What I Learn from Women in Southern Morocco by Laura Shannon


I feel deeply fortunate to be able to travel regularly to southern Morocco. In Taroudant in the Souss Valley, and further south in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, my groups of students have the chance to discover women’s cultural traditions including music and dance, weaving and embroidery, household and healing rituals. In the seven years I have been leading these tours, women have joined me from a dozen different countries and as many different faiths, and most of them end up feeling at home here just the way I do.
What makes southern Morocco so special? Many threads come together to create the extraordinary ambience which permeates this part of the country. First of all, there is the Berber influence: a large percentage of Moroccans in the South are Berbers, and many elements of ancient North African Berber culture, with roots in Neolithic times, remain percepible beneath the relatively recent overlays of Arabic culture and Islam.

The prevalence of Sufism, which views people of all faiths as brothers and sisters in the human family, is another reason why fundamentalist Wahaabi Islam has not gained a foothold here as it has in other parts of the Arab world. The Sufi message, that everyone has the ability to connect to divine grace in their own heart, is one of the elements of the gracious hospitality and warm welcome which my students and I always find profoundly moving.
Moroccan Islam retains many ancient pre-Islamic beliefs, including the reverence for special springs, caves, trees, and other sacred sites in nature.

Mountain Goddess motifs in henna dye on Berber bridal cloth of handspun, handwoven white wool. Photo: Laura Shannon

Mountain Goddess motifs in henna dye on Berber bridal cloth of handspun, handwoven white wool. Photo: Laura Shannon

Reverence for ancestors and saints is also still very strong. Everywhere you see the white-painted tombs of marabouts, women and men who lived exemplary lives long ago and are now considered saints. Their tombs are important places of prayer, where individuals may come at any time simply to pray, often with singing and drumming, or to cook and offer food to the poor, in order to receive the saint’s blessing or baraka.
Glimpses of a pre-patriarchal worldview remain visible through the overlays of Christianity and Islam imposed by Romans and Arabs respectively, showing matriarchal structures from earlier times. Traditionally, women always had a central role in Berber society and this remains the case, though in the male-dominated public sphere, this may not be immediately apparent. The indomitable spirit of women here (where, significantly, female genital mutilation is not practiced) shows their strength as individuals as well as in the family and the community. For instance, in stark contrast to Western society, where most women and even young girls report dissatisfaction with their physical appearance (a Psychology Today study concludes that ’84 percent of women and 58 percent of men report having dieted to lose weight’ and ‘a significant minority of [people] believe life is worth living only if you are thin’), ‘Moroccan women accept themselves as they are,’ says my friend Latifa. ‘Whatever you have, you are proud of it.’
This absolute self-acceptance is particularly evident in the hammam or steam bath, where women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and levels of ability go weekly to wash themselves and their children. Because the Moroccan ideal of female beauty is based on an aesthetic of abundance (here, being thin is a sign of poverty and ill health), most women here are plump and seek to stay that way. Another friend, Dounia, tells how groups of women friends will meet at each other’s houses every couple of weeks to talk, laugh, dance, and enjoy their favorite sweet and fattening foods ‘to make sure they don’t get too thin’. The headscarf is not obligatory in Morocco, and many women don’t wear it, but those who do try to tie it to emphasize the appearance of a double chin, which is considered very attractive.
Women’s strength and power is also visible in the way they sing and dance. The different women’s bands who come to play for my groups combine monophonic call-and-response singing with complex polyrhythmic drumming to provide a high-energy opportunity for women to literally let their hair down. With headscarves off, hair and hips flying, women of all ages move their bellies, shoulders and hands in movements which combine grace and strength, sensuality and spirituality. The best dancers are universally appreciated, their talent seen as a way of praising God.
Women also express their knowledge, skill, and power in artwork and handicrafts.

The traditional fassi style (from Fés) of double-sided embroidery requires expert strategic thinking. My friend Bouchra, a master of the craft, foresees every stitch of her entire design, so that the pattern is identical on both sides of the cloth but no stitches are doubled (to avoid wasting thread). This skill is also metaphorical: ‘Women must know where they are going, how to get there and how to come back.’

