Modernizing the Sexes:
Changing Gender Relations in a Moroccan Town

Douglas A. Davis
Haverford College[1]

The title of this paper is intended to suggest that Moroccan youth are experiencing new pressures to change traditional values and behaviors having to do with sexuality and gender. Modernizing images are partially imported, as images gleaned from television, popular music, schooling, and travel permeate each community and shape individual fantasy. Changed images may be as superficial as they are pervasive, and what we know about the newly adult Moroccans from our Zawiya study ten years ago suggests that their gender behavior is less changed from that of their older cousins than might have been expected. Yet the novel images are more apparent each year. Hour after hour, the same beautiful American teenagers appear on Moroccan television, dancing drenched on a beach before their recreational vehicles as they "feel so good coolin' down" with 7-Up. Each August the highway down from Tangier fills with the Peugots and Mercedeses of the emigrant Moroccan workers, returning briefly from Europe with carloads of VCRs, and their well-dressed adolescent children finding the dusty streets of Zawiya a shocking contrast to the wonders of Bordeaux or Brussels.

To be sure, few American teenagers will have experiences and aspirations identical to Brandon or Brenda, the characters in the television series "Beverly Hills 90210," but at least white middle-class youth will find some of the weekly sartorial innovations, emotional perils, and saccharine crisis-resolutions of these two teens a model for their own. What does an 18-year-old Moroccan male make of the reggae lyric "No woman no cry" that he has written onto a poster for his bedroom? What fantasies does it feed as he sees it night after night while he studies for exams or imagines himself with a girlfriend? What does his 15-year-old sister take as personally relevant from the Egyptian drama she is watching across the courtyard, with its tangled plot of unrequited love and mistaken identity?

Zawiya is a traditional, semi-rural town of moderate size (population 12,000 in 1982) in a traditional Muslim country with an admixture of European-style urban culture, administration, and education. Both community and country are changing rapidly as mass education, the global economy, and the tides of political events in the larger world, like European racism and the Gulf War, produce local effects. The current literate, high-aspiring, youth of Zawiya are coming of age in a community whose older residents recall the coming of the "Nazarines," as the Christian French of the colonial period were called. Their elders remember the building of roads and railways, the establishment of a centralized economy and a foreign-controlled bureaucracy to run it. The traditional and illiterate grandparents and the undereducated and underemployed parents of Zawiya are witnessing and to some extent supervising the growth of a new generation whose hopes and values reflect a larger geographic and cultural horizon than theirs. The young adults of Zawiya hope for a standard of living, and a life-style, far beyond that of their parents, one commensurate with what they have learned of in school and seen portrayed on television. That they have little chance of achieving the white-collar jobs and bourgeois living conditions they can now imagine so vividly is a source of frustration to some of them, and this frustration seems likely to spread as the economic constraints imposed by rapid population--and slow economic--growth become more apparent.

The media available in Zawiya reflect both Morocco's basically Arabic culture and its French colonial past. The evening news on television is presented in both Classical Arabic and French, neither of which is comprehended well by Zawiya's uneducated adults. In recent years a substantial segment of prime-time television is devoted to Egyptian dramas, often of the "soap opera" genre. A recurrent theme is the love match opposed by parents, who prefer a rich older man for their daughter; the love match usually triumphs. Thus Moroccan television has made both modern Arab and Western cultural models more available to Moroccan youth.

