This study offers a diagnostic of the experience of black Moroccan women in Morocco, at the nexus of gender and racism, an experience marked by a double stigma. The term “black women” refers to all women who are socially and culturally seen and represented by the color of their skin and who are minoritized based on their phenotype. Unlike black men, they are also a double minority for being both women and black. I argue that exploring the status of black women enables us to fully understand the black condition in Morocco (La Condition Noir Au Maroc).1 My approach is inspired by the field of Black Studies notably intersectional approaches that reveal the juncture of two interlinked experiences: the experience of womanhood (gender), and Blackness (color, race).2 This study is deeply informed by the notion of stigma as developed by Erving Goffman (Goffman, 1975).
Since there are no official racial statistics, as is the case in a number of Arab countries, it is difficult to confirm the existence of racism against black women in Morocco. However, black women’s accounts and testimonies remain a crucial scientific tool to expose the real condition of black women in the Moroccan society. I rely on the data I gathered through semi-structured interviews with ten black students who attended the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat in 2019. I also supplemented this work with some readings and interviews which were conducted as part of my post-doctoral research on the status of black Moroccan women.3
My goal is to shed light on the forms of discrimination these students face and their agency in resisting discrimination. I conducted six focus groups with non-black students at the same university, where I focused on their perceptions of blackness. I wanted to uncover the stereotypes these students cultivate about black women, and their imaginary of the female black body. I extended this research to quantitative and qualitative data analysis of black visibility on Moroccan television, focusing mostly on Moroccan channels Al Aoula and 2M.
Blackness in Moroccan Society
What are the perceptions of blackness in Morocco? My respondents warned me against using the term “akhal” (black) because they find it racist and offensive. For instance, one respondent stated that "this subject cannot be brought up using the term blacks’ because it is offensive to black people.” He preferred “asmar” (“brown”). Another respondent found the term “hostile” (Yassni, 2017).
In Moroccan society, most people consider the label akhal insulting and prefer terms like “tan” or “person of color,” to avoid accusations of racism. Rama Yade, a French politician with Senegalese roots, argued that “many people are hesitant, or altogether refuse, to use the term ‘black’ as if it were an insult. Some avoid using the term to not be hurtful or for fear of being accused of racism” (Yade, 2007).
Similarly, during news broadcasts on Moroccan channels Al Aoula and 2M, a reluctance to use the term “black” has been observed; it was subsequently replaced by the term asmar. We also no longer hear the expression “the black continent” but rather “the brown continent.” Furthermore, similar to the situation in France, many Moroccans have come up with several labels to replace the term black (“akhal” or “aswad”), such as “Draoui,” “Sahrawi,”4 “Tuareg,” "person of color" or by using the English word "black." Reluctance to use the word “akhal” can be explained through the following arguments:
- Language largely contributes to associating blackness with inferiority;
- The color black was often associated with slavery. The history of slavery has largely contributed to the stigmatization and social inferiority of black Africans in Morocco, including black Moroccans;
- Black is associated with Africa, a continent that people link with slavery, underdevelopment, violence, hunger, and diseases; and
- As of yet, there are few contemporary black Arab intellectuals whose writing attempts to overturn the stigmatization of blackness; nor are there Black Arab movements like the Black Panther Party in the United States and Le Movement De La Négritude in France. In Morocco, there is no Moroccan version of “Senghor”5, and no black Moroccan has ever released a song praising being black; on the other hand, the black Moroccan singer Houcine Slaoui has a song entitled, “El Kahla Bent Eddaser” (“Black Woman, Daughter of an Ill-Mannered, Shameless Man”) which presents an unflattering image of a black woman. Unfortunately, the song was re-recorded and re-released by the Gnawi singer Bari, and this new version still plays on Moroccan radio stations; it was even performed live in Essaouira Festival in 2006 which was broadcast live on the Moroccan channel 2M.6 The song is played without attracting any outcry or condemnation.
