Civil Society in the Face of Government – Alex Frumkin

Coming to Morocco, I knew that I would be learning a lot about the idea of citizenship – both national and global – and how it plays a different role in different places based on distinctions between societies. Citizenship for the average American, for example, is not the same as citizenship for the average Moroccan, but there are clear similarities between the two as well (not to mention different definitions of citizenship across individual people). I’ve been talking to several Moroccans about their thoughts on these concepts as well as life in Morocco. I had the chance to interview a very interesting person recently, Halima. She cares a lot about education; she just got a master’s degree in cultural studies, but she currently works as an English teacher. Below is a transcript of our conversation.


The pizza Halima ate during our interview


ME: Halima, if you got your degree in cultural studies, why do you want to teach English?

HALIMA: I love talking to new people, foreigners, discovering new culture. So how am I going to do it? I chose English. And once you’re done studying a language, that’s all you do. Teach that language, and then you go explore. But my real dream is to work for an NGO. I love helping people, and part of teaching is helping people, but that’s definitely what you do with an NGO. In human rights NGOs and women’s rights NGOs, you help people change their situation and also experience new culture, so that is what I really want to do. But it’s not that easy to do that in Morocco.


ME: What is not easy about working for NGOs in Morocco?

HALIMA: Normally they are not very well-organized, and even if they are, the salaries are not very good, so that’s why my goal is to work for a big NGO abroad. I also want to study outside of Morocco to further my English education because the universities are not very good. I did a master’s degree here, and I don’t think I grew in my knowledge. I want to go get another master’s or maybe another doctorate and actually grow; I want to go somewhere like America where I can learn, and people want me to grow and are actually proud of my success and education.


ME: After your studies, would you want to come back to Morocco or stay in America?

HALIMA: If I get a good job with a big NGO, I would stay there. But I would really like to start my own NGO here, I just don’t want to live here forever. If possible, I’d set it up in Morocco but run it from America. I am really drawn to American culture, but more importantly, I also feel uncomfortable sometimes in Morocco. I used to wear the hijab, but I don’t anymore, and there are traditions I don’t follow. I don’t want to feel like I have to hide myself from my family or others and not be myself. At the same time, there’s a lot of judgment – like on Facebook, I’ve deleted so many “friends” over this – and no one should deal with that. It’s very uncomfortable and I feel judged constantly for my decision.


ME: And this judgment is because you don’t follow traditions of Islam, correct?

HALIMA: Well, actually, the traditions don’t necessarily have anything to do with Islam. Some do, yes, but for the most part traditions are just created and imposed by society. For example, while the Quran does mention the hijab, it is those that run society that chose to interpret the Quran a certain way and force women to wear it. Many traditions were created by men just so they could find a way to control women.


ME: In that case, what does it mean for you to be a woman in Morocco?

HALIMA: To be a woman here, you have to choose one of three paths. Either there is the path where you can just submit to whatever society tells you to do, whatever traditions tell you to do, so you become accepted and are the “ideal” woman. That way everything is happy – kulshi bkheer – maybe you are not happy, but you are still accepted. The second path is you just have to lie to everyone and be the perfect person, but when people find out you will be kicked out and not accepted anymore. The third path is you have to challenge everything and fight against every tradition that wants to control, but you can only do this if you’re a position of power. You need your own job, your own place, and you have to be totally independent; this position is very difficult to achieve. But while you’re not in that position, you have to fight some things, like with the hijab and self-success and doing everything you’re told, but you have to lie about some other things. This way isn’t easy, but it’s all I can do for example without being in that position of power.


ME: I’m sorry for all you have to go through in Morocco. But even if that’s true, do you still love it here?

HALIMA: Of course, I do love it here. I love the people – well, not all of them but many of them – and how we all work together; I truly love that sense of collectivism in the Moroccan identity. I wouldn’t want to be independent and I don’t think life in America would have that level of collectivism, people doing things together and it being a defining part of your life and your identity. The food is very good, too, and there are many beautiful places in this country.


ME: Along with that sense of collectivism, what does it mean for you to be a Moroccan?

HALIMA: The language, the cultures, the traditions. Yeah – that’s all. The space or place of Morocco, too. You live here, the fact that you live here, makes you Moroccan.


ME: In that case, what does it mean to be a citizen of Morocco?

HALIMA: It means people who want to help the country and actually help make it a better place for other Moroccans rather than simply sitting around and using the system. It’s this giving back that is actually incredibly important to me and why I want to teach and eventually work for an NGO.


ME: As a citizen then, do you get involved with Moroccan politics?

HALIMA: No. I mean, I vote, but I’m not part of a party or anything. I actually don’t like politics and when I see it in the news I often try to ignore it. But I have been reading about Moroccan politics a little more lately; politics is often bad and causes other bad things, like poverty and inequality, so with an NGO I could help make people’s lives better, so I don’t want to be more involved in politics than that. I’m on the board of an association and we do our social work to help people, but we’re really not more involved than that.


ME: If you started your own NGO, what kind of NGO would you start?

HALIMA: A women’s rights organization. Not exactly sure would it do, but it would definitely be predicated on fighting against the patriarchal society. Women’s rights are human rights, so it would definitely fall under that category as well and provide services to help people.


