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The Dramatic Story Of The ‘Mule Women’ Of Morocco – OpEd


Every year, on March 8th, the whole world celebrates the Woman Day with speeches, marches, protests, etc. and Morocco is no different in that regard. But, alas, celebration is one thing and reality is another. In many countries of the world,women are still treated harshly in their lives: victimized, raped, imprisoned, discriminated against, forced to do slave work, and cater for everyone’s need without any recognition, whatsoever. They are used and abused, at will, and family members will only realize their importance and worth when they are sick, gone somewhere else or deceased.

Everybody needs their work, their love, their affection, their smile and their womb and nobody does anything to improve their lot. So, women continue to exist and to suffer stoically without a single twitch or moan, for fear to bother the rest of the world, as usual, but the rest of the world does not care about them, in the least.

Equality but not equity

In 2004, King Mohammed VI revamped the Moroccan family code moudawwana, in a revolutionary and avant-gardist fashion, in the Arab world, giving women more rights and more freedom on their lives, in spite of resistance from Islamist parties and forces. This new code is considered, in many ways, to be a revolutionary legal document inthe Arab-Islamic world, especially, at a time, when orthodox currents are calling to, somewhat, negate the acquired rights of womenfolk, in the name of religion and for the sake of their salvation.

The Moroccan moudawwana is certainly a tremendous revolution, especially when reactionary religious forces are using Islam as a pretext to deny women their basic rights. The new family code is an important step forward towards modernity, because, in a way, it liberates women from the shackles of subservience, through the following pivotal changes:

  • Minimum age of marriage raised;
  • Sharing of property between married couples;
  • Polygamy strictly controlled;
  • Repudiation and divorce can be initiated by women and are subject to judicial supervision;
  • Possibility to retain custody of children;
  • Inheritance rights improved;
  • Recognition of children born out of wedlock and simplified proof of paternity procedure;
  • Removal of degrading language in the family code; and
  • Provisions on children’s rights in accordance with the international instruments ratified by Morocco.

But, alas, the family code, in spite of its social revolutionary advances and achievements is unable to free women from poverty and modern slavery. Indeed, in rural areas, women suffer greatly from lack of educationi and, even in some cases, a rise in illiteracy. According to Vital Voices, the women reality in Morocco is dramatic:ii

” …underneath all of the positive publicity lies a rather heartbreaking reality for many Moroccan women: recent surveys in Morocco estimated the country’s illiteracy rate to be approximately 55% of all women. Fully 90% of rural women in Morocco are illiterate.”

In northern Morocco, the high poverty rate resulting from the high illiteracy rate has pushed women to work on a daily basis in the fields, either growing crops or growing illegal herbs (kif), in the most inhuman possible conditions, from 6 o’clock in the morning to 6 in the early evening, not forgetting of course that these very women when, home, have to cook for the family and take care of the children. After a long tiring day, women on the way back home will act, also, as mules carrying huge loads of grass for the domestic animals and wood for cooking.

Melilla border fence separating Spain and Morocco.
Melilla border fence separating Spain and Morocco.

In rural areas, near the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila, women are shamefully exploited, jointly by both Morocco and Spain, as means of transportation of contraband goods, and are referred to as mule women. This misnomer is doubly insulting because it considers women as stupid animals, good only for transportation, and, also, as second class citizens devoid of any human feelings.

Sadly, this inhuman treatment of Moroccan women is the direct responsibility of Morocco, Spain and, also, indirectly, the EU.

Morocco, in the first place, because it has not enacted robust literacy policies in rural areas, especially in the north, to empower women economically. As for Spain, a European country that prides itself in gender equality, it, somewhat, ought to try to find an honorable solution within EU framework to empower these women. As for the EU, it strongly considers the two enclaves as the outpost of its territory and the strategic frontier for stopping illegal migration from entering the European mainland. It wants Morocco to serve as the parking lot of the thousands of illegal migrants, with the intention to enter the European el dorado, and is not ready to help solve the poverty the 8,000 women who serve as mules to contribute to the economic prosperity of the enclaves.So, the EU wants its cake and wants to eat it too, unashamedly.