The concept of the black condition is key to approaching the reality of Black Moroccans. Ndiaye identifies this condition as "a social situation which is not that of a class, a state, a caste or a minority, but is that of a group of people who share the social experience of being considered black” (Ndiaye, 2008, p.29). Talking about the black condition puts us in the framework of a minority approach rather than an identity one. Here, Tommie Shelby’s (Shelby, 2005) distinction between thick and thin identity is highly illuminating. Following a Shelbian approach to identity, a thick identity designates an entity hinged on a shared culture and history which draws a clear line of demarcation between the self and the other. A minority approach, on the contrary, is premised on what Shelby terms as thin identity. The latter identifies a social group whose commonality is strictly limited to a prescribed and consciously shared identity experience informed by a long history of domination. Pap Ndiye, in a similar vein, argues that the minority approach, based on the notion of thin identity, is pertinent in conceptualising black populations as a community sharing an ensemble of imposed stereotypes.
We cannot assume that the ethnic aspect is a common denominator among black Moroccans because they do not share the same cultural identity. Some Black people consider themselves Amazigh and others consider themselves Arabs or Sahrawis. Considering this array of identities, the only thing that black Moroccans have in common is the color of their skin, what it symbolizes, and the social perceptions of it.
In Morocco, there is a black minority7 inasmuch as there are people who are considered black; it is the only connection they have, weak as it may be (Ndiaye, 2008, p.65). Here the term minority does not refer to a statistical definition but rather to a dominated social group. As Moroccan sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy has already argued “minorities are not always statistical quantities. For example, women are not a statistical minority but they are still considered a minority in a relational sense; meaning, in comparison to men, who are a prevailing, dominant group” (Dialmy, 2013).
Black Moroccan Women: Between Racism and Patriarchy
The interviews I conducted with black female students called attention to the patriarchal mindset of some Moroccans and their hostility towards black women. One of the interviewees complained about the stares, insults, and even the seemingly harmless jokes she receives in the public space.8 If black men can resist verbal violence using physical strength to engage in confrontation, it seems that many black female students are helpless in defending themselves against the humiliating insults they receive in public spaces. Indeed, one of my female interviewees voiced their powerlessness to defend themselves against racist insults and verbal abuse from males. The only tactic of defense that women resort to in such a situation is to show indifference or pretend not to hear this verbal violence. Furthermore, black men and black women do not experience and apprehend verbal abuse in similar fashions. While black men are capable of showing forms of resistance, which in a sense plays a cathartic role by opening up a space for the expression of anger, black women, on the contrary, are forced to internalize and rein in their discontent, which leaves indelible psychological scars.
They do not receive these insults only from "white" male students but from "white" female students and black male students as well. One black student expressed her resentment of the word “just” that students whisper around her. She told us about an incident where she heard a female student tell her friend that “she’s just black and even so, she got good marks.” Another student told us that black male students prefer “white” students and that “they only come to black girls when they need to copy their notes.”9
One black student informed us of how much she had to endure when the Ebola Virus first emerged; she was regularly addressed by the nickname "Ebola" on the street. Erving Goffman raised this issue by differentiating between discernable and hidden stigmas (Goffman, 1975, p. 14). Viewed through the color of her skin, a black person cannot hide being black. The following table outlines the numerous labels attributed to black people:
Derogatory terms: Slave, Hartaniya, Azziya, Derrawiya, Sahrawiya, Genawiya, Antiza
Terms of Animals and plants: Plant: Charcoal, sunflower seed, olive. Animal: monkey, goat, cockroach.
Terms for “black skinned” people: Black-faced, burnt, scorched.
Endearing terms: Of color, Tan, Awizziya (diminutive of Azziya)
Names of black celebrities: Macarena
Although many of these labels can also be used to refer to black men, their degree of repetition and hostility increases when it comes to black women (Yassni, 2019). Interviews have shown that black men resist and stand up to these labels. Sometimes, it is done through physical and verbal altercations. On the other hand, black women often find themselves unable to stand up to this patriarchal violence.
