Later that evening, when the tables above were filled with men, and Lilia and I plus one other female companion returned to the man's cafe, we stood at the outside curb to drink our coffees. We would not have felt comfortable or welcomed at the seats above.
It would be easy as an American woman to scoff at such traditions and to dismiss them as primitive and sexist, rather than to look below the surface. It was important to me to look below, and I was privileged to have a Tunisian American woman, my dear friend Lilia, to steer me beyond the superficial in order to help me understand Moroccan/Arabic culture, along with my in country consultant, Mariam Lahrizi.
Morocco has a traditional, patriarchal culture. While Moroccan women are slowly gaining more authority in society, there are still few women in top positions in government or the private sector. Women tend to live with their families until they get married.
This was the case with my host teacher's friend and colleague, Hasna, who lived with her mother in order to look after her, and taught school during the day. As we walked through the crowded streets of Fez, it became routine to hear any number of students shout out upon seeing her, "Teacher, Teacher." She told us the story of collecting their notebooks to check assignments and finding a love letter at the front of each male student's book. She held celebrity status in the eyes of her many students from the public school, where 40-50 students a day is common.
Morocco is still a male dominated society, though the government is working hard to maintain and advance the rights of women. Moroccan culture puts great emphasis on the separation of sexes in the home and in outside public spaces. In courthouses, for example, men and women are still expected to sit on opposite sides of the room. Male/female contact is often limited to hand-shaking but also depends to some degree on people's social class and their own habits.
Time is much more flexible in Morocco. Some people use the five daily prayers (which are governed by the sun) as their clock. Our host teacher, Abdulkarim, regularly excused himself to pray, and it was not uncommon to witness men running down the streets to get to their prayer sessions in a timely manner.
Body language is also different. Men of all ages often hold hands or have an arm around each other as they walk and talk. Women kiss to the sides of their faces in greeting. The more they like you, the more kisses you may expect to receive.