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Ethnography of Morocco: Women's Cooperatives

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Ethnographic of Morocco Women's Cooperatives

From wonderfully woven rugs to stunning silver jewelry, Morocco is a hot destination for traditional crafts.

Some of these traditional crafts come from empowering businesses known as cooperatives, where the workers own, control, and run the businesses collaboratively. Workers also share the business’s profits and benefits.

Craft cooperatives that have set up shop in Morocco include textile cooperatives, jewelry cooperatives, and more. These cooperatives can be extremely beneficialespecially when it comes to supporting our global sisters in Morocco (and around the world).

A Tour of Morocco’s Women Cooperatives

Before we look into the benefits of cooperatives, why don’t we tour a few of Morocco’s women’s cooperatives?

Al Kawtar Marrakech Morocco Women’s Cooperative

Image: Al Kawtar Cooperative Site

Al Kawtar - Marrakech, Morocco

Al Kawtar was founded in 2012 with the mission of helping women with disabilities earn a steady source of income and find their independence. Members of the cooperative proudly dispel stereotypes about people who are disabled through their beautiful hand-sewn clothing and homeware.

Artisanat des Femmes de Khenifra - Khenifra, Morocco

Founded in 2008, women at the Artisanat des Femmes de Khenifra produce woven djellaba buttons. These buttons are traditionally used for clothing, but the innovative artisans at Artisanat des Femmes de Khenifra demonstrate their skillful adaptability by fashioning them into colorful bracelets, necklaces, and earrings.

Sefrou Women’s Silk Button Cooperative Cherry Buttons Cooperative - Sefrou, Morocco

Image: Cherry Buttons Cooperative, Sefrou, Morocco

Sefrou Women’s Silk Button Cooperative/Cherry Buttons Cooperative - Sefrou, Morocco

The Sefrou Women’s Silk Button Cooperative (locally known as the Cherry Buttons Cooperative) was established in 2000. Like the women at Artisanat des Femmes de Khenifra, the Cherry Buttons Cooperative’s artisans also craft djellaba buttons. In addition to making jewelry, the cooperative’s artisans create plush rugs and use the vibrant buttons to adorn accessories like shawls and scarves (among many others).

Women’s Coop of Tassa Ouirgane - Tassa Ouirgane, Morocco

The women’s cooperative in Tassa Ouirgane was created with the aid of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF). At the cooperative, women (including young women) artfully fashion handicrafts such as crocheted, embroidered, and woven homegoods.


Empowerment & Regaining Control through Decision-Making

Now that we’ve seen a brief overview of Morocco’s women’s cooperatives, let’s cover some of the benefits they provide our sisters. For starters, they help women regain control over workplace decisions.

Before industrialization, artisans had all-around knowledge and control of the craft they produced. They knew how to create an entire product (not just one step of the process), and also made creative decisions of what to make and how to make it. Unfortunately, artisans’ knowledge and subsequent control over their craft were lost with industrialization and the invention of the assembly line. Under this new mode of production, workers were only involved in one step of the process, and their all-around knowledge of producing the craft vanished over time. Since they no longer knew all the steps of production, they could not run their own business and sell their own goods as they used to. Losing this ability led to the loss of artisans’ power to make decisions in the workplace.

What once was creative and empowering work was replaced with performing repetitive, mundane tasks. With such a work life comes a personal loss of satisfaction with what an artisan produces and a possible loss of satisfaction with their life as a whole.

Having command of the production process is not the only aspect of control that can be absent when it comes to being an artisan. With many traditional crafts (as in the case of djellaba button production), Moroccan women do not have genuine control over setting the price of their work. Rather, other buyers (e.g. tailors or wholesalers) buy bulk quantities of the artisans’ buttons at a severely low cost but sell them at significantly higher prices. Sadly, it can be disheartening for artisans to receive such low pay for their work, and it can be all too easy for them to internalize this low value and think that it is a reflection of their self-worth.

Fortunately, cooperatives can help women artisans regain control over the production and sales processes by placing them in decision-making positions.

Unlike some other forms of business, decisions in a cooperative are not made by a board of people who do not have day-to-day experience working alongside the cooperative’s artisans. Instead, at cooperatives like Artisanat des Femmes de Khenifra, decisions are made by the artisans or a board of artisans from the cooperative that the group elects themselves.

The artisans make decisions not only about production but pricing as well. When the women artisans set the price themselves, they come to realize their work is worth more than what they had previously been paid. As a result, women earn a greater income than they usually would from low-paying bulk buyers. And when their product starts to bring in more value, women just might start to value themselves more as a person too.

It important to note that women artisans gaining control in their workplace does not equate to dominating others. And it shouldn’t—as feminist bell hooks proclaim in her classic work, Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism, “to be ‘feminist’ in any authentic sense of the term is to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.” (Emphasis added.)

Unfortunately, even within the same business, there is often competition; it can be a cutthroat world trying to get a promotion or raise over someone else. However, at Terra Adorn (as we emphasized in a previous blog celebrating other women in the jewelry industry), we strongly believe in the power of “collaboration over competition”. Being empowered and taking control can manifest in a way different than the masculine image of dominating others that we usually associate “control” and “power” with.  Unlike some other forms of business, in cooperatives, decisions are not made by one person or group at the top; instead, they demonstrate that collaboration in decision-making is power, and rightly so.


Empowerment & Regaining Control through Education

Recall that part of losing control in the workplace involved a loss in craft and business knowledge. In cooperatives, women regain that knowledge through educational training programs. Through these training programs, women learn traditional skills such as sewing and embroidery. These workshops often teach women more modern business and tech skills too, including how to create aesthetic mood boards or use Pinterest for marketing. Learning crafts, business, and tech skills helps women expand their business, further contributing to their income.

Cooperatives not only equip women with crafts, business, and tech knowledge—they can also enhance their general education opportunities.

Just planning to create a cooperative can lead to gaining a education. In 1998, a band of women from Sefrou created an association dedicated to finding out the process of establishing a cooperative. By virtue of creating an association, the women formed a collective group that was then allowed to use government literacy classes. These literacy classes would combat the about 80% women’s illiteracy rate in Sefrou. Armed with literacy skills that then aided them in learning more about creating cooperatives, some of these women would go on to form the Cherry Buttons Cooperative.

Established cooperatives also continue to provide educational opportunities as well. In their GlobalGiving project report published in 2013, Aicha Galef details how Charlotte Burrows (a UK Ambassador for GlobalGiving) revealed that women’s education in the Moroccan village of Ouirgane stops no later than at 16 years old (though stopping as early as 10 years old is not an uncommon occurrence). Thankfully, there are cooperatives like the women’s cooperative in Tassa Ouirgane that have literacy programs to help expand women’s access to education.

Empowered in the Workplace, Empowered in Life

Cooperatives help women regain control in the workplace by putting them in decision-making positions. Possessing the power to decide what to make, how to make it, and how to sell it increases women’s economic opportunities. But regaining control in the workplace goes beyond monetary value. By having the power to choose at work, women may then feel empowered to make decisions about their own lives: about who they are, what they are worth, and what they want to accomplish.

And hopefully, they may feel empowered enough to go out and bravely accomplish it.

Author: Jazzy Celindro, Terra Adorn Ethnographic Writer


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