“An Azziya is a cure for the cold” and “an Azziya costs nothing”
One of the most notable labels people attribute to black women is the term “Azziya”. The origins of this term are unknown, and it is the subject of different hypotheses, there is no reliable reference to confirm the source of this term. The term “Azzy” has many interpretations in popular culture; some believe it comes from the term “Azz” (pride), the letter “y” is believed to refer to “me”, meaning “my pride.” It is believed that kings in Morocco took pride in black people because of their strength (El Hamel, 2018, p.304). It was also believed that kings and merchants used to walk surrounded by black people, and saying “they are my pride, my honor and gallantry”; and that it is where the word “Azzy” originates from. To merchants, it means using slaves for protection, carrying goods, and children. However, some translate the term as “dirty negro,” which is how Sub-Saharan immigrants understand it when the term is directed at them in Moroccan streets )Tel Quel, 2003). Two of the most notable expressions black Moroccan women we interviewed often hear are “an Azziya is a cure for the cold" and "and "Azziya costs nothing".
The expression “Azziya is a cure for the cold” signifies that black women are hot and have a high sexual drive. And although black men get their fair share of insinuations regarding their sexual potency, these allusions are usually given as compliments, thus turning this stigma into a source of pride, according to my respondents. For women, however, this stigma turns them into nothing but carnal bodies and therefore becomes a source of humiliation.
According to the French footballer of African origins, Lilian Thuram (Thuram, 2020, p.155), black celebrities, to express social ascendance and mobility, not only engage in conspicuous consumption by acquiring luxury goods, but also they marry white women, which, for them, is a cherry on top of the social cake. Put differently, a white woman turns into a sort of a veil that not only masks but also lightens the skins of those black celebrities. To borrow Goffman’s words (Goffman, 1975, p.19), a white wife is a tactic aimed at correcting the social and racial stigma associated with blackness. This tendency seems to echo the words of one black female interviewee10 who mockingly argued that even in her social entourage a growing number of black men seek white female partners in their quest for social and racial recognition.
According to many light-skinned Moroccan men, black women are not fit for marriage, but only for sexual encounters. As one of my interviewees put it,11 “black women are only beautiful when they’re undressed.” One of our interviewees confirmed this association by narrating an incident with his mother: “I jokingly told my mom that I was going to propose to a black woman, and she responded by saying ‘so, you want to bring a slave into our home, and have little cockroaches as children’.”
In addition to the expression “Azziya is a cure for the cold,” black women have expressed their disdain for the hurtful expression – “an Azziya costs nothing” -- that implies that they cost nothing in comparison to white women. This is one of the most violent sentences that black women are faced with in Moroccan streets. One of my respondents described how her relative refrained from leaving the house for an entire month prior to her wedding ceremony to avoid sun exposure. If white complexion increases the value of women in the “marriage market,” then dark completion decreases it.
It is impossible to comprehend the carnal, worthless, and dehumanizing view of black women without going back to the legacy of enslavement that is still presently damaging black women. Even though black people were able to be free of slavery, they were still unable to free themselves of the perceptions of inferiority that still reside in the imagination of Moroccan society. In European nations, slavery posed a problem that had to be urgently solved; and in order to do that, an entire political and intellectual project was established.
The discourse surrounding the black body confirms that it has been the victim of a historical and cultural production; this production is an enduring image that provides a link between a tragic past and a discriminatory present. Not only did black concubines who worked in Moroccan farms have to deal with economic and physical ramifications, but they had to endure sexual violence as well (El Hamel, 2003). In the historical TV show “Dar Dmana” which aired on the Moroccan channel Al Aoula, the director revealed the degree of sexual violence black concubines had to endure from their masters through the black character "Yakouta." This forcible violation resulted in an unwanted pregnancy that almost cost Yakouta her life. She was eventually banished from her master's household.