On the other hand, the EU does consider the enclaves of Ceuta and Mellila as an extension to Europe and any Moroccan military action, if ever, to free these territories from Spanish domination will certainly be considered as an act of war on Europe and would lead to military retaliation as part of common European defense action. If that is the case, one wonders why does not EU help both Morocco and Spain set up empowerment programs for women in the Rif area to stop this painful expolitation of women in the 21st century at the gates of Europe only, and nowhere else.

The trade of shame

The mule women, known in Spanish language as porteadoras, are Moroccan illiterate and divorced women from the city of Nador and the Rif hinterland, who are used by merchants on the Moroccan territory to smuggle, through official entry points, bales of over 60 kilos of goods, on a daily basis for a meager pay varying from 50 to 100 dirhams according to the nature of the goods, whereby electronics are, of course, more valued than clothing or toiletries.

Ceuta, Spain. Photo by Víctor Fernández Salinas, Wikipedia Commons.
Ceuta, Spain. Photo by Víctor Fernández Salinas, Wikipedia Commons.

It goes without saying, of course, that the merchants on the Spanish side, and by extension, the cities of Melilla and Ceuta thrive from this inhuman commerce, without any regrets or feeling of compassion, in the least. Actually, these two Spanish enclaves do indirectly encourage this kind of trade, whith out which the cities will economically stifle and loose their geostrategic importance for both Spain and Europe and lead the former to a forced decolonization.

Melilla, in spite of the high electronic fences, also, serves as the entry point to a tolerated trickling of cheap African labor for Europe that is called officially “clandestine,” but that serves the purpose of providing continental Europe with cheap labor, previously security-cleared by the Spanish authorities in the premises of this city.

This trade of shame nurtured by both Morocco and Spain is re-mindful of another trade, in the annals of history, referred to as the unfair trade, undertaken, yet again, by the very same two countries, under the rule of the Amazigh dynasties of the Almoravids (1040-1147) and the Almohads (1121-1269), with Africa through the Malian city of Timbuktu, whereby Moroccan caravans laden with salt were exchanged against African caravans transporting gold and ivory.

In this modern trade of shame, regrettably three sides share equally the responsibility : Morocco, Spain and the EU.

Moroccan maltreatment:

For the Moroccan establishment, the north i.e. the Rif has always been considered in the political terminology as bled siba, “land of dissidence”, that rejects the political leadership of the center, but not its religious mantle. Indeed, from 1885 to 1910, the whole area was in total dissidence against the sultan refusing to pay taxes to the Makhzen and to acknowledge the authority of his governor ‘amel. This period of total lawlessness and vendetta was referred to as Rifublic, a nativization of the word “republic”, which reflects the desire of the Amazigh people of the region to break away from the central government and rule themselves by themselves.

This wish was made come true by Mohamed ben Abdelkrim Khattabi, who set up the Republic of the Rif between 1921 to 1926 and inflicted shameful defeats on colonial Spain. In the early years of Moroccan independence, there was an uprising in the Rif, in 1958-1959, that was quelled in blood by the central government. When Mohammed VI came to power, he showed his willingness to reconcile the monarchy with the ebullient Rif and launched a massive development program, but in spite of this important effort, yet women are not empowerd to face the difficulties of life and the challenges of monoparental responsibilities. So, these women, forgotten by the state, divorced by their husbands, undertake this shameful and exploitative trade to feed their family and continue to survive.

Spanish sin:

For the Spanish economy of the two enclaves, this inhuman practice is tolerated, not to say encouraged, because it allows the economy to thrive and these cities to prosper and the colonization to continue. However, the issue at hand is that, Spain being a democratic country that upholds the human rights and the rights of women to a fair treatment in life, must be ashamed to allow such a practice on its territory. Maybe Spain does not feel compelled to uphold the human rights in its territories for “timed migrants”, meaning people that enter the territory for a short period of time and a specific purpose.