ME: How do you want to improve human rights in the world?

HALIMA: We have to stop judging people based on their religion, their nationality, their ancestors, their ethnicity, their skin color. We should judge people based on their actions, what they do, what they take from and give to society. It’s been very difficult to see and hear about discrimination in the world, especially from Western nations like America and France. France, in particular, has to make change. When I was in America, it was a co-existing melting pot. In France, there are girls who are not allowed to attend university because they wear the hijab. And look at the World Cup; 80% of France’s team was African, 50% was Muslim. Outside of the praise these players get, there is so much xenophobia and racism in France that treats Africans and Muslims as sub-human and things have to change.


ME: Regarding France, a lot of these systems are deeply ingrained in society as the result of things like colonialism, so how can we work to help society work together and fight this problem?

HALIMA: Like I said, it all starts when we stop judging. We have to accept different religions, different cultures, and different people. We all need to have a open heart and an open mind. The changes immigrants make to culture are what make society, not degrade it. People should be free to do whatever they want, and embracing these differences is where we start to solve the problem. After that, we can finally all work together and then create a space for legal change all around the world.


ME: Does that mean you’re a proponent of global citizenshi

HALIMA: Yes, definitely. I think the world should remove barriers between different people and then in turn individual people will start adopting culture from others and become citizens of the world.


ME: Is it possible to be a global citizen and also a citizen of Morocco?

HALIMA: Well yeah. I will always be a Moroccan, but I can still openly enjoy parts of other people’s culture. We don’t have to be static and stuck in one specific culture.


ME: When I ask about citizenship, you largely address culture, so what does citizenship mean to you?

HALIMA: Citizenship is simply a community made up of citizens – people who contribute to a society/culture whether it’s from one country or the world – and citizens are the ones that create this culture, so that’s what I talk about it so often. They’re both based on people, so it all becomes one cycle.


ME: Last question. If I asked you to pick one word to summarize what it means for you to be Moroccan, what would it be?

HALIMA: Fighting. Fighting for rights but also fighting cultures and traditions. As much as I love Morocco, I have to fight every day. My love of its collective identity conflicts with my desire to be who I am, so that’s why fighting has to be the best word if I have to pick just one.


ME: Thank you very much for your time, Halima.



While I can’t generalize Halima’s experience and definition of citizenship to all Moroccans, it certainly is interesting to find someone with a fairly similar view on citizenship. I too believe that the citizenship in the informal, non-legal sense is based largely on community, identity, and belonging, but I also think it has a lot to do with internalization of a society within one’s identity. For example, how could I truly consider myself American if I’m opposed to the values that define America ideologically?


I think the fighting that Halima describes is complicated to consider whether it falls under my definition of citizenship or not – is she fighting practical implications of society or the society itself? I personally lean to the belief that she is in fact a citizen because culture and traditions are byproducts of society but not factors of a society itself. If you ask me, citizenship and culture co-exist, but they are not actually cyclical as Halima describes; their overlap is critical, but their distinction is even more so. That’s where my biggest disagreement with her definition of citizenship arises. I personally do not think culture is part of the definition of citizenship. Rather, I think it’s the direct product of citizenship, the result of the interaction of all the individual members of a society and their individual tastes, practices, customs, and beliefs. Yes, on occasion, a government legitimizes and emphasizes particular activities, but because these all derive from the people originally, they are only part of citizenship from a practical standpoint rather than the actual concept of citizenship. Nonetheless, I fully understand why Halima actually includes culture within her definition, because to a degree they are in fact inseparable.


My other major takeaway from listening to Halima was her complicated relationship with politics, or the collective action of a people within society through the implemented system of governance. As much as she expressed a distaste for large governmental institutions, she also demonstrated an incredibly strong inclination towards civil society, the buffer zone between a government and the people it is supposed to represent. When I pressed on considering this nuance, she said that there really is a clear distinction between the two, though I certainly disagree; I guess we just have a different definition of politics – I see it as collective action and align it with governance while Halima most likely only considers the practices of Moroccan government and its direct representatives. It’s interesting how so much debate really just comes down to semantics. Because I view every person who actively considers their role in society – yes, even those that actively avoid “politics” – a political actor, I have come to love politics and engaging in collective action because I find it integral to all human interaction. I fully understand why many people become upset with government, but I’m very happy that Halima has channeled that frustration into civil society to help people that are hurt by different policies – I wish everyone did that – even if she doesn’t believe that civil society is part of politics.


At the end of the day, I think it’s most important that people are involved in their respective national and global societies, and I know that Halima fully embodies that. That’s definitely my biggest takeaway.

16 comments to Civil Society in the Face of Government – Alex Frumkin

  • Kevin Z.

    Very fascinating read! Wonderful work!! I am so happy to see you’re expanding your views and having such conversations with Moroccans!

  • David Hume

    Really interesting piece, Alex!

    I think that you and Halima should have explored what each of you meant by culture at some point. Neither of you ever explicitly discussed your conceptions of culture on which so much of the discussion was predicated!
    I know that it’s always tricky to do deep conceptual analyses during the course of a short interview, but it seemed that defining culture was necessary bedrock, even if her definition ended up being boilerplate.

