Moroccan, Maghrabi, Mediterranean, African—and then, also, Arab–Muslim. This is how Loubna Bensalah — activist and lecturer in communication at the Mohammed V University in Rabat — defines her identity. It is, then, a polished, magnifying glass through which the gender issue in her geographical area of reference, North Africa, can be caught and interpreted.
ResetDoc met her in Milan, during “I walk with her: 2000 km on foot, in Morocco and Tunisia, talking with women”, an event coordinated by the Italian center for peace in the Middle East, Cipmo.
In 2016, Loubna Bensalah walked a thousand kilometers across her country, Morocco, to better understand herself and her fellow citizen women. In 2017, she traveled another thousand kilometers to discover Tunisia. In 2018, she transformed these marches from personal encounters into collective ones, naming the project: “Kayna [I exist and act, in the Maghreb Arabic dialect, ed]—To conquer public space through women’s marches”.
The need to deepen the question of the condition of Moroccan women has arisen in Loubna from personal experience, as she herself tells ResetDoc.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
«It is enough to be a woman in Morocco to understand that things are not going well. We do not have the same rights as men. Little by little—first when I was at school and then when I began my professional career—I became aware of this disparity. And so, I began to ask the people I was interacting with professionally and in the society: Why am I treated differently than a man? Why can a man do things that a woman cannot? In short: why is the male gender chosen? I am indefatigable; I will continue to pose these questions until I have a convincing answer. Up until now, none has been forthcoming and so I keep digging, looking for answers”.
Walking on foot, from village to village, is the concrete symbol of that search and also of the indefatigability your quest for answers?
«Walking for me is a philosophy of life. It is what allows me to reflect, it is a personal need. But, if we pay attention to the illustrative models of the past, we realize that the great philosophers—the prophets, men of thought—have always wandered great distances on foot. The brain, I always say, should never move faster than the legs. Five kilometers an hour is the ideal pace—to watch, to think, to process and to really get in touch with yourself. Also, what sense would it have to arrive in a particular village by car? The locals, seeing me arrive on foot, are immediately interested and open to dialog. And they generally invite me home to learn more about why I have come».
After the first glances and smiles, it is time for questions. What generally is the first question people ask?
«The first thing they usually ask is if I am married. And since I am not, the next one is: “But does your father know?”. In short, any Moroccan man or woman who sees me backpacking, walking alone, is interested in the opinion the male authority closest to me has of my journey. For everyone, in principle, it is an inconceivable thing [to hike alone]. Then, the women congratulate me for my courage and declare they would never be able to do it, both for reasons of physical resistance and for reasons of personal safety. Yet, when my project has become inclusive of other women, many have succeeded. In groups of 20, [before they know it] they have covered 20 kilometers with me, chatting, reflecting, observing».
The awareness of one’s physical resistance as a first step toward emancipation?
«Exactly. These women take care of many children every day, of the house, of their loved ones. This is work that takes a lot more energy than 20 kilometers of walking, but they are not aware of their own stamina and strength. My inclusive march is designed for this purpose: when will a woman succeed in defending herself and asserting her rights? When she recognizes her own ability to do it. Since childhood they [men] explain to us that we are fragile, that we need the protection of a man, that we are the weaker sex, and in the end, they convince us it’s true».
What is the role of religion in this social representation of female frailty?
«Religion is distorted according to the patriarchal structure of the society: where is it ever written that a Muslim woman cannot work outside the home? Or that you have to take care only of your husband and your children? I do not consider men to be the enemy, let me be clear. Men and women are victims of a social model that does no good for either.
And the affirmation of my rights as a woman does not take anything away from male rights».
The choice to call your project “I walk with her”, in English, suggests a desire to universalize the message.
«Yes, I think that with different nuances the battle for women’s rights makes sense everywhere. In the whole Mediterranean and in the whole world. Because when you too stop fighting for women’s rights, taking for granted those rights already acquired, then you will begin to lose ground».
Are there any specific aspects that you recognize in Moroccan women?
«Every reality has a different cultural identity, of course. Having said this, it is necessary that every conquest be achieved without external intervention. With the rhythm and local social strategies. For example, if we talk about family law and the possibility for women to receive the same portion of inheritance, there is a specific verse from the Qur’an that imposes a disparity. The modernization under way in Morocco and Tunisia is the result of internal debate, and this is how it must be. Laws are changing because the societies of these countries are making a personal internal journey while remaining Muslim».
What influence did you get from political activism that in the Maghreb and Mashreq led to the “Arab Spring”?
«I did not participate in anything during the Arab Spring. I was a little under 20 [years old] and did not even know what was going on in the other North African countries in general. I was a victim—yes, I say that quite deliberately—of the total disinformation applied at that time in the region. Everything seemed fine. I was part of a cultural rather than an economic elite, and I studied at university without being interested in politics. The social and historical baggage in our countries is such that we have zero relation to politics: this attitude is passed on to us by our parents. I did not believe in demonstrations or social claims».
Yet you believe in the initiative of the individual to change society from below. What does it mean today to be an activist, a woman of Moroccan culture?
«My identity, our identity is the result of overlapping layers: I am Moroccan, Maghrabi, Mediterranean, African. And then, finally, also Arab–Muslim. With these unequivocally Magrebian personal features, with this baggage of history, traditions, culture, I walk for my rights and those of other women, meeting their glances, eye-to-eye, as we move forward».
Photo: ABDELHAK SENNA / AFP
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