Cut out of society

African women en route to Europe often land up stuck in Morocco, taking on precarious work as hairdressers and beauticians.

Mercedes, Abandoned Cemetery, Las Norias, Almería, Spain, 2004. Credit John Perivolaris via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Due to the repressive policies of the European Union towards migration from countries south of the Mediterranean, Morocco has become a de facto host country for a large population of African migrants en route to Europe. According to François Reybet-Degat, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Kingdom of Morocco, officially:

… the Moroccan national strategy of immigration and asylum adopted in 2013 is centered around humans. It seeks to guarantee residence permits to as many migrants as possible, in addition to granting them access to healthcare and education. This reflects a political willingness that is not necessarily found everywhere.

However, upon meeting African women migrants (mostly from West and Central Africa) in two poor neighborhoods in the city of Tangier, it became obvious that women benefit the least from migrant regulation. Their lack of knowledge of the laws, the slow pace of bureaucracy, and the complexity of the procedures, as well as the stereotypes and quotidian racism they encounter, make them easily exploitable.

In everyday interactions with Moroccan women, migrant women are often racialized, oversexualized, and demonized (as practitioners of black magic), but this does not preclude them from being exploited as a cheap source of labor. Those very Moroccan women who “fear” migrant women are the very same who solicit their services in beauty salons and as maids or nannies in their homes. Moroccan women also exploit migrant women as tenants: they rent them rooms, houses, or premises but refuse to provide lease agreements that would make the acquisition of a residence permit easier.

African migrant women offer aesthetician services (beauty and skin care) to Moroccan women who have limited incomes. Their prices are comparatively lower than those offered by Moroccan aestheticians, who usually cater to middle class customers. By expanding access to such services, migrant women contribute to the democratization of beauty treatments, such as pedicures, manicures, and hairstyling, no longer a luxury available only to the few. To perform these jobs, some of these women have taken advantage of the skills and the trades they practiced in their countries of origin, and others have undergone training in aesthetics and hairdressing in Moroccan women’s associations.

The growing demand for wigs and hairpieces indicates an increasingly pressing demand among Moroccan women who suffer from hair loss due to the widespread use of hair dye. Migrant aestheticians also offer products and other services, including fake eyelashes and the tracing of eyebrows that are increasingly popular among Moroccan women who want to look like the music stars and celebrities of the Middle East.

However, because they are often not documented, African migrant business owners have to resort to “unlawful” practices. This has a ripple effect: the lack of documentation related to lawful employment means that migrant women are unable to provide lease contracts to the authorities in order to regularize their status (as required by law). Because they don’t have legal lease contracts they are unable to acquire access to water supply and electricity, and as a result, their businesses suffer. This puts them under the control of their landlords, who will supply them with these utilities conditionally, making it challenging for them to perform and sustain their businesses.

Migrant women business owners also provide work for other migrant women without registering them because of their precarious status. While there is an understanding that this implies a blatant breach of the law, they are painstakingly aware of the bureaucracy of Morocco’s regularization process, which is long and complicated for a variety of reasons. Migrant women would rather keep a low profile and earn a living than expose their status. Moroccan hairdressers also use the services of unregistered migrant women workers especially for pedicures, manicures, and “African” hairstyles. These women are actually able to negotiate their salaries, despite their precarious status, because of the increasing demands for their services.

Other African migrant women who work as housekeepers often report mistreatment by their employers, including verbal abuse and sometimes even physical violence. The few Moroccan women employers we interviewed claim that these women are “dirty” and do not show them respect. Migrant women, on the other hand, accuse their employers of jealousy and ignorance. They claim employers are naïve and do not understand the supernatural power they possess to potentially curse these women. In this way, migrant women claim agency by tapping into Moroccan women’s fears and stereotypes about them as “practitioners of black magic.”

In Tangier, regularized migrant African women (i.e. those with residents or work permits) have the opportunity of forming arts and craft cooperatives, with the assistance of Moroccan women’s associations such as Darna and the Union of Women’s Action of Tangier (UAF-section Tanger). These associations provide them with training, start-up financing, and the opportunity to interact with Moroccan cooperatives to learn how to build their businesses. The non-regularized migrants do not have this advantage. To facilitate their integration into Moroccan society these women adopt Moroccan names and even learn Moroccan dialect (or Darija).

Having become foreigners in a country that only appeared as a land of transit in their initial project to reach Europe, migrant African women have resigned themselves to settling in Morocco—but with difficulty and a sense of unease. This is compounded by their lack of access to legal protection, full employment, and discriminatory behavior from their Moroccan neighbors. In their description of daily life in Tangier, they reproach their Moroccan neighbors for looking down on them. These African women’s answer to the question, “but aren’t Moroccan women African too? ” their answer is “yes, but….”

Moroccan women are not immune to the image of “black Africa” in the Moroccan imaginary—a land of wealth and magic from which Moroccan men brought back concubines and enslaved people until the early 20th century. Bodies of migrant women, as maids and as nannies, are a reminder of that legacy. We should examine these histories and question our perceptions of the new migration space, redefine the migratory project and decode the stereotypes that freeze intercultural encounters.

Further Reading

Taper salam

For African women passing through Morocco en route to Europe, begging on the streets becomes a way to support themselves, but also reinforces humiliation and shame.

Between East Africa and the Gulf

Political encounters between the Arab Gulf and Africa span centuries. Mahmud Traouri’s novel ‘Maymuna’ demonstrates the significant role of a woman’s journey from East Africa to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.