    Without that definition, I don’t feel comfortable criticising her utterances on immigration and citizenship (which was my initial inclination!). I am wary of attacking a straw-man representation of her position, able to be erected only for her lack of time to properly expound her worldview.

    But it was a great writeup, and got me thinking! I really appreciated your musings at the end. Keep it up, buddy. I’ll reach out to you to discuss my thoughts in more detail!

  • Eddy

    It’s extremely incredible how you get to know the citizens of Morocco. Keep up with this once in a lifetime experience.

  • Shailen Parmar

    Another great blog post. Your discussion about citizenship—especially global citizenship—reminds me of Pico Iyer’s ted talk on identity.

    Also, it was interesting to hear your concept of the relationship between culture and citizenship as distinct but overlapping rather than cyclical. Personally, I view it more hierarchically—culture as an emergent property of the collectivism citizenship affords.

    Thanks for the interesting read.

  • Michael

    Very interesting perspective, I think you did a great job in your selection of questions. I found her love/hate relationship with Moroccan culture and traditions to be particularly thought provoking. Her distaste for politics, going so far as to describe it as a cause of poverty and inequality, seems to be a stark contrast to American views on politics (which often see politics and political action as a potential solution to those issues).

  • Anonymous

    Marvelous! Once again, a truly fascinating read! I don’t know much about Morocco so it’s really informative to hear things from a citizen’s point of view. Ms. Halima sounds like a delightful person and I definitely agree with her opinion on ceasing judgment of others. I also didn’t expect to hear about prejudice against Muslims and Africans in France, and I was unaware that it was so common there. I was also unaware that women had to choose paths in Morocco. As in many countries, there are overwhelming displays of patriarchy, but I can’t imagine how it must be there. It’s great that she sheds light on these sorts of topics so that people like us know.

    You’re doing amazingly! Thank you for doing such an amazing job Alex!

  • Sam C

    Wow, super interesting Alex! You should have taken AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES ON CITIZENSHIP focus lol! Also, did this interview take place here in America or in Morocco? She seems like a very insightful person, who having experienced both cultures, is able to give a nuanced perspective of the intersection of the two and the different attitudes of the West vs. those ingrained with Islamic traditions.

  • Kayla

    Really insightful! Not a point of view you hear form everyday, and it’s interesting to get a glimpse into her views on politics!

  • Nonymous

    Love the multifaceted dialogue. Well done. Interesting. Culture distinctions between words and the power they hold.

  • Andrey

    Very Interesting! It is pretty different from what we experience in America. I can’t imagine women having that little power in some countries! Thank you for sharing this interview!

  • Julie

    Great interview, Alex! A very interesting glimpse of one Moroccan’s take on citizenship and individual involvement with the politics.

  • Josh

    This was a well-done post. Halima’s perspectives were reminiscent of what I have heard during my trips to the Middle East. There seems to be a trend where most people seem forward-thinking in some way, but “suffocated” by a “backward” society. I regret not taking time to find random members of the masses to ask them their perspective on all this.

    The trend seems to be that folks who are proud of their heritage but feel it is lacking want to escape to the West. That is a shame, as they will find the West is also a bundle of proud heritage and imperfection that its own residents often seek to escape. Grass is always greener syndrome. I wish people like Halima could see that and find a way to comfortably make a living in Morocco while making change at home. And NGOs, by the way, are not the only way to make such changes. Much has been done by businesspeople who donate their time and money to important causes.

  • Darien H

    I loved reading this! Seeing someone else’s view on citizenship, especially someone from abroad, was very intriguing. I have actually never thought about it from the perspective other than an American, but this has opened my eyes to the importance of accepting other cultures. Even living in the United States, I struggle wiith being almost full Native American, just because people do not understand nor accept the traditions of my people. Therefore, I related to the statements she made about culture. I also find it interesting how she wants to go out and gain a better education to selflessly help people. The fact that she is going against her own traditions to do so is truly inspirational. Thank you Alex for raising these questions!

  • Anonymous

    Awesome read. Halima sounds like quite the amazing person. Glad you’re having this experience.

  • Chris H

    I wonder if Halima saw politics as very separate from nongovernmental civic organizations because in Morocco the government is not as much “by the people and for the people” as in the U.S. I think in an American context it’s easier to say that organizations are political because people’s collective actions often shape government. In Morocco, this is true to some extent, but there are a lot of reports of dissenting journalists and activists being imprisoned/otherwise repressed. It’s also pretty recent that the King’s political “wings” have been constitutionally clipped. I could imagine that seeing Moroccan people’s organizations as political could seem far-fetched, even if you and Halima share the same definition of politics.

    I also thought it was interesting that Halima thought people should be able to do whatever they want without judgment, but also appreciated the collectivism she sees in Moroccan culture. I wonder if it’s possible to have collectivism without common values and norms that are reinforced by societal pressure.

    This was really interesting to read. Glad you’re getting to have such deep conversations with people!! See ya in a few weeks.

  • Justin

    Great read Alex! Her stance on being a woman in Morocco is very interesting.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>