Amina didn’t think she would complete primary school. She didn’t see any other woman in her village do it. In fact, she was the first out of three villages to attend primary school. In the late eighties, in the Moroccan rural province of Al Haouz, she remembers asking herself why she was the only one, among all these boys with whom she walked the six kilometers that separated their village from school every day, in a region where no roads were to be found.
No, she didn’t think she would complete primary school; she was only dreaming of it. She was dreaming of the day when she would proudly say – for example, to me, a journalist interviewing her – that she had been the first.
Amina was kind of a trendsetter. Along the years, others parents started feeling more comfortable sending their little girls to school as they wouldn’t be the odd ones out anymore. One day, she asked her father why he sent her there. The reason was simple: he happened to think her education mattered; even if it meant risking the rest of the village judging him for what was still considered an act that brings shame to the family’s name.
It started to become more and more normal, but most people still ended their daughter’s education after primary school; Sending a girl out of her village past puberty posed even more problems relating to honor upon the family, and child marriage was still very much common.
For this reason, Amina ended up being the third female in the commune, which comprises 20 to 30 villages, to go to middle school. Yet again, she was only dreaming at the time of graduating, and tried her best, which led to her succeeding and proceeding to become the second female of her commune to go to university.
Today she is an alumna of Caddi Ayad University in Marrakech, one of the biggest cities in the country, where she studied geography. Quickly after graduating, she chose to work with the very girls and women of the rural province she was from. She has been working with one sustainable development association in particular for six years now, the High Atlas Foundation. Years, dedication and many accomplishments later, she has made a name of herself; Amina el Hajjami.
Amina is grateful to the teachers along the way who encouraged her to keep going, and desires to in turn have a similar influence on the youth. “I stopped going to primary school for three months at some point, because we would walk a six kilometer distance only to often find out that the teachers weren’t there. So my father told me it wasn’t worth going all the way there anymore. But I wanted to continue and my teachers insisted, telling him that I was smart and hard working.” Besides, as she had witnessed with herself, if just one female would attend school, it would influence other ones to do the same, creating a ripple effect.
Flustered, Amina confesses that she has a dream for the future and shyly asks if she can tell me. I say yes, and she tells me that she hopes to see many of the girls she works with study abroad and become international figures. I see nothing unrealistic with that goal; neither for her nor for the girls she works with.
Amina ended up being the third female in the commune, which comprises 20 to 30 villages, to go to middle school.
Through the association L’Heure Joyeuse (The Happy Hour), Mohamed Marchli works with rural children as well, in the field of equal access to education for girls. He confirms that most rural girls are married off by their parents after finishing primary school, sparing themselves the cost of raising them and investing in their sons instead.
A vital reason parents make this choice, as M. Marchli explains, is because they’re afraid, especially in winter, that their daughter would be attacked while walking along the long way from home to school. “Our association has been implementing a school bus system and offering bicycles to the kids to counteract this problem. We chose to offer more bicycles to the girls than the boys.” One of his favorite work anecdotes when one of one boys, also from the Al Haouz province like Amina, was so happy to receive the bicycle that he spent a whole week sleeping next to it in his room…
Not every issue surrounding parents’ reluctance to schooling their daughters has such straightforward solutions, however. M. Marchli adds. For example, daughters bring more money to the family if they send her to the city to work domestically for richer Moroccan families. Yet another reason is that most families are suspicious even of girls-only boarding schools, as they are afraid that other girls would corrupt their daughter in one way or another. Finally, there is a lack of sanitation near most schools; Because young females endure monthly periods which places an urgency of decency upon them, they require bathrooms more than the boys do, making it a significant handicap if there are none.
If all of that wasn’t enough, even outside gender norms, another challenge makes Amina’s journey more abnormal than it should be: language.
Even today in Morocco, no one has any luck regarding this one. Moroccan Arabic (Darija), Modern Standard Arabic, French, Amazigh (Berber, itself having three main dialects spoken in Morocco on top of a standardized version), Spanish and English, are all discussed as potential languages of education.
In public school, the first year of elementary school is taught solely in Modern Standard Arabic. In secondary, they introduce French language classes. Then, in the third year of middle school, English is introduced as a third language. There is a plethora of private French school that also exist (some directly owned by France), and Spanish or American private schools are also an option. Only studying with languages that directly originated from Morocco, be it Darija or Amazigh, is currently out of reach.
Amina jokes, in perfect English, that if you are Amazigh-speaking, like her and most people from rural areas, you have to know a lot of languages: “Amazigh at home, Darija in the street, MSA and French at school”.
Since June of 2019, the Kingdom introduced Amazigh classes in the public school curriculum, but as a foreign language.
Today, one quarter of the Moroccan population speaks Amazigh; In the beginning of the 20th century, at least half the Moroccan population spoke Amazigh.
Karima Ouazzar, an Algerian activist for Amazigh rights who holds a Masters degree in the history and archeology of North Africa, is against this reform, that she judges insufficient. “Amazigh-speaking kids don’t take their Amazigh class and their Amazigh teacher seriously because they associate the language with everyday life, not with knowledge and prestige. They’ve internalized the fact that it is less prestigious than MSA and French,” she explains. This is because MSA and French are the ones Morocco uses in its administration and academia. She thinks that if Amazigh-speaking children knew more about their civilization, they would feel prouder of their heritage.
Herself a proud Amazigh-speaking woman, and the only one in her family who knows not only how to speak it, but also how to read and write in its alphabet (Tifinagh), she thinks that having schools with Amazigh as a main language of education would significantly improve the self-esteem of kids of its mother tongue, leading them to become better citizens, and more involved in the political realm. She also thinks it would lead to more research about the civilization and its impact on the rest of humanity being taken more seriously. “In Morocco, we found in the High Atlas region an inscription written in Numidian. The characters used to write it are so ancient that studying them more would probably lead to the reconsideration of the things that we thought to be true about the writing system in the region,” She explains. However, she feels like a lot of research in her field is obstructed from happening because talking about North Africa before its Arabization and Islamization is still a taboo.
Today, one quarter of the Moroccan population speaks Amazigh; In the beginning of the 20th century, at least half the Moroccan population spoke Amazigh. I have been told that my great-grandparents spoke it, only for it to lose its way through the generations, not being deemed “useful” enough. My father always laughs and tries to dissuade me when I say I want to learn Tachelhit, the Amazigh variant I’ve been told my ancestors spoke, after I master MSA and Spanish. The same announcement always illuminates the face, however, of the North Africans I know who make the language subsist.