Bouchra shows us her skill in the complex double-sided fassi embroidery technique from Morocco. This design features the classic mountain goddess motif. Photo: Laura Shannon

My friend Malika learned all the textile arts from her mother and grandmother: to spin, weave, sew, knit, embroider, crochet. ‘When we do those things together it relieves stress, it brings calm to our minds and blesses us with the joy of creation. Women need to create, to use their hands and their minds. When women stop doing those things, they begin to get sick.’
All of my upcoming Women’s Dance and Culture Tours to southern Morocco are fully booked, but many other kinds of tours are offered through the award-winning ecological guest house which organises my groups, La Maison Anglaise. For information, visit cecu.co.uk/holidays-with-heart/
Further reading:
Davis, Susan Schaefer (2018). Women Artisans of Morocco. Loveland, Colorado: Thrums.
Makilam (2012). ‘The Central Position of Women Among the Berber People of Northern Africa: The Four Seasons Life Cycle of a Kabyle Woman’ in Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures Across the Globe, ed. Heide Göttner-Abendroth. New York: Peter Lang, pp 178-189.
Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987, and is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), and is currently pursuing postgraduate studies in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred at Canterbury Christ Church University in England. Her primary research in Balkan and Greek villages seeks out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. In 2018 Laura was chosen as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild in recognition of her ‘significant and lasting contribution to dance as a sacred art’. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications, including Re-Enchanting the AcademyDancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through DanceShe Rises! Vol. 2Inanna’s AscentRevisioning Medusa, and Spiritual Herstories – Call of the Soul in Dance Research. Laura is also Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture. She lives in Canterbury, Greece, and the Findhorn community in Scotland.


Categories: Ancestors, Art, Belief, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, Gender, General, Islam, Islamic feminism

Tags: , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Comment from Jane, the direct of La Maison Anglaise, where Laura’s groups stay. The Berber influence is greater in our region thanks to its geography. Firstly due to its southern position further from the invaders who threatened to destroy the local culture; the Arabs & the French never fully conquered this region. Secondly the 2 ranges of mountains (the High Atlas to the north & the Anti Atlas to the south) adjacent to the Souss valley. The Berbers were driven into these mountains by the invaders (much as the Celts were in the British Isles). Work in the towns and cities has brought Berbers back into the Souss valley including the families of some of the women mentioned. Indeed the resort of Agadir (also in the Souss Valley) is the only large city in Morocco with a predominantly Berber population. Some members of our staff are true Berbers – it’s their language at home despite the fact that education is predominantly in Arabic.

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    • Thanks, Jane, for this valuable information. This goes a long way to explain why the feeling in the southern part of the country is so different from that in the north (although I love all of Morocco…). Rachid told me recently that the population in Taroudant is roughly 80% Berber, is that so?

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      • I am sure Rachid is right about such a high proportion being of Berber origins. What has happened is that some families from his generation lost their Berber language because Arabic was the language of schools but there is a revival of Berber language in the younger generation – see explanatioin in the third paragraph.

        By the way, I prefer to use the term Amazigh instead of Berber; Amazigh is variously translated but it seems to me the most appropriate is “free people”. Berber is a derivative of barbarian which can have negative connotations because it was the name given to them by Roman conquerers to “hostile” tribes.

        Another context of our discussions is linked to the current monarch, King Mohamed VI, who, since he ascended to the throne in 1999 has done so much for many good causes including women’s rights, sustainability and the Amazigh – the language is now one of the 3 official languages (the other 2 being Arabic & French), and it is a compulsory language in schools since 2011.

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  2. love the mountain mother symbols

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  3. Thanks, Laura Shannon. These beautifully compact images you’ve shared here remind me somehow of the Statue of Liberty holding up her torch high in the air. Surfing the net for pictures of Lady Liberty, there were indeed a great number of gorgeous photos and all of them so lovable like your images too.

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    • You are so right, Fran, they often have emphasised or over-large hands, often holding something like a tree or sprig or even (like Lady Liberty) a torch. I think the importance of the hands in the female figures/ Goddess embroideries is connected to the importance of the ritual, practical and creative work the women do with their hands.

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  4. Oh what a beautiful and informative essay – Thank you Shannon. i was particularly struck by the words ‘Women must know where they are going, how to get there and how to come back.’ Oh how true in every sense.

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    • Yes, and I love how the women are able to make the philosophical link between what they do and what they learn from doing it. My friend Malika, whom I mentioned in the article, lamented to me on my most recent visit that by giving up the old ways (she was speaking mainly about handicrafts) the younger generation are not learning what they need to learn, and future generations will have nobody to learn from. She really sees the women’s craft work as a system of education and transmission of life skills (not just craft skills) and values. Laura

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  5. Your inspiring article took me right back to Morocco and my extraordinarily joyful pilgrimage there with you! Women who may be thought to have so little by modern Western standards showered us with an abundance of real and lasting treasures while we were with them. The best dance experience of my life was just one of their gifts! Good times!

