CASABLANCA, Morocco (WOMENSENEWS)--A transcendental light, diffused by the steam, filters in through the skylight, creating a warm, moist sanctuary where the coarseness of Casablanca--Morocco's biggest, grimiest city--is kept firmly at bay.
Inside the ocher-tiled "hammam," or bathhouse, an ancient, self-indulgent rhythm reigns.
Songs of water tinkle above the patter of Moroccan grandmothers--fleshy, wet, odalisque figures--training their scampering granddaughters in the time-honored rituals of staying clean.
Bustling in the steam, her flip-flops slapping the tiles as she carries buckets of water to and from the antechamber, Rabia is a figure of focused industry, in stark contrast to the languor of the soaking creatures around her.
A sturdy 23-year-old, Rabia--whose name has been changed to protect her identity--is a hammam worker at the Center of Health and Beauty. A popular Casablanca bath-cum-beauty center, it strikes a balance between the dank, old public bathhouses and the sanitary, lifeless five-star hotel offerings.
Rabia may be a low-skilled laborer, but inside the hammam she's an angel of nurture.
Which Western tourist in Morocco has not tested a traditional bathhouse? Which first-time tourist lost and uninitiated in the mysterious drill of these places has not gratefully latched on to a bathhouse worker, obediently succumbing to their nudges in the absence of a common language to move from room to room, wash off a lather, or recline in the right position for an exfoliation?
Outside the bathhouse though, the hamman worker's status and importance disappear. Like the majority of the people in this country, with a per capita annual income of $4,400, where nearly 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Moroccan hammam workers are locked in a daily struggle to keep their heads above water.
Although the North African Arab nation has been chipping away at its poor economic markers, recording a 6 percent growth rate last year, there is, as yet, little sign of the prosperity trickling down to the most impoverished sections of the population. A chronic housing shortage makes it hard for rural migrants to find a roof even in squalid shanties. The female literacy rate hovers around 40 percent and overall joblessness was 7.7 percent in 2006, with that figure running as high as 20 percent in some impoverished urban areas.
Hope for an inordinate number of Moroccans lies north of the African continent, in Western Europe where more than 2 million people of Moroccan descent currently live. Remittances from Moroccans working abroad alone touched $4.5 billion last year, making the country the fourth largest remittance receiver in the developing world.
But it is a hope that's restricted to a fortunate few even at the best of times when Europe isn't slamming its doors to immigrants.
And for Rabia, illiterate and low-skilled, Europe and America are distant, barely conceivable lands.
What's more, she's already been part of a migration wave before, and it was traumatic.
When she was only 8, Rabia had to leave her family and village near the southern Moroccan town of Asif to work as a maid in Casablanca. Although Moroccan laws prohibit minors from working, the country has one of the highest child labor rates in the Arab world. Overworked, frequently exploited and often physically and psychologically abused, girls--or "little maids"-- are one of the most vulnerable groups of urban child workers, according to the Geneva-based International Labor Organization.
As a little girl, Rabia reveals, most of her mistresses ill-treated her and more than 15 years later, she still has fond memories of a truncated childhood.
Bathhouse Break in the Garden
"I prefer my village to Casablanca," she reminisces in the sunny gardens outside the bathhouse during a break, her fingers wrinkled from the moisture exposure, her face flushed with fatigue. "The village is nice. It is calm and you have air and space to breathe."
But even if she could magically erase the economic hardships of rural life, she still cannot return home.
Life has dealt Rabia a cruel blow. Her saucily assertive 2-year-old son Yassin, the apple of his mother's eye, was born out of wedlock. His father, a construction worker, had met and duped a gullible maid he met in a marketplace. When he heard about Rabia's pregnancy, he fled.
"He lied all the time," says Rabia. "He said he would marry me; he said he would help me; he was just lying."
Rabia is an unwed mother, and in Moroccan society, where a woman's sexuality is essentially owned by her male family members, where her sexual "purity" is the key to their social honor, Rabia is quite simply a disgrace.
The Moroccan Family Code, which was amended in 2004 to widespread international acclaim for improving women's legal rights, still explicitly criminalizes sex outside marriage for women. Under Article 490, a woman who has sex "outside the bounds of marriage" can get between a month to a year in jail.
Activists such as Aicha Ech-Channa, Morocco's indefatigable champion of women's sexual rights, say cases rarely end up in court because if they did they would choke the justice system.
Instead, the sentences are imposed by families and friends and employers who turn their backs.
'I Cannot Go Home'
"I cannot go home with Yassin," says Rabia. "But I will not leave him. He is my life. He gives me hope. He gives me hope to find a good job so we can be happy."
Right now, she's doing a three-year rehabilitation program run by Feminine Solidarity, a Casablanca-based nongovernmental group that operates the beauty center.
Rabia's eight-hour day at the center includes literacy classes, counseling and job training as well as working in the hammam, where her earnings are about $30 per week, enough to rent a room in a lower-income part of the city. Along with free child care, health care and meals, it's not a bad deal by Moroccan standards.
But it's a temporary cushion until she completes her training, after which she must be economically independent.
Her dream is to become a hair stylist. "If I'm good enough in the training," she says significantly, leaving no doubt that it's the most skilled among the professions offered by the program.
"I also like stitching," she adds brightly. "And manicure and pedicure and eyebrows . . ." starting to list the fields in the salon business.
But what about her current job, the one that pays her rent, would she like to continue being a hammam worker?
Rabia's responsive smile is hauntingly melancholic. Robbed of a childhood, exploited, duped and ostracized, here she sits in a sunny garden, surrounded by women who have been kind to her.
She does not want to put down the work or the women who sweat--literally--on the job. "No," she answers. "I would not like to be a hammam worker, unless I have to."
Leela Jacinto is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes on Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs. She was an international news reporter at ABCNEWS.com, New York, and has taught journalism at the Pajhwok Afghan News Service in Kabul, Afghanistan.
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