In my travels to non-Western societies I have noticed that, generally speaking, all over the world men dress in Western attire while the women refuse to forsake their often spectacular hand made traditional clothing. The men dress practical and the women beautiful. Why do women around the world retain their traditional dress while men move so readily to Western attire?
I arrived in Spain tired and jet lagged and found myself in an unexpected situation. My friend at whose home I was to stay was lending her small apartment to her neighbors for the evening; a Moroccan couple who had just had a baby and according to Moroccan tradition were having a celebration and blessing for the child. All the men were together and all the women were together and never were the two groups to see each other until the end of the evening. My friend’s apartment was for the women, so, tired and a bit disoriented, I entered the neighbor’s house and was seated in a room with fifteen arab men having a feast, drinking tea and singing religious songs.
None of the men could speak Spanish or English so they communicated with me in pure, effulgent hospitality. Tea, then handshakes, then more tea, then smiles, then nuts and dates, then more tea, then chicken, then tea, then lamb couscous and more tea. All the food was eaten communally with hands so they offered the lone white man a plate and fork, which I politely refused. My ease and dexterity at food handling seemed to confuse them. In my halting French I explained that I had lived in India which seemed to confuse them even more. (Learn more about Morocco).
Thirteen of the fifteen men were dressed in Western clothing; button down shirts and trousers. Two men were in traditional garb of long flowing white robes and hood, which to my eye looked an awful lot like a boxer’s warm up outfit; they were religious men officiating the blessings, leading the singing and pouring the tea.
I began to understand what exists in many traditional societies; that the men have the authority and offer the blessings, look to the sky and communicate with the divinity. But it is the women who run the show, it is the women who give life, cook the food, make the clothes and take care of the children. If the men look to the sky and larger world, it is the women who have their feet ever so firmly planted on the ground.
At the end of the night when it seemed that no one could possibly drink any more tea nor eat any more food we began to rise and stretch. The women’s party was also breaking up, and as I walked outside for some fresh air I saw them, the women.
There were old women, young women and children and they were all dressed in traditional garb. Colorful robes embroidered with beads, stones, mirrors and elaborate designs. There were head scarfs decked with coins. Luxuriant dark eyeshadow outlining almond eyes earth toned lipstick and rosy blushes of powder masterfully applied to the cheeks. With the mere cast of my eyes upon the women I was thrown into another time. The zither of belly dance music was thumping from the apartment as the women poured out. They were scented, painted and dressed so exquisitely that I ended up staring until one of the men patted me on the back and shook my hand to say good by. (Read more about Moroccan perspectives).
Eating with my hands and listening to Arabic was not enough. It was when I saw the women that my senses were transported to another place and another time. The food, the language and the music were powerful, but it was the clothing of the women which did the trick.
Why do the men dress Western and the women traditional?
A clue may lie in the fact that the two religious men were traditionally clad. The chants and the rituals they performed are at the very core of the Islamic/Moroccan tradition. They are the keepers of such tradition. They do not go forth into the world, rather they interpret the world. The rest of the men are making a living in a world were English is the language of commerce, hand shakes, shirts and trousers are the tropes of the workplace. Their traditional dress in most contexts would seem retrograde.
If the religious men are the keepers of tradition in the spiritual sense, then the women are the keepers of tradition in the most basic sense. Cooking the food raising the children, and ruling the household. They do not go forth into the world, they make their own world in the ever re-establishing of their tradition. They give a world of identity and meaning from which those Western clad men may journey forth.