[Trigger warning: this blog post talks about physical punishment and describes instances of abuse.]
Three years ago I was in a northern city of Morocco. I was a Peace Corps Trainee, still living with a host family and trying to string words in Moroccan Arabic into sentences. I had just gone through another long day of language and cultural training and was sitting with my host family eating kaskrot (snack and tea time) as the sun went down. My young host cousin was sitting across from me at the table and dutifully completing his homework.
My host sister looked over his shoulder, picked up a book from the table with both hands and proceeded to smack him across the back of his head. She ripped the paper out of his notebook and told him to begin his homework again.
I gasped, horrified. My host sister looked at me and tried to justify her actions. She explained that my cousin’s handwriting wasn’t neat enough. I froze up and didn’t know what to do. My silence seemed to make her nervous, and she kept talking. “Wach fhemti Abir? Wach fhemti 3lach?” Do you understand Abir? Do you understand why?
And that’s the thing – I didn’t understand.
I was taught that hitting is never allowed. On a familial level, my parents exclusively forbade it. I was never hit as a child and neither were my siblings. I never even hit my siblings when we got into fights. We barely even wrestled for fun. On an educational level, I understood and believed in the proven negative effects corporal punishment has on children — such as increased aggressive behaviors, depression, and anxiety. These are beliefs that I have carried throughout my life and now were being directly confronted in Morocco.
So, in that moment, I mustered up all of my courage and all of the Moroccan Arabic I had learned and tried to have a conversation with my host sister. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all of the hospitality her family had shown me or be culturally insensitive, but at the same time I didn’t want to lie to her and say that I thought her behavior was acceptable.
This is your home, I told her. This is your home, and your country, so you can do whatever you want. But that doesn’t mean that I have to like it or agree with it.
In the many months since then, I’ve witnessed dozens more situations just like this.
When I visit families with young children, parents will regularly beg their child to behave by threatening “Abir ghatdrebk.” Abir is going to hit you.
Last year a father brought his son to my classroom at the Dar Chebab (youth center) and asked if his son had attended my English class the previous day. I responded that he hadn’t. The father then slapped his son across the face in front of me. The son, with tears in his eyes, apologized to me as he walked away.
Last month I was sitting in the living room of a family’s house and playing with the girls. Their father came in yelling that we were being too loud. He grabbed his youngest daughter and slapped her twice across the face, leaving a handprint on her cheek. He hit her so hard that her face was swollen and bruised for over a week.
Each situation ends the same way. I am wide eyed and stunned. What do I do?
If I were to consult officials at the Peace Corps, they’d advise me to stay out of it. It’s none of your business. It’s not your culture. Don’t get involved, they’d say.
In Morocco today the debate rages on about the use of physical abuse as a punishment as well as domestic violence. According to Human Rights Watch, the Moroccan government has failed to put in place proper laws that deter domestic violence, prosecute those convicted, and provide protection for victims. The state TV channel 2M was under worldwide pressure a few months ago when they aired a segment teaching women how to disguise their bruises with makeup so that they could “carry on with [their] daily life.” Additionally, there are no explicit laws forbidding teachers from using physical punishment on students in schools — even for students with special needs.
In my experience over the past three years, physical abuse and punishment is commonplace in Morocco.
Every time I watch a student-led theater performance, there is always a scene in which the mother is hit by her husband, or a father beats his child, or a boyfriend smacks his girlfriend. And this isn’t to make commentary – this is the punchline. The crowd laughs.
I asked one of my friends why people laughed, and she said that people needed to make light of the bad things that happened in their lives. It was their way to cope.
One of the officials that works for the Ministry of Youth and Sports in my town regularly comes into my classes and “jokes” with students by pretending to hit them, either with his hands or with a lanyard. Students cringe and try to laugh it off.
I teach a girls empowerment class each week where we often discuss the problems in our community and what we can do to help solve them. The girls identify domestic violence and physical abuse as an important issue every session.
So how do I not get involved? I think of these children as my sisters, my brothers, my neighbors, my precious students. And they identify the issue as a problem.
As an outsider, I struggle with this question a lot. At what point do I intervene when I see something happening that I believe is wrong? It’s not my culture and it’s not my community — so does that mean it isn’t my place to say something?
Where is the line? How do I decide when the line has been crossed?
In the end I decided that I have to stand up for what I believe in — especially when I believe physical harm is being done.
When parents threaten their children that I will hit them, I firmly state that I will not. When the ministry official pretends to hit children in my classroom, I ask him to stop and say that we do not hit in my classroom. When I witness a child being hit, I wait until the situation is over. Then I go to them and comfort them and try to have a conversation. I tell them that I love them.
These are the only things I can do. And it never feels like enough. I know that I am powerless to change this issue. But I also know that I am a role model for these children and that what I choose to say and do matters. I hope that they will see that. I hope it will give them pause next time they are in a situation where they may be the aggressor.
Change comes from within. And I hope that my actions are helping spur that change.
[Writer’s note: I feel compelled to mention that I love my Moroccan community very dearly and do not wish to bring harm to anyone with this post. I also understand that corporal punishment towards children happens all over the world, including the United States. But I also believe that I must critique those people and things that I love the most in order to make our world a better place.]