Imperialism in North Africa: Autobiography, Leila Abouzeid
In Morocco, after 1912, the colonial regime eschewed, for the most part, introducing overt changes into Islamic personal status law. Indeed the patriarchy of the reigning dynasty, the ’Alawis, and of the leaders of the great tribes, was reinforced, since France wanted Morocco to theoretically remain “traditional,” untouched by modernity. Nevertheless France’s divide-and-conquer strategy indirectly politicized Islamic family law by opposing it to customary law. The colonial administration transformed cities, built roads, and introduced rudimentary health care, but severely circumscribed modern education, especially for girls. After World War I, a massive influx of European settlers and land expropriations fed the growing anticolonial nationalism. Rural, militant resistance—in which women had always played an active part—to the occupying French army had never ceased and continued in one form or another until the outbreak of the nationalist revolt during the aftermath of World War II.
The humiliations suffered by France during World War II weakened French rule in the colonies and strengthened nationalist parties throughout the French Empire. The 1952 Casablanca massacres, in which the police and army shot down hundreds of unarmed civilians, constituted a watershed, since they served to politicize the masses. In 1953, the colonial regime in Morocco made a major tactical political error by exiling the ruler, Sultan Mohammed V, which, however, transformed him into a nationalist symbol. From that time on, a guerrilla war raged between nationalists, male and female, and the French military. As was true in Algeria and Tunisia, Moroccan women were key to the struggle, since they could move about more freely than Moroccan men due to the colonial assumption that colonized Muslim women, whether veiled or not, were apolitical. In 1956, the French, embroiled in a deadly war in Algeria, decided to grant independence to both Morocco and Tunisia.
Independence, however, brought bittersweet fruit for certain social classes, particularly women of ordinary means. Illiteracy among women and girls was much higher in Morocco than in Tunisia or Egypt. In 1955, only six girls had attained secondary school diplomas; it was only in the 1950s that Khalila Bennouna published the first novel written by a woman. Five decades later, the situation has dramatically changed due to education and other changes.
Leila Abouzeid, born in 1950, is Morocco’s best known female writer. In addition to poetry, newspaper articles, short stories, and translations, she has published three books: a novel, Year of the Elephant in 1984 (translated into English in 1990), an autobiography, Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman in 1993 (English translation, 1998) and in 2003, The Last Chapter, a semi-autobiographical work dwelling on identity, gender, and male-female relations. Abouzeid has deliberately chosen to write in Arabic—not in French—although many of her works have been translated into foreign languages.
In Return to Childhood, Abouzeid breaks a taboo by revealing clan secrets and at the same time legitimizes autobiography which, as an imported literary genre, was not held in high esteem until very recently. A narrative of her family’s struggles during the nationalist fight for independent, the memoir reveals the contradictions and ambiguities that real people—particularly women—encountered on a daily basis. As is true in all political upheavals, women played a critical role in militant resistance but once the fighting was over, men and society expected them to return to their restricted traditional roles.
In the excerpt below, we hear two voices, Leila and her mother, both recalling events. Her mother, although illiterate, courageously brought food to Abouzeid’s father after he was incarcerated in colonial prisons for his militant opposition to the French Protectorate. She also offered biting insights into the politics of oppression, yet did not—as we see in the second excerpt—fully realize the urgent necessity of sending her daughters to modern school.
Source: Abouzeid, Leila. Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman. Austin, Texas: The Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 1998.
This source is a part of the North African Women and the French Empire, 1850-2000 teaching module.
Then my mother told us, “The Nasara [Christians or French] have put your father in prison. Not because he did anything bad, but because he is a nationalist. ‘Nationalist’ means someone who wants the Nasara to get out of our country, and that’s honorable.” But her moaning disturbed me much more than the news. Still, her distress made it difficult not to think of prison as something bad.
In El Ksiba, where we lived after leaving Rabat, certain [Moroccan] inmates of the local prison were assigned to us by the French administration to do errands in the village. Those prisoners had been arrested for minor infractions of the law; most had injured somebody or stolen something. One had been arrested because he did not salute the French contrôleur général when he passed him on the street. One day, while still serving his sentence, he [the Moroccan prisoner] was taking the dough for our bread to the village bakery when he met the same Frenchman, riding his horse. He put the breadboard on the ground and saluted him with both hands. The Frenchman asked,
“Two salutes, why?”
“One is for your and the one is for the horse,” answered the inmate. Every time my mother heard that story she would say, “The poor man must have told himself, ‘If he could put me in jail because I did not salute him, he might increase my punishment if I don’t salute his horse.’” Then she would add, in a sad tone, “It is the law of the powerful. The law of the jungle.
The summer was over. We were getting ready to enter school and my mother’s old aunt Zineb came to her and said, “Is it true that you intend to enroll the girls at school?”
“Are you crazy? Who’s going to buy them notebooks and pens?”
“The nationalists, aunt. They are taking care of us. They send us money every month.”
“Send them to learn a craft and forget about school.”
“I would do that if it were only up to me, but their father says every time I visit him, ‘Take them to school,’ and I’ve never gotten a letter from him in which he does not emphasize it.”
“He spent his time having affairs with other women and spending money, then he went off to prison and now he decides to say school! What will a girl study, for heaven’s sake and what for? A girl’s destiny is marriage, pregnancy and breast-feeding, isn’t it? One would think at they are going to learn that language you need to deal with djinns!”
“But my dear aunt, the Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Youssef himself has ordered the nationalists to send their girls to school. And every time I visit Si Hmed in prison he insists that I take them to school. I can’t disobey him.”
“Your husband’s crazy and you’re crazier than he is. You should be the one to decide. The proverb says, ‘Show your friend the way, but if he refuses to see it, go your own way and leave him.’”
We did go to school, as my father had insisted. But before we began, there was always laundry day and bath day. The laundry and the bath came every week, but in those days before we started school, my mother made special occasions out of these weekly rituals.