Although a key role model for Muslim women, Fatima’s symbolism is closely linked with the value of Arabic patriarchy. Certain perceptions surrounding performances of female roles are born out of this patriarchy. The reality is that many women are reluctant to break the prescribed gender norms, oppose strict systems of patriarchy, and defy the Islamic traditions that discriminate against them.
Moroccans, both men and women, are very attached to their identity, and a significant apex of that identity is Islam. In both Islamic faith and culture, a woman is viewed as fragile and in need of care and protection. When travelling through Morocco, countless Moroccan men approached me, offering to guide me around or take me out for dinner. Hospitality and generosity are key to Moroccan culture, however, this notion to serve and protect a female is deeply ingrained in the Moroccan male mind-set. Speaking to my friend, Elaf Burweila, (who is Libyan and Muslim, but has grown up in Greece her whole life) on the topic of gender equality, she argued that in Islamic societies and households “the men protect their wives.” There is almost this silent agreement between the two genders. Elaf described it as: “I will protect you and you will do something for me in return,” whether that ‘something’ in return encompasses household duties or obedience and loyalty, it is meant to balance the marital exchange.
There is something problematic about the ways in which culture disciplines men and women. In the Koran, sura 4:34 has been interpreted to support that men have “pre-eminence” over women or are “over-seers” of women. This supports the argument that Elaf made earlier. Men are granted power and control, and woman are sculpted as Fatima-like maternal figures. When speaking to our Riad’s 24 year old manager, Jalil, about the women in Moroccan society, he was frustrated by the inexhaustible stereotyping his country and religion receive. “People think we disrespect our women,” he said. “We respect them. We have to. Women are also mothers and we need to respect our mothers”. Although this simplified reasoning was refreshing and comprehensible, I could not disregard the lack of respect I had personally received on numerous occasions whilst in Morocco. And furthermore, I only interacted with Moroccan men. I had not spoken with a single Moroccan woman. Where were these ‘respected’ women? And what are their roles in such a society? The more I became engulfed in the culture, the more I realised that Moroccan women are socio-culturally invisible and their position in society, ambiguous.
When the Focus Shifts:
Morocco breeds a cultural ambiguity. Situated between Africa and Europe, and being the westernmost of the North African countries, it embodies characteristics of both continents. As a result, women are caught between tradition and contemporary culture. Moroccan women can only express authority in the household and when outside this private domestic world, their agency comes to clash with men’s public authority. In the context of ‘everyday sexism,’ the invisibility of Moroccan women shifts the focus onto the visible women (tourists) who visit Morocco. Being a female tourist myself, I experienced countless sexist treatments. I was catcalled and was continuously asked for sex and how much I would charge for a night. This made me feel unsafe, disrespected and like my role as a woman was to be taken advantage of. Ultimately, I was reduced to a sexual experience.
Conforming to Tradition:
Judith Butler questioned in Gender Trouble whether or not identity was “a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience”. I will argue that identity and specifically gendered and sexual identities are perceived as normative ideals, yet formed by features of experiences. Similarly to Morocco, Greece is a country situated at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Greece is a country with a strong sense of patriarchy and tradition and the Greek Orthodox Church has a large influence on the discipline of gender discourses and the construction of normative sexual roles. One tradition which was enforced upon me whilst growing up in Greece was attending Holy Communion during Easter Week. Men and women are separated into two queues, and the children stay with their mothers or other female family members. Females who are menstruating are refrained from receiving the Holy Communion, as they are considered to be un-clean, both bodily and spiritually. From a very young age, I was propelled into this mind-set and although I tended to rebel against such absurd religious dogmas, my family members and friends adhered to them. This example of religious tolerance still remains in my eyes as one of the ultimate cases of culturally specific everyday sexism in Greece.
Defying the Stereotype, Condoning the Behaviour:
In Greece, homosexuality is still very much a taboo. In the case of one of my female friends, Niki Koutsiafti, who is openly gay,it was mainly the prescribed gender norms and everyday sexism she received which led her to alter her own gender identity. “The sexist reactions and their general attitudes towards me” she said, “led me to become even more ‘boy-looking’ than I already was…so most common naïve Greeks wouldn’t realise what I really am and would leave me alone”. Niki was ultimately disciplined into performing a specific gender identity; one which was based on her experiences and not her biology. It is important to note that it is not only women who struggle under patriarchal oppression in Modern Greek society, men do too. The man is the provider / protector. He must look a certain ‘masculine’ way (be muscular and have facial and body hair) and he must ‘woo’ a woman. This alleged wooing, however, derives from a performance of hegemonic masculinity which encourages catcalling and consistent verbal assault. Men who do not join in on the sexism will immediately be taunted and deemed as “faggots” (ποúστης / poustis) and the women who condone such behaviour argue that “women should take it as a compliment”.
Is it perhaps that sexism itself carries varying connotations across the globe? Or is it that gender roles have become so utterly defined throughout history that sexism has become a norm? I believe that both questions stand in the cases of Morocco and Greece. Morocco and Greece are slowly starting to reinterpret some of their values and attitudes towards gender and sexuality. Class and education in Greece or cultural heterogeneity in Morocco are beginning to widen the lens on performances of gender and sexuality. The everyday sexisms which are rooted in the culture, however, have become the norm. As the gender gap widens, we allow more room for everyday sexism to flourish, and the mere fact that ‘it’s just cultural’ must not go unquestioned.
For more information on the Everyday Sexism Project, visit: everydaysexism.com