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    • Yes, I remember when you were there with us. That was a very special trip – but then again, they all are. We are so lucky to be able to keep going back. I cry every time the plane touches down in Agadir, and every time we enter the Anti-Atlas mountains!

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  6. The henna dyed pattern is wonderful. Is the Mountain Mother a traditional name for this pattern, and is it taken from Makilam or from women you met in Morocco?

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  7. Hi Max. The Berber women I know there call this pattern Lakbab or Lkhbab (Lbrouj for a smaller version), and say it bestows health, wealth, fertility, prosperity, protection, and so on. I don’t speak Arabic or Berber so don’t have any insight into the roots of these names. But, as you know, wherever women practice traditional crafts, the names given to the patterns they use don’t necessarily reveal any potential esoteric meaning – Moira Vincentelli says the same in her article on Berber Kabyle women’s pottery.

    She cites J. B. Moreau, who ‘examines the designs applied to ceramics within the framework of world-wide symbols, considering the possible links with ancient decorations, symbols and motifs and even early writing. He sees them as being part of a surviving agrarian cosmological symbolism of the Mediterranean. However, he recognizes that the potters are not necessarily familiar with their ancient meanings but will, if asked, attribute meaning to the design…’ (from Reflections on a Kabyle Pot: Algerian Women and the Decorative Tradition Author(s): Moira Vincentelli. Source: Journal of Design History, Vol. 2, No. 2/3 (1989), pp. 123-138 Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Design History Society Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1315802)

    I think Susan Schaefer Davis, in her recent book ‘Women Artisans of Morocco’, also addresses the question of pattern names and pattern meaning, whether they are connected or not.

    In my experience researching embroidery and carpet patterns in Bulgaria, Morocco, and Greece, in some cases names for patterns seem straightforward, and in other cases they seem random, or even intended to obscure. It would be good to consult Makilam re this motif. My copies of her books have disappeared, but if someone out there has them and has time to take a look, I would love to hear what you find.

    My understanding of the ubiquitous Lkhbab motif as the Mountain Goddess comes from my many discussions with Berber women about the symbol, and its similarity to related patterns which have been researched by the late experts on Goddess embroideries, Sheila Paine and Mary Kelly. As of course you know, these ancient symbols tend to be polyvalent, so as well as the Mountain Goddess, I have heard Berber women describe the Lkhbab motif variously as a woman wearing a djellaba (bell-shaped gown); a house or an agadir (hilltop granaries found in the Anti-Atlas mountains); the breast of the mother; the tagine (conical-lidded ceramic pot in which Berber women cook the family’s food), and so on. None of these interpretations cancels out the others, they can all coexist quite happily.

    I have written more about the Moroccan Mountain Goddess in a recent article, as follows:

    ‘… The ancient motifs of the Mountain Goddess, the Winged Goddess and Birth Goddess are particularly significant for women’s traditional dance. Sheila Paine spent years researching triangular amulets identified with the Goddess, travelling from Afghanistan to Africa, through Russia, Turkey, and Greece. According to Sheila, the typical amulet is a triangle (the body of the Goddess) adorned with three hanging tassels, representing the Great Mother’s legs and the baby’s head emerging in between. Having encountered this Goddess pattern in many places on my own travels in connection with the dance, I was delighted to discover it in southern Morocco as well.

    ‘The classic triangular amulet with three pendants can be found in many forms, with abundant examples in jewelry, leatherwork, carpets, pottery and other items throughout Taroudant’s labyrinthine souk. Berber women carry their babies in Goddess-embroidered wraps, and wear Goddess-embroidered aprons. [Photo 1] The principal motif is a classic triangular pattern, incorporating ancient symbols of the Goddess, mountain, mother and daughter, Tree of Life, zigzag, and signs of life. The Berber women call it Lakbab (Lbrouj for a smaller version), and believe it bestows health, wealth, fertility, prosperity and all good things. It is a favourite design in henna tattoos, and is also found on early archaeological artefacts from Neolithic times. …

    ‘Why the Mountain Goddess? Mountains bring rain. They catch the clouds and wick the moisture down through streams and rivers to give life to the land. The ‘life signs’ radiating from the embroidered figures portray the mountain as a source of life, personified as female because females are also the source of life.

