“If I could, I would leave an open space for your story on every page.” -Gloria Steinem.
It’s been almost three weeks since I returned from a trip to Morocco and Tunisia with Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS), but it already feels like it happened in a dream. The book I brought along for this trip was Gloria Steinem’s autobiographical My Life on the Road, and I underlined the quote above while I waited for my flight to leave from Dulles International Airport. I love the many implications within this line, but in particular, it struck me that day because I knew we were setting out on what was in essence a journey of stories.
In her book Steinem talks about women’s “talking circles” occurring throughout and across cultures; we got to experience our own version of talking circles during these two weeks (though ours were not always strictly limited to women).
We sat down along the way to hear stories from women who are changing the system by becoming politicians, and women who have learned business skills and put them to use creating cooperatives or associations, women who are taking control of their financial futures and are passing their learning on to their children and neighbors. We talked, we listened, our guides helped translate; there was a fluidity of languages, shifting between Arabic, French, English, and on a few occasions, Berber or other local dialects. My fellow travelers were representatives of women’s empowerment and disability rights NGOs from DC, Chicago and Seattle, and from January 20-February 4 we traveled throughout Morocco and Tunisia visiting organizations doing similar work locally.
This trip was an epilogue of sorts; this past fall, EWI welcomed HANDS Fellow Madiha Kassis to join us from Tunisia for three weeks. During her time here, Madiha shadowed our programs team, attended classes and seminars, and engaged in dialogue with us and our community about the mutual challenges we are facing. I was honored to be chosen to participate in the “reverse-exchange” trip, although disappointed that our trip’s timing did not allow a visit to Madiha’s home city of Tataouine (which is also the namesake of Luke Skywalker’s hometown, if you were wondering). Nevertheless, our stay in Tunis and the surrounding countryside provided a glimpse into life in Tunisia, and left me with a strong desire to return someday to keep exploring all that this beautiful place has to offer.
As a representative of a women’s empowerment group, I was particularly struck by the collaboration we witnessed in each location between women working to better their economic and social situations. The greatest highlight for me was meeting the women who are directly involved in cooperatives; from the remote Moroccan Cooperative Marjana, or Tunisian Groupement Feminin de Developpement Agricole, where women learn to produce, market, and sell argan and essential oils and more; to the Reseau Femmes Artisanes, a network of over 200 women artisans from six different cooperatives, all working together to share their knowledge about business and specialized creative skills. At every level, collaboration seemed to be a key to success, whether in large or small operations. I was honored to be a part of that collaboration during this trip, learning about their successes and challenges, and sharing some of my own. In Tunis we also had the honor of visiting parliament’s women’s committee, with Ms. Jamila Ksiksi and Ms. Mehrézia Labidi, members of Assembly of the Representatives of the People. Across language and cultural differences, we were able to find shared experiences that connect us deeply.
The professional and cultural exchange was made possible through the Professional Fellowship Program administered by Hands Along the Nile Development Services (HANDS) based in Alexandria, VA; their partner organizations Association Ennakhil Marrakech, Collectif Pour la Promotion des Droits des Personnes en Situation de Handicap, Center for Arab Women Training and Research (CAWTAR), and Federation des Associations Tunisiennes oeuvrant dans le Domaine du Handicap (FATH); and funded by the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Special thanks must go to the incredible people that made this possible: Jennifer Cate, Hands Along the Nile’s Executive Director; Payal Sindha & Ivana Smucker, the Hands organizers who tirelessly guided us on the trip; and the amazing Hassan Naji, Aziz Touri, Hajar Laaribi, Anna Selma Senna, Sawsen Ben Slimane, Arbi Chouikh, Montassar Adaili, and many Fellows who we had the chance to meet again. And finally, my fellow travelers, whose collective passion, knowledge, and wealth of experience opened my eyes in so many ways: Gloria Blackwell of the American Association of University Women, Noel Schroeder of Women Thrive Worldwide, Tina Pinedo of Disability Rights Washington, Betsy Tallon of Easterseals Chicago, and Kaya Overstreet of Envision Unlimited Chicago.