Sex and Youth in Zawiya

As several ethnographers have observed, it is always dangerous to assume that Moroccans' individual behavior is rigidly constrained by the elaborate traditional system of mores they still endorse (Davis, S., 1983; Geertz, 1968; Rosen, 1984). The young people of Zawiya offered striking contrasts between the norm and the normative. As of 1981 there was a great deal of romantic interest among both male and female youth, yet most younger adolescent boys, and nearly every girl regardless of age, seemed to regard sexual activity as something to be concealed from adults (Davis and Davis 1989). Both sexes tended to affirm female virginity at marriage as important, although we concluded that few females--and almost no males--were without some premarital erotic experience. Girls' activities with boyfriends ranged from a stolen kiss to either intercourse or such virginity-preserving alternatives as inter-femoral or anal penetration. It is impossible to estimate with confidence the percentage of local females who have experienced intercourse or sexual foreplay, since no girl admitted to this in the interviews. Rather, many girls readily said that "everyone" went out with boys; and we heard detailed accounts from males of several neighborhood girls' sexual encounters. Some local girls were firmly believed to have had abortions. Males' youthful experience often included intercourse with either a prostitute or a girlfriend, and few Zawiya males are virgins at marriage. These data suggest a sharp double standard in Zawiya (rather like that in US society in the recent past) with males' sexual rendezvous tolerated by adults and admired by peers while females suspected of dalliances were condemned as sluts.

Most of the Zawiya young men with whom I discussed relations with girlfriends spoke of romantic interest toward girls as a universal feature of the middle teenage years. Frequently there was clear tension between their concept of "romance," based on musical and television images of Western or urban Middle Eastern models, and actual sexual interest or activity. The concept of "friend" itself takes on sexual connotations when used to describe a relationship between a male and a female, however. Local Arabic makes a clear distinction between the "girlfriend" [sahba] toward whom romantic or sexual feelings were expressed, and the female "friend" [sadiqa] with whom romance was not, or had not yet become, an issue. Two informants who knew some English insisted that love was the proper term to describe the general longing young males feel for female "friendship," though others lamented the difficulty of finding or sustaining such love in the context of actual relationships in Zawiya.

The Zawiya youth is typically cast in two roles: lustful suitor of a neighborhood girl, and jealous guardian of his sisters' virtue. He attempts to engage unmarried females in sexual behavior which he would not tolerate in a female blood relative and which he is likely to take as indicative of inadequate modesty in a fiancée. He may decide not to marry a girl because she has given in to his sexual advances. Some males clearly see the world of unmarried females as divided into marriageable virgins and unmarriageable whores. At the same time, there is also a widespread male conviction that all girls are seducible. There are local examples of families condemned for having produced several fallen women, but girls of respected families may also have had sexual encounters. The responses from 100 young people, ranging in age from 9 to 21, whom we asked about the qualities wanted in a mate emphasized good character in a spouse of either sex, with honorable reputation and beauty the most-sought characteristics in a wife (Davis and Davis 1989: 125-126). Finally, when we examined the marriages that have occurred among Zawiya-reared youth, we noted both that several have married their premarital partners and that several local women with well-known sexual histories have made "good" marriages to men who must have heard rumors of their past.

Zawiya offers vivid examples of the ways even major transgressions of sexual norms can be accomodated. An older woman who was once caught in an adulterous affair was said to have been publicly shamed by her husband. She reformed, reconciled with her husband, and subsequently made the pilgrimage to Mecca. She is now a hajja, a respected elder member of the community. In another instance, a girl became pregnant by a neighbor boy, and ran away from town leaving an outraged family. She found shelter with an urban family, married their son, had her baby, and returned to be reconciled with her family. Both the child of the affair and her children by her husband are treasured grandchildren. In general, the community values adults by the behavior they have adopted in maturity and acknowledges that, as God is merciful, reform is always possible.

We find, then, a community of young Moroccans whose behavior, and (presumably) whose fantasies, are sexual, but whose sexuality is often problematic. For the young man, possible sexual partners are persons unsuitable for marriage, like prostitutes or "dishonored" girls. For the young woman, sexual behavior must be denied and virginity either present or feigned at marriage. The sexes approach each other with contradictory motives and with a distrust that makes emotional intimacy precarious.

Our Study of Adolescent Values

In response to the specific question of who should choose the spouse, asked of all the adolescents and youth in the sample, roughly half the males and two-thirds of the females said that parents should. This preference was highest among younger and less educated youth, but many girls of all levels indicated either that they felt unable to make such a choice or that the parents could be trusted to act in their child's best interest. The most frequent concern of these girls was that they not be pressured to marry a much older man, or one with another wife. Older and more educated youth were significantly more likely to say that they expected to play a role in the choice of a marriage partner, though even they usually indicated that they would try to gain parental approval of their choice. Among actual recent marriages by older siblings of these youths, roughly half involved parental choice of spouse (Davis and Davis 1989: 126-127, 197, n. 20; cf. Davis and Davis, forthcoming).

