Letter from Morocco — From the November 2015 issue

Lost Girls

Women, sex, and the Arab Spring

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Then came revolution in Tunisia, in Egypt, in Libya — and, for one shining moment, in Morocco. On February 20, 2011, thousands of young activists around the country rallied for a new constitution, an end to corruption, and a reduction of the monarchy’s power. On March 9, King Mohammed VI responded to the February 20 movement by announcing constitutional reforms and appointing a commission to draft amendments. The protesters, whose numbers included radical youths, Islamists, teachers, doctors, and the educated unemployed, viewed the king’s handpicked commission as insufficiently democratic, and refused to be mollified by the promised reforms.

Lip service or not, the king’s speech opened up the potential for popular dialogue unlike any in Morocco’s history, and feminist groups began angling to include a guarantee of gender equality in the new constitution. Still, it didn’t look like traditional mores would change anytime soon. All over Morocco, lost girls sat in cafés, waiting for clients.

That was when I went back. It had been more than two years since I had spoken with Khadija. The café in the seaside town was still there. On the ground floor were the same tables, facing the same televisions suspended from the ceiling. Solitary men sat sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes, their gazes still trailing lazily over your body when you entered. Still the same mirrored walls and pillars, the same eyes and reflections of eyes.

The second floor was half full. I thought I saw Khadija, but it wasn’t her. Not five minutes passed, however, before I saw a woman emerge from a stewy disk of smoke at the top of one of the two spiral staircases. Her hair was dyed black. She was kissing friends hello. She turned to face me. It was Khadija.

Khadija putting on makeup in her room

Khadija putting on makeup in her room

She had changed. Gone was her floral-print djellaba — in its place was a black one made of clingy rayon and decorated with a dense silver appliqué. She was wearing makeup, and had lost the look of a wild kid who was out to have fun and get paid for it. She was shocked to see me but hugged me immediately. Then she sat down and said she had a daughter now, Noura, and that Ghita had a son. So it had been true that she was pregnant.

I asked whether she had a picture of Noura with her. “No,” she said. She told me that Ghita’s first child had been given to a family in a nearby village, but that Ghita had kept the new baby, a boy, and was living with her grandmother and an uncle just outside town. As for Noura, she was living with a cousin. Khadija looked away when she told me this.

We were deep into catching up when all of the women at the surrounding tables rose to leave. “What’s going on?” I asked. “The police have arrived,” Khadija said. Her cell phone rang, and someone shouted her name from downstairs. “In a minute!” she called out, unfazed.

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Sarah Dohrmann is a writer in Brooklyn.

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April 2019

Works of Mercy

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