Linda Pressly, in an article contributed to the BBC electronic publication on October 30, 2013, entitled : “The heavy-lifting ‘mule women’ of Melilla” iii points out that according to Melilla’s business advisor for the local government, Jose Maria Lopez, the city earns the equivalent of £300 million a year from this commerce. She goes on say that, “There are very positive outcomes of this commercial activity. For some of the porteadoras it’s the only chance they have of making a living. Sure, it’s really hard work, but some of them get an income that’s larger than the average income of workers in Morocco.”

Linda further reports that Lopez estimates this trade “atypical” and that the city must think of other alternatives to this for making money. However, he does not condemn, in anyway, this 21st century human slavery and female exploitation by a European nation that prides itself at home in gender equality and women empowerment.

European Union’s crime:

In all its laws and budgets, EU considers the two Spanish enclaves Ceuta and Melilla as European territory, when it comes to defense and political issues and has never showed any sympathy or support for the rightful claim of Morocco to recuperate its territories, still under Spanish rule after six centuries of uninterrupted colonization. However, the EU has not showed any interest for the abject exploitation of women by both Moroccan and Spanish merchants, who make a lot of money from these fragile human beings pushed by poverty, to submit to the inhuman practices of economic slavery.

The irony of this situation is that the EU that defends human rights left and right when its concerns its interests, turns a blind eye to this gross violation of women rights and rather than trying to find a solution to this predicament puts pressure on Morocco, instead, to serve as the European gendarme, to stop illegal famished African migrants from scaling the huge deadly fences surrounding Melilla, to enter “Fortress Europe”.

Enough hypocrisy

Rather than think of a lasting social solution to the predicament of the mule women  through education and micro-credits to create coops and small businesses, the Spanish are offering to create a bigger border crossing, as reported by Suzanne Daley in an article entitled : “A Borderline Where Women Bear the Weight,” published by The New York Times on March 30, 2014 :iv

“Juan José Imbroda, Melilla’s chief executive, says he has offered to create a bigger border crossing to relieve the pressure, but the Moroccan government has not agreed. Right now, he said, the Moroccan government is in control, opening the borders to this activity and closing it at will, fueling the need to hurry through the turnstiles while they are open and creating dangers.

The only thing Spain could do is simply eliminate the practice, he said, which could leave the women destitute.

“This is purely a socioeconomic problem,” Mr. Imbroda said, one “that is not easily solved.”

Such a “humanitarian” solution from a Spanish official, shows quite clearly the hypocrisy of the Spanish govenment and its lack of cultural sensitivity. Making the border bigger will attract more cut-throats merchants from both sides, who will engage more “mule women” to make more profits and obviously the balance will tip in favor of the two enclaves Ceuta and Melilla and thus double their profits.

To disengage the responsibility of the Spanish local government, Imbroda says that the Moroccan government refused his “ideas and suggestions”, of course he did not point out that this shameful trade while it is bountiful to the city’s wealth, it bleeds dangerously the Moroccan economy and kills local job-creating businesses and spawns local unrest and increase pauperization and impoverishment.

The local governments of Ceuta and Melilla, when it comes to issues related to checking illegal African migration or terrorism will put pressure on Morocco to cooperate to secure their welfare and safety on the spot, but in the cases of this “economic violence” inflicted on poor unempowered women, they tergiversate or offer ridiculous and laughable solutions.

That is undoubtedly the ultimate degree of European hypocrisy. Europe often gives lessons to and sermons the Arab and Muslim countries for non-respect of human rights, but in the case of this shameful trade in Ceuta and Melilla it keeps quiet and even, somewhat, endorses the following two major breaches:

  1. “Economic violence” inflicted on Moroccan mule women whose shameful exploitation contributes to the wealth of the the two enclaves and the perpetuation of the colonization; and
  2. The unashamed continuation of the colonization of Ceuta and Melilla that creates an environment propitious for exploitation and “economic violence”.

