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The Story of Saida

The following is derived from a correspondence I sent to a former sociology professor (and present friend) regarding a student in my community. After sending it, I decided to tell her story (with a few changes to protect her identity) for a wider audience.

I want to tell you about a student of mine named Saida. In Arabic, her name means "happy," and it suits her somewhat, as almost every time I chat with her, she is smiling. Saida is an outlier among her peers. In a culture built upon clan identity, she prefers to keep to herself. In a culture that stresses the importance of religious devotion above all, she shows no signs of piety (at least, not the conservative Muslim kind favored in Aounate). Saida enjoys reading books and online articles, especially in the fields of psychology, philosophy, and astronomy. In short, she is curious and full with questions. She tells me the greatest thing she can do in life is to discover herself and discover the world. I have not met a student in all of Aounate who possesses this thirst for discovery like Saida.

She has no Facebook account. This is not so unusual. Facebook (more specifically, the idea of girls having an online presence of any kind) is viewed as an impropriety at best, anti-Muslim at worst. Only a little more than half the students in my community have an account, and those that do have an account never post pictures of themselves or even use their real names (which makes it next to impossible to tell who is who online). Anyway, Saida's refusal to sign up is not founded in any religious sentiment or desire to abide by cultural norms. Saida simply doesn't have friends.

It is astounding, really, that a bright, smiley, curious 17-year-old has no friends, but such is the degree of adherence that rural Moroccan society demands of its boys and girls. Girls like Saida are social lepers. Her teachers, too, dislike her. She asks too many questions, challenges their authority. Some teachers have accused her of atheism, which of course serves to further alienate her from her peers.

Saida lives with depression. She often talks about violence, death, and the absurdity of living. She hates her country, and particularly Aounate. She adores Hitler. "The world would be a better place if he had succeeded," she tells me. I remind her that Hitler also hated the Arabs, that had he exterminated the Jews, Arabs might have been next. "This would have been a great thing. We have not done anything good for the world. It would be better without us."

I felt like I needed to invest in this girl's development by encouraging her, by praising her inquisitive propensities. We agreed to start a book club after she finished her studies for the year. I picked out The Plague by Albert Camus, in the hopes that the story would instill in her a conviction of life's goodness. For a time, she was coming into the youth center almost every day just to chat, usually about ideas - philosophers we like, the value of questioning authority, things like that. She told me that I am her only real friend.

Last month, Saida came into my office to tell me goodbye. It was the day after the tests had wrapped up at school. She explained that she is no longer permitted to come into the youth center; the sexual harassment in the streets is more than her family feels she can handle. It is a lot to deal with. Even emotionally-stable volunteers are driven to hysterics by the flagrant hostility towards women which they experience on the streets. So I reluctantly accepted her goodbye, but I made her promise to at least get an email address, and I gave her mine. I have not heard from her since.

To those who say that we should accept Morocco's attitude towards its women, I say rubbish. The plain truth is that any society can rob us of our humanity. Sometimes it throws up impossibly high barriers for its women or its indigent poor. And we must not hesitate to scorn that which oppresses and kills.

This country has a lot of work to do. It must alter its attitude towards curious, introverted girls, for one. Behavior change is the hardest part of my job, and the primary reason I have stayed in country. Until I leave next May, I am going to do everything in my power to change the way Aounate regards its girls. I will especially concentrate on men, as they seem to be the only part of the population who believes that gender issues don't factor high on Morocco's priority list. God help me, but they will when I'm through here. At least a few more will, and that's a start.
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