I have mixed feelings about my week in the inner circle of fame.
Composer and musician Marcel Khalife is an enormous figure, deeply loved and admired by millions who have been moved and inspired by his words of love and liberation in songs such as 'Walking Tall'. To have 'The Voice of Arabs' as Ambassador of Oxfam's #womenlead campaign means access to the millions of fans and to the media who follow and adore him.
Khalife's popularity also means that the week we just spent together in Morocco, organised for us to directly meet and talk to women leaders in the AMAL programme, was as much about his fame and his music as about the women we met. Dazzled, our hosts seemed more intent on feeding, praising, and entertaining him than on profiling their own impressive achievements.
The deeply moving stories of powerful women nonetheless grabbed our attention. Perhaps the one that Marcel will remember the most is Hennou Oumarouch, who publicly proposed to him in front of a room packed with people and television cameras:
'I was married off when I was 14. At age 16 my husband abandoned me. I refused to take the compensation payment he tried to make. I moved in with my brother to help his family - only to have him leave, again abandoning his seven children and me. I've not trusted nor respected men or seen the value of marriage ever since. But you, Marcel Khalife, you I would marry if you'll have me!'
It is hard to appreciate the power of that statement and the woman who made it without knowing a bit about the context. Hennou comes from the rural commune Telmi in the Middle Atlas mountains, where infrastructure is almost non-existent, with few roads, healthcare or education. The area is known for high rate of child marriages; the dowry system means that in effect families are paid for their daughters. The pressure to stay married is enormous, women's security often depends on it. Plus woman who gets divorced is heaped with shame for having failed, for not being good enough. While a new constitution put in place in 2011 commits Morocco to equality of men and women, and the strong women's movement is campaigning for change, the reality is too often that it is still the men who speak, the men who propose and decide. Hennou's public marriage proposal for once turned the tables. 'I didn't know what to say!' he laughed. 'She is such a powerful force. You can tell the world I am still considering her proposition'.
While the cameras were there for Marcel, Hennou is a TV personality in her own right. 'We still live in the conditions of the 1920s. You tell the King to come here and see the conditions' she told the nation via TV. But while she has been passionate about her community for years, she credits the recent work of Oxfam and its local partners in making her more effective. 'It is AMAL which convinced me to stand for election, which is helping me direct my passion to get change.'
Fatima Zarauqui, speaking quietly yet compellingly after apologizing for reading her prepared speech, seated, is another leader we will all remember:
As a disabled girl, I cried every day. Not because of my disability. I knew my strength was inside me. I cried because my disability is all people saw - they could not see or hear me. My family considered me unsuitable for marriage and thus sent to school. I studied French and Arabic and would have gone to University except my father died and I had to work to support the family. But being disabled allowed me to escape the dependency destiny of other women, to go to school and work, because I could not be married. Now I fight for other women, teaching them to read and helping them to access land, in the hopes that one day they too can escape their dependency.'
Fatima is now one of only two Communal Land Representatives in the whole kingdom, in charge of the local council of twelve on which she is the only woman. She believes she was elected due to the value people saw in the literacy and marketing work she has done. She has to date received some 180 applications from women for land, and is using her position to build the support of the whole council and community to grant these. She, like Hennou already a leader, also credits the AMAL programme and #womenlead campaign for enhancing her ability to bring about change.
'Now I am no longer alone. Other women are standing up. I was having difficulty convincing women to claim their rights: the social pressure was too strong. But now there are more of us, we are a movement.'
The powerful testimonies continued: Oxfam and partners have since 2012 provided training to close to 4,000 women in order to ensure that the new quotas for women's participation would have a positive impact for women. Women elected in 2009 before the training said they were marginalized and not listened to, now they have more knowledge and skills to be effective. The kinds of issues Oxfam's feminist partners have been campaigning for successfully include parliament voting against a Family Code that would have put marriage age at 16 instead of 18 and striking off the books a clause that said rapists who married the women they raped would avoid court conviction. Women are also having impact locally: we visited a maternal health centre which - after start up funding from UNICEF and other partners - is now sustained through a commitment of 3% of the local government budget, secured after women formed a gender budget analysis network.
Getting women into government is not for Oxfam an end in and of itself: women politicians too can be seduced by the fame and fortune that threatened to overwhelm us during our tour with Marcel. Oxfam and our four partners in Morocco work with women to support the voice and power of the most marginalized women, yes to have a say in government, but also to have power in themselves, and in their homes. We work with powerful feminist partners such as the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women (ADFM) and the Democratic League for Women's Rights (LDDF) because they know the context deeply and have clear strategies for change over the long term - before and after elections come and go. Because as Marcel Khalife said 'The goal is not the elections, it is liberation and love.'
My feelings about the trip with Marcel Khalife were mixed because I wish that it did not require a visit from a celebrity in order to raise the profile of women and women's rights. The women deserve to be heard in their own right.
Another celebrity I've met and blogged about, Annie Lennox, used the word 'fulfillment' to speak of why she devotes herself to ensuring rights for all women: she said she sees the work as an investment in a better world for all of us. Marcel used the word 'love' for why he has agreed to be an Ambassador for women's leadership, because he believes neither men nor women will be fully liberated until women are free.
These two celebrities I've had the privilege to meet bring much more than fame to their support for Oxfam's work with women, they bring a strong and compelling call for all of us to get involved.
To join Oxfam's womenlead campaign in support of women in the Middle East and North Africa sign up here now and you'll receive ten more stories.
To see why Marcel Khalife supports women, check out this TV ad.
All photos are the author's own. Quotes are translated from Amheric to Arabic to French to English so cannot be read as literal word for word translations.