Mafia Practices

If this trade survives today, in spite of the many criticisms leveled against it and oppositions expressed, it does so, defiantly, for the following main reasons:

  1. Extreme poverty of the womenfolk of the Rif area;
  2. Total lack of female empowerement programs either from the governments concerned or international organizations;
  3. Total absence of moral values among the proponents of this human tragedy and their indirect violation of human rights i.e : Morocco, Spain and the European Union;
  4. Perpetuation of this practice by a mafia on both sides of the border; it finances the commerce and organizes the minute details of the operation from the choice of the goods, the preparation of the bales, to the pick-up and the delivery; and
  5. Both involved countries draw indirectly benefits from this immoral trade; for Spain, the enclaves prosper financially and economically, for Morocco, unable or unwilling to develop the Rif area, this commerce provides gains to the merchants and the rich and subsistence to the poor and marginalized.

In a way, both the two governments and the trade mafia, involved in this, are on the same side ; they are making the most of this given situation without having to invest much, in the least. However, the losers are, unfortunately, the women and men of the Rif who, are exploited in this shameful trade and who have no gain in the long run, since they benefit neither from any form of health insurance nor from any pension scheme, sot they are no more than cannon fodder that is used and abused to fortify the ego of the mafia and build its wealth unashamedly.

The women porteadoras explain to the journalists Beatriz Mesa and Jordi Pizarro, in the “Vice” of February 1, 2011 (The Lady Mules of Morocco), how they are regimented and directed by the trade mafia, which is, somewhat, protected by local police in both countries:v

“They also explain the logistics of the operation: Workers on the Spanish side prepare bales of goods, runners drive them to Barrio Chino at the border, distributors separate them, marcadores number them so they can be counted upon receipt, and finally the porteadoras haul the bales back to Morocco. The wholesalers and warehouse owners, like every Mob-based enterprise in every country, stuff bags with money to pay everyone so that in the end nothing stops the flow of cash from returning to them.”

Where this awful practice, however, hurts the most is that the European human rights organizations and women associations that are quick to condemn any other such phenomena, have turned a blind eye to it, though the international press : New York Times, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail and Vice and such media as the BBC and Deutsh Well have duly dealt with the problem extensively through investigative journalism and shocking photography.

This inhuman treatment inflicted on poor Moroccan women and this “economic violence” is, further, highlighted by the two above-mentioned journalists, in no doubtful terms:vi

“Once they’ve made their way to the Melilla side of the Barrio Chino, groups of female mules quickly organize themselves and begin loading up. I see a wrinkled woman with a grimy scarf wrapped tightly around her neck to soak up the sweat. She bends herself at the waist and another 110-pound bale is plopped on her back. I can hear her spine cracking and her teeth chattering, and I seem to be the only one impressed by this. There are other things on people’s minds, obviously: bags of sunflower seeds, spare car parts, bottles of booze, boxes of shoes, all sorts of clothes.”

Violence inflicted on women

Northern Morocco is a mountainous and rugged terrain. This roughness of the environment is reflected on the behavior of the man and his belief. The society there is very tribal and is religiously orthodox, its main concern is survival in the face of scarcity, adversity and roughness. Agriculture has always been the means for survival, but agriculture is dependent on the rain and rain is not guaranteed. So one year is plentiful in rain and many others are not.

In the 20s, 30s and 40s of the last century, people of the Rif used to migrate to French Algeria, they referred to as “lanjiri“, to work in agriculture in the Mitidja plains to feed their families, but in the early 50s independence war started in Algeria and the migrants returned home until the beginning of the 60s when there was a mass exodus to Europe that was in full need of able hands for construction and economic development, after 2WW. Today, thousands of Rifian migrants live in Spain, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Norway, etc., with their families.

