By Elizabeth Bezark
Traveling offers the opportunity to step out of our comfort zones and out of what we would consider to be “normal” in our own culture. It challenges us to analyze our norms and to embrace other ways of moving through the world. Engaging with people from other cultures allows us to widen our cultural lens and to understand different cultural practices from a multi-dimensional perspective. By experiencing the paradigms of another culture, we can better understand the factors shaping the worldviews of our global counterparts. Without firsthand experience in each culture, our ideas of that culture may be based solely on what we see or hear in the media. ImprintEd Abroad encourages all participants to adopt a travel ethos that follows our host country’s norms. We do this to connect more authentically with locals, to learn from others, and to try to see the world through the eyes of our hosts. This builds empathy, which is an important part of becoming a global citizen and an ethical traveler.
ImprintEd Abroad requires students to follow a dress code that falls within the norms of the communities that we visit. In Morocco, this means adopting modest clothing. Though Moroccan dress ranges widely from modest to modern, it is important that, as visitors, our clothing sends a message of respect to everyone we encounter. While both male and female students must follow modest standards, female students often find a greater difference between their fashion choices at home and their style in Morocco. To better understand clothing norms for Moroccan women, I interviewed a few young women who hail from different Moroccan cities to learn about their perspectives. Below are some main takeaways that I'd like to share:
Not all Moroccan women wear hijab and the hijab may have different meaning to different individuals.
Romaissa, an educator living in Marrakech, told me that wearing hijab is a choice for women in Morocco. To clarify an interesting cultural nuance, Moroccans distinguish between a hijab, a scarf worn around the head and neck, and the practice of wearing hijab. The latter refers to the essence of dressing modestly (which includes, but is not limited to the practice of wearing the head and neck scarf). Romaissa explained to me that some women wear hijab as part of their Muslim faith, some wear hijab head and neck scarves as fashion accessories, and some Moroccan women choose not to wear hijab at all. In cities, some women might wear tight clothing with a hijab and some women might wear modest clothing with no hijab. As anywhere, people choose to dress in a variety of ways. Fatiha, an educator in Agadir, also shared that, as is the case anywhere, people dress differently depending on the context of where they are or whom they are with.
The women interviewed are open-minded about the fact that foreigners dress differently and do things differently.
Though Romaissa chooses to wear hijab (in that she wears a head and neck scarf and observes modest dress), she told me that if she were to see an American student dressed in more revealing clothing, that she would not judge that person nor ask her to change her culture. I appreciated Romaissa’s open-mindedness and respect for cultural practices that differ from her own. She lives in Marrakech, an urban city that draws people from around the world, and she has had a lot of experience with foreign cultures. While some people like Romaissa are flexible about others' clothing choices, ImprintEd Abroad reminds students that as guests and students in another culture we have the opportunity to try to understand why another culture has adopted the practices that are widely valued. Adopting modest dress shows locals that we respect their traditions, and allows us to better understand the experience of a young woman who has adopted values that may differ from our own.
Individual expression looks difference in different cultures; and standing out is a very American value.
Fatiha mentioned that while the way people dress is a matter of individual expression and personal choice, people visiting Morocco should exercise mindfulness while dressing for different occasions and contexts. I want to point out that in the United States, society emphasizes the importance of individual expression and standing out because the States has an individualistic culture. However, more collective societies place higher value on a person's representation of his or her family and community. To begin to relate to this idea, consider the idea of school spirit. Imagine that you are going to your school's basketball game at the other team's school. When you wear a shirt with your school's mascot or colors on it to root for your school's basketball team, you wear this to represent your school and to show your enthusiastic support for your team. If your school colors were green and yellow, would you wear a different color to stand out and be individualistic within this context? It would be strange to do so, right? Wearing your school colors does not limit your uniqueness. And yet, it wouldn't make sense for your dress to assert your individuality in this context. To bring it back to traveling in Morocco: the purpose of intercultural engagement is to increase understanding, and one way to develop intercultural understanding and empathy is to place yourself into the shoes (or into the attire) of the locals.
Context matters! In a new context, it is prudent to exercise more modesty.
Fatiha thinks that one should reflect upon how one dresses by considering the context. She expressed that one dresses differently for work, for parties, and for the beach. If people dress differently in different contexts within their home countries, they should consider another culture as one more context. Just like you wouldn't show up to a professional interview in yoga pants and spaghetti straps (unless the job interview was to be a yoga teacher), wearing revealing clothing in a conservative community would not fit the context!
Dressing as the locals dress while in Morocco offers students greater perspective into Moroccan culture.
Rania, a Master's student in Rabat, posited that practicing modest dress while visiting Morocco can also serve as a way for students to understand how women are seen in Moroccan society and religious tradition. While immersed in Moroccan culture, ImprintEd Abroad students also have the opportunity to analyze their own dress norms as they gain more experiential understanding of Moroccan norms. They may even find that they like certain elements of modest dress or they may gain a new perspective of it. A former ImprintEd student made the following observation:
"I was surprised by how quickly I got used to dressing modestly. It made me very aware of how much time and thought I put into my appearance at home."
Can you think of a time when you dressed differently for a certain occasion than you had ever dressed before? What was that experience like? Were you able to relate more easily with those around you while presenting yourself in that way? Did dressing in that particular way give you any insights into how people behave in that context? An example of this could be your first ever job interview. If you haven't had the experience of dressing in a new way yet, your program in Morocco is the perfect opportunity to explore this! Remember to always show respect for your host communities and to reflect on your experiences. These practices will place you well on your way to becoming an engaged global citizen. So dress your best!