Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2024

Morocco, Beyond the Beautiful: The Role of Women in Defining Amazigh Identity

Fig 1. Marrakech Photo collage. Photo credit: Natalie Velez.

by Natalie Velez, Cohort ’22

Golden hour is a magical time for photographers and painters – the first hour of light just after dawn and the last hour before sunset, when light is gentle and warm, and objects appear diffused. Moroccan light has the same quality, but it lingers through the day. Whether there is a scientific explanation for this phenomenon (the angle of the sun, unique atmospheric conditions caused by the ocean and the Atlas Mountains, or invisible but present particles of sand from the Sahara Desert floating in the air), it surrounds everything it touches with a golden glow, evoking feelings of tranquility and warmth. When combined with the incredible cuisine and soft aroma of mint tea, multiplied by the beauty and hospitality of Moroccan people, it is impossible not to admire this place.

Together, with fellow IDSVA students, I walked amid the rich colors and textures of the Marrakech market, where some may say time has stopped. We had a relaxing time at the Secret Gardens and admired the architecture of The Ben Youssef Madrasa, filled with carvings and mosaics, a representation of years of stored knowledge and wisdom. While desperately trying to take a photo of a dromedary (one-humped camel) on the side of the road, I found myself thinking that there is so much more to this place than its form. Its beauty became such a commodity, easily packaged for the Western world in the wrapping paper of Orientalism.

What lies beyond the beauty are thousands of years of rich history, religious rivalries, the rise of philosophical and scientific thought, and fights for freedom. The Imazighen (singular Amazigh), known to the West as Berbers, are the essence of this land. They “consider themselves the indigenous inhabitants of northern Africa, a land they call Tamazgha” (Becker 2). In contemporary Morocco, the Atlas Mountains and their surroundings became their main place of dwelling. Their history, traditions, language, and artistic talents attract tourists and scholars and influence Moroccan politics and education.

In the Medina, or marketplace, it is mostly men who do the selling and negotiate the price of the goods. It is a vibrant and fun process, but when speaking of Amazigh art — especially embroidery, carpentry, and jewelry — women are the ones who dictate styles and techniques, which reflect their unique stories and years of traditions. The Amazigh women play one of the main roles in forming and maintaining the culture and traditions, passing them on to the next generation while adapting to the changing world. Michael Peyron, in his work, The Berbers of Morocco: A History of Resistance, states that because of “adaptiveness and survivability Amazigh society managed to survive the passage of time… while accepting the so-called benefits of modern civilization, care has been taken not to throw overboard all the old” (256). Despite Moroccan Arabic and French influence, women are the ones who perpetuate the Tamazight language to the next generation (256). The generation also includes milk children, children who were nourished and breastfed by unrelated women to create and forge kinship relations. “The true badge of an individual’s timuzgha (Berberhood [by extension sisterhood]) is undoubtedly Tamazight, as taught by one’s mother” (Peyron 257). Adaptiveness, however, is not to be mistaken with conformity. The transfer of knowledge is what helps the more than 9,000-year-old Amazigh distinctiveness to overcome struggles and even thrive.

While Peyron in his work focuses mostly on historical aspects of Imazighen, Cynthia J. Backer’s study Amazigh Arts in Morocco: Women Shaping Berber Identity offers an in-depth research of intersections of art, gender, and identity. Imazighen women established a balance between their own ancestral beliefs rooted in the sacred treatment of nature and Muslim influence. Their work portrays a high degree of harmony with nature, where freedom is an essence and intertwined with history which is full of beautiful and poetic legends and stories.

The interconnectedness of arts like tattooing, textiles, embroidery, and jewelry is a good illustration of ancestral power; embracing the past with the readiness to face the future. Through patterns and their symbolic language, one can learn much about Amazigh culture and history. For example, the triangle, a familiar visual symbol in Amazigh art, has been reused and redefined by AitKhabbash people, taking on new meaning in the context of their changes in lifestyle and reflecting the process of adaptation and creativity. In jewelry, it can indicate the comparison of a woman to a bird—especially a pigeon—with feathers symbolizing a nomadic way of living, indicating freedom and beauty. Later the symbol was adopted to reflect domestic life and became a sign of protection,home, and dwelling—reminiscent of a tent. The chevron motif used in tattoos and textiles not only reflects an intimate connection between home and structure but also symmetry and balance. Although tattooing is not as common today, women wear embroidered head coverings, demonstrating creative and dynamic artistic ability. For women, adorning the body and garments became a political act that mirrored the tension between Arab Islamic influence and Berber identity. The medium may change, but still, art serves as an illustration of social,political, and environmental dynamics. Baker shares an interesting fact in her study:

For several generations prior to the 1970s, Ait Khabbash women had worn long sparsely decorated head coverings made from indigo-dyed cotton cloth as modesty garments. But then coinciding with the disappearance of tattoos, they began to embroider elaborate vegetal motifs on their indigo head coverings, demonstrating not only their artistic creativity but their negotiation between Islamic beliefs and indigenous definitions of women as the carriers of AitKhabbash identity. (63) This example shows that “artistic production not only reveals the complexity of women’s roles but also demonstrates women’s agency” (Becker 14). Art is not just a form of creative expression but also a proof of the power to influence various aspects of social, cultural, and political life.

There is so much more beyond the beautiful things infused with golden light. While visiting Morocco, if we move beyond the consumerist perceptions of cultural artifacts and engage more deeply with the stories embedded within them, we can learn so much from the Imazighen and Morocco.


Works Cited

Becker, Cynthia. Amazigh Arts in Morocco: Women Shaping Berber Identity. University of Texas Press. 2006.

Peyron, Michael. The Berbers of Morocco. A History of Resistance. Bloomsbury, I.B. Tauris. 2022.

Photos of Morocco by Natalie Velez. Idsva Residency. Morocco. January, 2024.

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