Since the mid 80s of the last century, Europe, however, stopped immigration and, as a result, the people of the Rif reverted to two illegal occupations: goods smuggling from the Spanish enclaves and kif-growing and exporting to Europe. To avoid social unrest, the government turned a blind eye to these illicit practices. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this millennium, as a result of pressure from Europe, the Moroccan government cracked down on the kif-growing, burning crops and encouraging farmers to turn to legal farming, but this has proved extremely difficult because of the nature of the land and the quality of the soil.

In this harsh and difficult environment, life is even harsher on women, who are the victims of many forms of violence: the patriarchal tribal system that puts them at the bottom of the social ladder, their femininity which commits them to marriage at an early age and, last but not least, the lack of education and consequently empowerment.

When men find themselves unable to feed their family, the way out is very simple for them, they divorce the spouse and leave her to struggle alone with the feeding and upbringing of the children, or just leave and disappear in the thin air. This psychological trauma violence is, somewhat, more painful than corporeal violence because it leaves long-lasting scars on the person.

So, women, left on their own, with a family to feed, have only two choices: sell their bodies through prostitution, which is an alternative rejected by most women due to the weight of religion and society in the area, or work as a human delivery system for smuggled goods from Spanish enclaves.

The work is harsh and arduous in a difficult and challenging environment, but it is accepted and even encouraged by traditional society, and it is undeniably a form of violence: “economic violence” on fragile women. In fact, as head of monoparental families,they have either to work in these conditions or die, no other possible choice.
Mona Badri, in an article entitled: « Moroccan “Mule Ladies:” a Sisyphus Curse for Few Dollars”, published in Morocco World News on April 3, 2014, uncovers the reasons that push women to become porteadoras, mainly poverty, divorce and widowhood :vii

“Poverty, widowhood, divorce, disabled husbands are common stories that connect these women, filled with smiles of both gratitude and remorse. Zehra Khechach, is a 65-year old asthmatic, and earns $12 a day for carrying a bundle as big as a fridge on her fragile body, often failing her so that she must roll her packs instead. She is a mother of eight children. “After marrying, my husband lost his sight, so I had to start working to feed my family,” she said.”

She goes on to highlight the other main reason that compels women to engage in this difficult and poorly-rewarding occupation: ignorance and lack of proper education and knowledge:viii

“Another woman who is Zehra’s daughter is a victim of ignorance. After a marriage that lasted 16 years, Maria, 37-years old, felt a lump in her left breast and was forced into divorce by her in-laws who feared that she would contaminate them with her illness. She felt obliged to feed her daughters by working hauling bales for four to seven dollars per trip. Her only wish is that her daughters “finish school, so it helps them find a good job. I pray to God that the men they marry can offer everything, so they don’t have to work where I do. This workplace is sure death.”

What is the way out ?

The culprits of this “economic violence” on Moroccan women i.e. Morocco, Spain and the European Union, must, at once, stop burying their heads in the sand like ostriches, to avoid dealing with this horrible situation that is totally unacceptable in the 21st century.

All these parties ought to stop this form of human slavery and female exploitation and if need be prosecute and ultimately punish the mafia that is behind it.

The only way out of this inhuman situation is, probably, by enacting urgently the actions stated bellow and probably much more:

  1. Empower fully women through the following necessary and urgent educational acts;
    1. Functional literacy;
    2. Grants for families to send their daughters to school;
    3. Provide rural school transportation; and
    4. Build nearby boarding schools;
  2. Provide micro-credits for women to become entrepreneurs on their own;
  3. Help women start commercial coops;
  4. Give cash handouts to widowed and divorced women with children; and
  5. Prohibit child labor.

*Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

vi. ibid
viii. ibid

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r. Mohamed Chtatou*

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

One thought on “The Dramatic Story Of The ‘Mule Women’ Of Morocco – OpEd

  • October 8, 2017 at 8:31 pm

    Being a Muslim and well off country, how can Moroccon government allow this type of treatment to the females who are mothers, daughters and wives of some Muslims?


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