Moroccan histography seldom cared about the daily lives of slaves, in general, and that of black concubines, in particular. Due to social and political pressure, authors and scholars were forced to overlook the suffering of slaves which was reflected in the phenomenon of runaway slaves, a natural reaction to mistreatment (Benlemlih, 2005, p.82). Abdelilah Benlemlih revealed statements that exposed the brutal abuse that black concubines had to endure, notably branding with fire. He used examples by "Essaqti" who drew attention to the branding of female slaves and considered it a cruel punishment. He pointed out that a slave was once found with fire branding on her skin, which was considered a flaw, and the slave had to be returned. Another instance of branding was noted by Ibn Elhajj concerning a fire branding found in a slave after she had died “whilst washing her body, he found a horrendous branding that stretched from her upper stomach to her belly button” (Ibid., p.80).
The phenomenon of female slaves running away refutes the concept of “merciful house slavery” that was prevalent in Moroccan society. Mohammed Ennaji has revealed that several Moroccan and colonial researchers and scholars mention the notion of "merciful slavery" in Moroccan society (Ennaji, 1983, p. 6). James Gray Jackson described slavery in Morocco as humane; a type of slavery that cannot be compared to the struggle of black slaves in American plantations. Jackson also argued that slaves were so integrated into Moroccan families that they did not wish to be free (Jackson, 1809, p. 293-294). However, the choice to flee despite the risks of cruel punishments if their attempts were to ever be aborted is proof of how badly black female slaves were treated daily in Morocco.
Historical Moroccan movies only hint at the existence of slavery by including characters of black slaves, thus, trying to contribute to instilling the notion of merciful slavery. Black female slaves were always portrayed as content with being slaves and well-merged in the families to which they belonged. As for punishment, in the most severe cases, they were either abandoned or married off. Malek Chebel argues that Moroccan families often referred to their slaves as servants, sons, or “dadda” (“nannies”) (Chebel, 2007, p.59). In Moroccan movies, black female slaves are portrayed as loyal to their mistresses, and they are always depicted as maids in order to conceal the existence of slavery. Even the mistress of the house - or more fittingly, the director - in TV shows like “Dar Dmana” or “Sayyida al Hurra” refers to slaves as maids in order to mask their real situation.
Black Women in National Broadcast Media
While many white Moroccan women are highly visible in hosting positions and other top-media jobs, black women are rarely seen in these types of jobs. On the rare occasion where black women are present in the media, they only fulfill stereotypical roles related to service and cooking; as in, roles that were adhered to them since slavery. To date, Moroccan media has yet to include a black news presenter or a black protagonist of a movie or Television show.
Many Moroccan visual media materials restrict the presence of black women to roles associated with domestic service, as was the case for the two seasons of the soap opera “Rdat Lwalida” on the Moroccan channel Al Oula and the movie, “Ahlam,” on the Moroccan channel 2M. This further strengthens the social notion that links black bodies to slavery. The rare presence of black women in media has always been associated with roles of inferiority that align with the social perception of black social roles that only entail cooking, serving, and preparing tea (Yassni, 2017).
Morocco’s official bodies do not condemn anti-black and stereotypical media discourse; in fact, they highlight it. For example, the High Authority for Audiovisual Communication solely issued a warning for the TV channel “Medi 1 TV” regarding the hidden-camera television series “Waqila Howa” (“It Might Be Him”) that aired in Ramadan of 2015 for containing offensive racist and insensitive language (Editorial Board of Telexpresse, 2015). During an episode of the show, a woman was led to believe that her husband married a second wife, a black Sub-Saharan woman. The “pranked wife” replied to the allegation by saying “he replaced me with an Azziya.” She reiterated during the same episode that “he could have replaced me with a beautiful woman, someone with blonde hair and blue eyes, not an Azziya.” Although the show was not aired live, the offensive speech was not removed (ibid.).
