Left cheek pressed to a warm pillow, I woke up to the absence of light outside the window facing me. It took me a little while to remember where I was because this wasn’t my room. It was a weekend which meant I was at grandma’s; it was customary for my extended family to gather at her house every weekend. It was also customary for one of my aunts to put me to sleep around noon. I used to be a troublesome kid and would entice every other child’s inner jinn to come out until the entire house became a headache factory for every adult in it. Ironically though, this time I woke up to music so loud it gave me a headache.
I opened the door to bright lights and huge speakers erected in every corner of the courtyard, blasting live music from a small Moorish band in the center of the scene. Some of the women were clapping while others would dance with their veils covering their faces. As a child, I always thought they looked like colorful ghosts; I still kind of do even though I now understand why it’s customary for a woman to veil her face while dancing.
In Moorish Mauritanian culture, women are expected to behave in a shy and reserved manner in public, so to be able to dance freely in front of others they need to cover their faces for their expressions not to show, claiming anonymity so as not to stain their haya.
On our way back home later that night, I asked my mother whose wedding it was on our way back home because it looked a lot like a wedding party. She giggled and told me that it wasn’t one, it was a celebration for her sister who recently got divorced. She went on explaining that her sister had just completed her idda, which is the Islamic term for the waiting period a divorced woman must go through before she can remarry. After that, a party is to be thrown in her honor.
When I turned 18, I left to Morocco for my undergrad studies. One of the biggest culture shocks I encountered there were Moroccan women telling me stories about their abusive husbands and why domestic violence was not a good enough reason to terminate their marriage. Divorce seems to be one of the biggest taboos in these women’s lives because a divorced woman, they explained, would take all of the blame for a failed marriage and start to be treated as an outcast from society as if she were guilty of a horrid crime. They would even go as far as to justify this with religion, saying that Islam demands women to obey their husbands.
I always perceived their reaction to the thought of divorce as an exaggeratedly-charged fear, until I realized that it was only so because I was looking at it through my own culturally-conditioned lens. Coming from a culture that celebrates divorce, I might just never be able to really understand that struggle.
Moving to a different country and meeting people with drastically different views on marriage had forced me to dig deeper into my own beliefs and look at my culture from a different perspective. I had to ask myself “why is it that my culture is so accepting of divorce in contrast with Moroccan culture?” The reason, I found, is because my culture is a matriarchal culture. Since women have always been in charge of the household and raising of children, men grow up searching for a mother figure in their wives, with whom they have to consult before taking any significant decision in their lives, just like they used to do with their mothers. As a result of such upbringing, women are generally considered wiser than men and are sometimes even more sought after post-divorce, because the fact that a woman has already been married quintessentially adds to her experience in life and knowledge.
During my stay abroad, I have come to realize that Muslim patriarchal cultures usually resort to religion to justify the way in which they treat women, claiming that it is dictated by the Holy Quran for men to be their superiors. However, Mauritania is an Islamic republic. In the educational system in Mauritania, children are traditionally required to learn about the Prophet (pbuh)’s life and memorize the mushaf by heart before or as they pursue a secular education. Yet religion is not used to discriminate against women in the same way I’ve seen it done in some other Islamic cultures. Rather, we highlight the verses and hadiths regarding the importance of women in society.
It is almost impossible to judge which culture is more correct in how it chooses to treat its members. Here we have two predominantly Muslim cultures, Mauritanian and Moroccan, who use the same religion in different ways; this might just mean that cultures don’t necessarily adapt to religion but the other way around.
Disclaimer: The author’s experience with a culture other than hers is a personal one; this article serves to convey a personal narrative rather than to analyze the discussion around divorce in different cultures (Moroccan and Mauritanian).