Interdisciplinary Research Project: gender equality & democracy in Morocco

2nd November 2020

This project was the winner of the first Emerald Interdisciplinary Research Fund Award. The project, aligned specifically to the UN SDG Goal 5 on gender equality, addresses key challenges in gender equality and political participation in rural Morocco.

The team, based in the UK and Morocco, have adopted an interdisciplinary approach using creative arts and social sciences research, and practitioners. Outputs will include an exhibition produced by young Berber women, an evaluative symposium, a co-authored academic publication and a toolkit on Berber women’s political participation to help inform policy.

Nine months after winning the award, we spoke to Tom Martin and Kaya Davies-Hayon, two of the project members, about how the project is progressing, the challenges they have faced in light of Covid-19, and the ultimate benefits that have arisen around sharing knowledge and making real impact within communities...

We are a team of arts and social science researchers based in the UK and Morocco. Thanks to generous funding from Emerald, we were supposed to travel to Zaouiat Amelkis in Aoufous, Morocco, in August to run photography and visual literacy skill workshops with young Amazigh women. Our intention was for these participatory arts workshops to support the young women to define the obstacles to their political participation and to determine how they want to be seen and heard in their community and wider society.

We had initially planned to run the workshops in the summer of 2020 and to exhibit the local women’s work in their community. However, as with many other research projects, the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to rethink our plans and shift our approach. The ban on all-but-essential travel, combined with restrictions on entry to Morocco for foreign visitors, meant that we were unable to conduct the participatory arts workshops as originally planned. Whilst this was disappointing, it also encouraged us to think creatively and innovatively about how to engage with the women community members and about how to integrate digital methods into our project delivery.    

In March, Morocco, like the UK, was subject to a strict lockdown with stay-at-home orders and restrictions on social interaction. The big cities like Casablanca, Rabat and Marrakech were worst hit, but Kheira, our contact in Zaouiat Amelkis, told us that her rural village had suffered in unique ways. Because of its remote geographical location, the community was protected from high infection and transmission rates, but struggled with a loss of tourism and the closure of major agricultural markets where local residents would sell dates and other goods.

Some of the village inhabitants were able to continue work in the fields, processing palm trees, harvesting dates and caring for livestock. However, many of the weaving and date-picking cooperatives that employ local village women closed during the lockdown and have not reopened since. Just like in the UK, in-person group gatherings were restricted, so local political and community leaders had to think creatively about how to bring the community together and care for the most vulnerable.

As most people in the community use Whatsapp, community leaders like Kheira started sending out messages via individual and group chats as a means to communicate, stay in touch, and share key information. A real culture of solidarity and community flourished, despite strict physical distancing measures.  

The development of the use of this technology to communicate during the Covid-19 situation has led us to consider how we might integrate positive benefits from it into our project. The intention of the Seeing Change project is not to create a closed formal set of outputs, but to foster longer-term impact with ongoing reflective and qualitative lines of communication. Hopefully, these lines of communication can enable the participants to identify and communicate barriers to their political participation within their community, and ultimately share this with, and influence policymakers.

This fits with our use of the Participatory Action Research method – a method that is built on a desire to move away from the tradition of hierarchical, imperial knowledge production, held within policy making and academic institutions, and towards a model of shared knowledge production that ‘treats participants as competent and reflexive agents’ (Kindon et al, 2007). Integrating image-sharing over Whatsapp into the workshops means that we can foster a culture of creating and sharing images, which the participants will hopefully carry on after the initial stage of the project.  

As a team, we have continued to work closely – albeit remotely! – since Covid-19. We are developing our methodology in the light of the situation and look forward to beginning work on the ground with our young women participants soon.   

If you are interested in finding out more about the Winning Emerald IDR Fund project, you can read the full story. To find out more about Emerald’s Interdisciplinary Research Fund, visit our awards page.