Black Women and the Stereotypical Image of the Cook
Cooking was one of the main areas in which black female slaves excelled. Historian Al-Bakri stated that during the 11th century, the Sudanese12 slave market in Aoudaghost included many great cooks; their prices were known to be high, as they often reached 100 Mithqal. Sudanese cooks were rare to come by, and whoever owned them often refused to sell them (Boulektib, 2010, p.25). The viewpoint of the good "kitchen cook" was often accompanied with the "bath maid," the woman who scrubs the dirt off of other women during baths. A black female slave often cooked for her mistress and helped clean and bathe her; and as such, her social inferiority was reflected onto the inferiority of her roles at the homes she served in, which were always the hardest and dirtiest (Mateo Dieste, 2020, p.444). Leo Africanus attests that in the Moroccan city of Fez during the 16th century, bath maids were black, and owning them was a practice adopted by wealthy families. Moreover, they were sometimes given as wedding gifts (Idem).
On the rare occasion that black people do make an appearance on Moroccan television, their roles are confined to stereotypical portrayals of domestic servants. These roles are filled with negative connotations linked to times of slavery, where black female slaves were either nursemaids or cooks for wealthy Moroccan families. For example, Moroccan media often creates a connection between black people and tea rituals. The television program “Narhma w Atay” (“A Tune and Tea”) which was aired on the Moroccan channel Al Aoula, was hosted by a black man in a Makhzen uniform (white Djellaba and a red Fez), similar to the attire of the black people who accompany the King during holiday ceremonies or on Throne Day, or as Moroccans call them, the Tuaregs. The host often prepared traditional tea with the guests of the show.
The notion that black people should be tasked with preparing tea for other (white) people - who were masters - is not exclusive to black men but to black women as well. Some advertisements and entertainment shows (for instance, the cooking show Master Chef)13, where black women are present, have to do with cooking, couscous, and tea products. These roles further encourage the idea of inferiority of black women and confine them to the archaic themes of hard work, kitchens, misery, and subordination, making it easy to associate black women with slaves in the social Moroccan imagination. They are facilitating the establishment of synonym between the word “black” and “slave,” which is what we noticed from many of our interviewees (see also Naji, 2011). This would explain the viral edited photo (meme) which had the head of the black chef, who serves as a judge in the television program “Master Chef” placed onto the body of the famous black maid from the Tom and Jerry cartoons.
On December 14, 2017, the Moroccan channel 2M broadcast a report on tea in Morocco; and again, they found none other than a black woman to prepare and pour the tea. What drew my attention in this report, are the sequences showing the host of the show. Every time the white woman (the white body) appeared on the screen, she was made to fulfill a role of social, economic, and symbolic superiority. However, when it was the black woman's (black body’s) turn to appear onscreen, she was portrayed in a manner that promoted her inferiority, which was reflected in the task she had at hand. The person pouring tea was a black woman, whereas the doctor offering medical and scientific advice was a white woman.
Black Women between Roles of Slaves and Maids
In historical Moroccan TV dramas, such as “Dar Dmana” and "Sayyida al Hurra,” black women often portray slaves, and in movies from recent years, they play maids; as is the case in the television series “Rdat Lwalida,” where the black character became a “maid” after she was an “khadm.”14 In the movie, “Al Tayaba,” the director cast a black woman to be the manager of the public bath. As for the movie “Ahlam,” the same black actress who portrayed the role of the slave in “Dar Dmana” was cast as the maid.
The fact that the majority of black roles in Moroccan cinema are limited to roles of slavery and service further instills the prevalent idea that the terms "black" and "slave" are synonymous with each other. One of our interviewees confirmed that many wealthy families in the capital city of Rabat, or whom she referred to as "Villa owners" are racing to find black servants because they believe they would make the perfect servants, or rather, the perfect slaves. They believe they are patient and can be away from their families, and their original geographic roots - which many likely imagine is in the south - for long periods of time.