Despite these quite traditional values with respect to marriage, the content of young peoples' fantasies about love seems to be heavily influenced by the imported images with which they are deluged: the daily round of Egyptian and American television romance, the illustrated novellas, the stories of city and European customs, and--for the males--the content of pornographic movies seen in the city and on friends' video players. The hope is to find mutual love and respect with a mate of whom family and community will approve. From more educated youths we often heard about intentions to combine career and family and to share two incomes. At the point of actual marriage, however, many young men from backgrounds like Zawiya are drawn to younger and less educated girls, and they expect these brides to defer to theme and their families. If they do select someone of similar age and education, she is likely not to be a home-town girl but someone met at school or on the job in the city. As a result, several educated neighborhood girls have not married, and others have done so only after leaving town and meeting a man with similar education in a larger city.

When we questioned some youth about sexual practices, we were struck by the very different ways such topics were approached by males and females. For young men with whom sexual topics could be discussed at all, the details of intimate sexual behavior were likely to be frankly described. It was more difficult to get these young men to talk about their feelings for those with whom they had sex, and they often seemed torn between romantic and jealous or cynical feelings about girlfriends. Intimate relationships frequently seemed to end in ill will, and often the male felt he had narrowly escaped being manipulated into marriage. Young women were almost totally unwilling to discuss the details of sexual behavior, but they seemed more reflective about the emotional issues involved in intimacy. Several gave poignant accounts of the emotions stirred by love relationships seen on televison or in photo magazines, but others described the risks to a girl of letting her emotions lead her into conduct that would bring shame:

A boy will tell you "I trust you. I care for you. ... If I don't see you for just half a day I go crazy; it seems to me I haven't seen you for a year." And at that time the boy does have feelings. He cares for you. Truly Powerfully. But he doesn't have any money [to marry], and you just keep sacrificing yourself for him. And you lose your value--and your family's. ... And finally, he doesn't marry you--how do you feel? It feels like a calamity, like a 'psychological complex'. ... You sacrificed yourself for that boy, talking to him even in public ... and in the end he marries someone else, when he has a good job and he's well off. How do you think you would feel? ... You will remember your times together and what you went through in the past. ... That a boy gives his word of honor and later doesn't keep it is not right. That is what makes a mature and intelligent girl distrust a boy. She doesn't trust boys--never. (Davis and Davis 1989: 123)
Several male informants also discussed homoerotic play as common around the time of puberty, although most stated that adult homosexuality was rare in Zawiya. The activities described included mutual masturbation and interfemoral or anal intercourse. Females seemed almost completely unaware of the possibility of female homoerotic activity. This is a much less homophobic setting than a comparable rural American town; here, male homosexual acts tend to be seen as temporary alternatives to sex with women. Males did not mention romantic feelings toward those with whom they had shared homosexual experiences, and they did not assume that boys who engage in homoerotic play will be homosexual as adults. Solitary masturbation was only mentioned by males, and then with great embarrassment. It is viewed as an expedient, given the unavailability of sexual partners.

The general picture is one of a high male value on erotic love, with poor opportunities for more than transient sexual gratification. Young women's aspirations, and their acts, seemed to have relatively little to do with lust, being directed rather at finding a mate who could provide security and respect. It seems rare in this setting for the bond between an unmarried boy and girl to supplant the strong ties of each with like-sex peers, in apparent contradiction of Schlegel and Barry's generalization that "lovers are the enemies of the peer group" (Schlegel & Barry 1990: 124, 128). Even when a young man described himself as deeply in love with a woman, he was likely to find time to stay close to his male friends; and young women did not describe a relationship with a male as supplanting ties with peers. Each sex is likely to look primarily to like-sexed friends for emotional intimacy.

