By Moundir Alamrani
Rabat, May 2, 2012
Visiting a hammam, as it is known locally or public bathhouse is an enriching experience for Western women, who are exposed to the privacy offered by the hamman in a non-Western country. A couple of decades ago, Western women found it difficult to visit these bathhouses in some regions of Morocco, particularly in small villages and towns. Today, however, you will rarely encounter a female tourist who does not have a visit to the hammam on her to-do list.
A woman’s hammam is a space for women to gather and socialize in the total absence of men, creating a meeting place that transcends its primary role as a washroom and becomes a culturally significant space that most women visit on a regular basis. Western knowledge of these bathhouses is derived mainly from literature and travel accounts.
The bathing ritual of a hammam requires two prerequisites to be performed properly: the hammam “kit” and proper knowledge of hammam etiquette. In addition to usual toiletries, the kit consists of four other highly important elements: traditional soap, or sabon beldi, a greasy black substance, the rhasoul, a traditional shampoo made of mineral clay and melted in water, a hand mitt, or kees, and a small pumice rock; both used for scrubbing the skin, especially to slough off dead skin on the heels.
Bathers follow a series of steps as soon as they enter the hammam and continue after they have finished bathing. Women begin by removing their clothing (except for underclothes) in the dressing room, although some women take off everything. After this, they enter the hammam, which consists of two or three rooms with varying degrees of heat. Before sitting down, the bather must wash the floor area where she intends to bathe; this should be conducted upstream to prevent the dirty water from contaminating the clean spaces. Following this, the bathing area becomes that of the bather alone, with boundaries marked by water buckets and the general understanding that no one will cross the boundaries of their neighbors.
The bathing ritual begins with the application of sabon bildi to the whole body, followed by a brief waiting period before scrubbing the skin with the kees, an activity that eases as the sabon bildi melts into the skin.
When a woman is done bathing, she stands up and douses herself with the water left in her buckets and returns to the dressing room. While there, she sits or lies down to rest and acclimates to the temperature outside. Some women bring oranges as a thirst quenching mechanism.
For most women, the hammam is a place for bonding and cultivating new friendships. It is common, for instance, to see women scrubbing each other’s backs and offering to do so without being asked, although most bathhouses offer similar services for a fee. The act of scrubbing is usually accompanied by chitchat and gossip, which is typically how most women spend the long bathing hours. Occasionally quarrels and disputes occur over water or bathing spots, but they are soon forgotten.
A great deal of the local culture can be observed in the hammam, while also being a venue for information exchange, as well as a place for cleansing and relaxation. It is a world of its own that allows women the opportunity to escape their confinement within the house, domestic tasks and male domination. Moreover, it is a place where women can spend several hours talking with friends and neighbors and also make new friends. The hammam also gives women time to spend on themselves and take care of their bodies.
This is not the only role the hammam plays in Moroccan society, however, as it has traditionally been associated with marriage and courtship. It is very common for mothers to look for brides for their sons in the hammam, where they can be sure they have selected the right girl. The hammam obstructs the typical barriers experienced in public, in which no makeup or trendy clothes can conceal the true nature of a woman and her body. A mother may ask a girl she likes to scrub her back for her simply as a way to chat and get to know her better.
Bathing is also part of wedding preparations; a bride’s close friends and relatives take her to the hammamto prepare her for her next phase of life as a woman. This is considered an act of purification and is done with milk in some regions to symbolize purity. The ceremonial bath is accompanied by songs and shrills, emphasizing the cultural significance of the ritual.
The way Westerners deal with women and their life in ‘Oriental’ societies does not differ much from the way they deal with the ‘Orient’ as a whole. The West first experienced the Turkish hammam, with its opulent and exotic architecture, and images of upper class and aristocratic ladies attended to by their slaves. As such, the hammam has remained one of the most attractive social institutions of the ‘Orient.’ Contrary to its Turkish counterpart, the Moroccan hammam is a popular destination characterized by varying degrees of quality and price. Any woman who can afford the price of the hammam of her choice is permitted, regardless of her social class.
The hammam is also a place where the ‘Orient,’ as related to women, can be broken down. Women are observed and scrutinized willingly as they undress and reveal themselves to Western gaze. Women of the ‘Orient’ are often conceived of as objects, rather than human beings with human attributes and figures. Their physical appearance is described in terms of separate parts rather than one human entity, which is part of the concept of ‘othering’ that has been occurring since the very start of the East and West’s relationship.
Moroccan society has grown complex and multifaceted as the years of colonization and its geographical proximity to Europe have tarnished its social fabric and altered its social codes and traditions. This makes writing about Moroccan society difficult, especially the issue of women, which is too complex to deal with in simplistic terms.
Edited by Caryn Benisch