Many of our black interviewees stressed that they do not understand why some Moroccans assume they are of Southern origins: “I was born in Rabat, I never set foot in any Saharan region, yet everybody calls me a Sahrawi. When I got the highest GPA in the regional final exam, the principal of my high school jokingly told me that ‘as it turns out, even Sahrawis can speak French!’ He could not comprehend the thought of a black student being excellent in French.”15 Furthermore, one of our male interviewees informed us that his mother often told his black southern friends that she was looking for a “black Sahrawi maid,” and that when he asked her why she necessarily had to be black, she told him that it is because “they are strong, and they would be far away from their family here, so they would not nag me with requests to visit their families.”
The image of the black maid/cook has continued in the media despite the significant transformations in Moroccan society. This is easy to confirm upon going back to old commercial advertisements that aired in the 1980s. Notably, the "Knorr" commercial in which a black woman played the role of an excellent cook/maid called "Mi Zahra" who used "Knorr" products in her Ramadan dishes. The final scene of this commercial showed the white family enjoying Mi Zahra's16 food, with her absent from the dining table.
Today, black brides and grooms are still completely absent from much media, including among the numerous bridal TV programs on Moroccan television. The show “Lalla Laaroussa,” which has been hosted by several white, Moroccan celebrities throughout the years, has never included any black contestants. A similar show, “The Howdah,” which showcased different wedding rituals in Moroccan regions, never included a wedding of a black bride and groom; the presence of black people in the show was confined to the stereotypical images, such as black men carrying the bride in the Marrakech17 wedding or serving as the wedding cook in the Chichawa18 wedding.
The absence of black brides and grooms reflects the reality that many white Moroccans reject taking black people as spouses. Many Moroccans refuse to have their children marry black people because they connect black skin to slavery. For example, Jacques-Meunié claims in his study on social stratification in pre-Saharan Morocco that interracial marriage between black and white people was impossible. Similarly, Zakaria Ibrahimi (2021) talks in a recent study about ‘social criminalisation and interdiction’ of interracial marriage between blacks and whites in Zagora. The presence of black spouses on television could turn around the colorism discourse that links beauty to skin fairness.
To conclude, Moroccan black women are not victims of legal racism, but everyday racism in the form of words, stares, scenes, and no media visibility, as well as horrid stereotypical images that boil down to an inferior social status. This is a form of ‘gendered racism’ (Essed, 2005) wherein macro-sociological dimensions of racism (historical, cultural, and structural) coalesce with forms of micro-aggressions experienced by black women in their daily interactions. In this regard, the situation of black women does considerably relate to the situation of black men when it comes to stereotypes and discrimination, but it is still distinctive because it is a junction of two stigmas, the gender stigma (woman) and that of skin color (black). Black women live a discriminatory experience in which patriarchy and racism overlap; being women makes them an easy target to the male violence that attacks their bodies by using insulting terms such as “Azziya”, “an Azziya cures the cold,” and “an Azziya costs nothing.” Moreover, media representation only further ingrains stereotypical images of Black women, as black actresses largely appear in subservient roles, like slaves or maids.
African American feminism was able to grant feminism an alternative epistemological framework and new theoretical knowledge tools to examine a set of overlapping and intersecting oppressions that could be applied to other socio-cultural contexts, notably the Moroccan black context. Translating these founding texts into Arabic is an important tool that would enable identifying the main issues that this third wave of feminism presents.
Lastly, it is important to encourage academic research on black women. Understanding the black condition is the first step towards erasing the stigma and normalizing it. If we genuinely had the will to change our society and fight color discrimination, we must not only focus on positive discrimination or affirmative action. Changing mindsets alone cannot break color barriers and unite us, according to French activist Lilian Thuram (Thuram, 2010, p.11). It has become essential to develop a black feminist discourse that contributes to understanding, criticism, comparison, creation, and creativity regarding this subject, which will raise awareness of the issues facing black women and create social change based on social justice.
Yassine Yassni is a professor and researcher in sociology at the University Ibn Tofail, College of Literature and Social Sciences in Kenitra, Morocco.
Translated from Arabic by El Habib Louai