These observations about our semi-rural setting are quite consistent with what others have noted for more urbanized young Moroccans. A study by Moroccan psychologist Ahmed Ouzzi (1986) reports on sentence-completion and Thematic Apperception Test data, collected in 1975 from 200 male senior students (age 17-20) in various types of public high school in Casablanca. In a detailed discussion of attitudes toward sexual relations on the part of these young men, Ouzzi presents representative responses to key sentence stems having to do with women or marriage. Aggregating responses to these questions, 60% of subjects were scored as showing evidence of a negative attitude toward females. For example:

I think that most of the girls ....
... are whores;
... are sluts;
... are treacherous;
... are devilish (God damn them);
... are flighty;
... are materialistic.

My feeling about married life is ....
... that I hate it;
... that I don't believe in it at all;
... it's mixed with treachery;
... it is unbearable hell;
... it has a lot of problems.

I believe that most women ....
... are adulteresses;
... are ignorant;
... are hypocrites;
... are off-track [deviate from the right path];
... are deceivers;
... have little mind (Ouzzi, 1986).

We did not commonly hear such blanket condemnations of women or marriage from male youth in Zawiya, but misogynistic aphorisms are often quoted to explain troubles with a girlfriend or spouse.

In a UNESCO-sponsored 1980 study of a larger town near Zawiya, Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (personal communication, 1981) surveyed high school students' social attitudes. The most frequently mentioned negative factors were corruption and sexual licence, with both females and males using a variety of French and Arabic terms for adultery, fornication, and lewdness when asked to name problems for Morocco's future. These interviews indicate the persistence among educated young people of both sexes of females' sexual purity as a metaphor for social uprightness and religious probity (cf. Mernissi 1975, 1982).

Given the rapidly changing and contradictory pressures on young people of Zawiya, and the obstacles encountered on the way to mutual trust with friends and lovers, it is hardly surprising that sexual intimacy poses real problems for them. The value system of Islam is favorable toward the legal or correct expression of sexual desire (Bouhdiba 1985), but sexual lewdness is considered sinful and lustful thoughts can render a Muslim's prayer invalid. The emphasis on chastity for females, to which people still pay lip service, coexists with rapid and widespread change in the experience of women, as the traditional veil has nearly disappeared from city streets and millions of women leave the family to travel and work. Moroccan society is now conspicuously open to women's education and entry into white-collar professions, and these women are likely to dress in European clothing and to control their own incomes.1 Although these changes and apparent inconsistencies would seem to provide ample ground for conflict with parents, we have noted the striking resilience of Moroccan youth and the relative absence in Zawiya of the intergenerational stresses much of the Western literature on adolescence would lead one to expect (Davis and Davis 1989).


The "modern" young people of this "traditional" North African community do seem increasingly interested in romantic involvement of the kind they have encountered on television and in the popular music of both the West and the Middle East. For young men these fantasies are also shaped at the movies, which few local girls attend. In all cases of which I heard, the object of these fantasies is a young woman, whether an acquaintance or one constructed from media images, with whom the young man imagines sharing both physical and emotional intimacy. The difficulties encountered in attempts to act on such fantasies are formidable and include lack of privacy, disrespect for any young woman who is known to have been physically intimate with a man, and the continued expectation by the men's families that they will play an active role in selecting or approving anyone with whom a son expects to share his life.

Love and sex are often problematic during adolescence in this part of Morocco, and particularly so among those young men most Westernized. These young men want the ideal women of screen and song--the Piaf, the al-Warda, the Dolly Parton. They want to fall in love and marry women of their choice. What most of them find, during the difficult years of adolescence and youth, are transitory and anxiety-provoking outlets: a brief secret affair, masturbating or sex with prostitutes and each other.

For Moroccan adolescents and youths, romance is idealized and desired, but the romantically involved young person may feel both self-conscious and at odds with community values. One is left with a sense of the inappropriateness of the modernizing and universalizing images with which young Moroccans attempt to structure and comprehend their personal experience.

1The management of marriage and career among young married couples is the subject of an ongoing research project by Susan Schaefer Davis.


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