    ‘This is also reflected in the women’s dancing. Dounia and Latifa at La Maison Anglaise explain, ‘Moroccan women dance at feasts and weddings, as a celebration of life and tradition. Women’s belly dance is a spiritual connection between mind and body, expressing joy, well-being, and freedom. Most importantly, dance is a celebration of the feminine soul and inner spirit through movement.’ …

    ‘The Berber women in the band who come regularly to play and dance for us in La Maison Anglaise are themselves like mountains of power and calm. Their ceremonial dresses feature two extra panels of fabric in front, which the women hold in their hands as they dance so it looks like they have wings. Their red headscarves are embellished with long red fringes; Elizabeth Wayland Barber names the red fringe as the most ancient item of women’s clothing known, dating back more than 20,000 years, and connoting rain and fertility. ..

    ‘What does the Mountain Goddess have to do with dancing? The upright, symmetrical stance of the Mountain Goddess is the quintessential posture of power; the triangular Goddess, with hands raised in blessing, is also the dancing woman, with hands raised to join the dance. The embroidered hem of a 19th-C apron from Razgrad, Bulgaria, shows Mountain Goddess figures connected in a dance line, radiating life-signs or energy waves and holding Trees of Life. [Photo 4] ‘ etc.

    The above is excerpted from my article, ‘The Dance of the Mountain Goddess of Morocco’ which is available on my website but only in German, unfortunately, at
    https://laurashannon.net/articles/131-2019-der-tanz-der-berggoettin-von-marokko-laura-shannon-2019. In English there is just a much shorter version which does not include the above info: https://laurashannon.net/articles/130-2019-the-dance-of-the-moroccan-mountain-goddess-laura-shannon-2019. But I can send you the PDF of the longer article in English.

    You can also read about the embroidery project we set up in Taroudant at
    https://cecu.co.uk/story-womens-embroidery-project/
    which includes excerpts from my 2014 article, The Taroudant Embroidery Adventures. Again, the full artile is not available online but I can try to locate a copy and email it to you if you are interested.

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    • I am sure Rachid is right about such a high proportion being of Berber origins. What has happened is that some families from his generation lost their Berber language because Arabic was the language of schools but there is a revival of Berber language in the younger generation – see explanatioin in the third paragraph.

      By the way, I prefer to use the term Amazigh instead of Berber; Amazigh is variously translated but it seems to me the most appropriate is “free people”. Berber is a derivative of barbarian which can have negative connotations because it was the name given to them by Roman conquerers to “hostile” tribes.

      Another context of our discussions is linked to the current monarch, King Mohamed VI, who, since he ascended to the throne in 1999 has done so much for many good causes including women’s rights, sustainability and the Amazigh – the language is now one of the 3 official languages (the other 2 being Arabic & French), and it is a compulsory language in schools since 2011.

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    • Great reply, Laura, thank you for providing so much rich detail. I agree, symbols are polyvalent, and appear in countless Amazigh cultural contexts, as you say. Tattoos, too. By the way, I’ve seen this pattern appear in ancient pottery from Tiddis, Algeria, for example: https://journals.openedition.org/insaniyat/docannexe/image/15068/img-1.jpg

      I wasn’t able to read Makilam’s book which was only in German at the time I saw it, but in conversations with her she referred often to names and meanings of the traditional patterns as a matriarchal legacy. I would love copies of the pdfs, if it is not too inconvenient for you to send them. And thanks for the links you supply above.

      Having just received a collection of slides from the estate of Mary Kelly, I am struck again by the similarities in women’s embroidery patterns in places like Russia, all of eastern Europe as she documented, with some of these patterns. And that line of stubborn cultural transmission of female symbolism through embroidery and other women’s arts.

      Right, Jane: Amazigh is their preferred term, which i’ve also seen translated as “free people.” Barbaroi was a Greek name for North Africans, their imitation of how the language sounded to them, and it was loaded with negative connotations even then. They began to apply it to other non-Hellenized peoples as a tag for Others, and it has passed down via the Romans to European languages.

      The movement to recover and re-valorize the Amazigh language is strong. In Paris last year, in a Algerian cafe, I saw a map of the country with all the place names in the language, including labels in the Tifinagh script!

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  8. Love this! We need this recovery in our culture so badly. You might enjoy my friend’s book on evidence of early Christian women priests – Mary and other early Christian women leaders by Ally Katseuz

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