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Made in White City

Case Study: Conversation in the Hammam

We're reporting on four gatherings around the world this month, investigating the factors that bring people together and the rituals that shape how they interact. First up, we see how common gender dissolves barriers for bathers in Morocco.

WORDS - Amanda Ponzio-Mouttaki

“We never saw women when we went out. There were men everywhere but not a woman in sight. Where were they?” I scratched my head as I pondered this question from a man in Madrid airport. I had been living in Marrakech for three months and I struggled to come up with an appropriate response. It’s true there aren’t many women on the street, especially in the tourist-heavy Medina. They don’t take up spaces in cafes or hawk their wares to passers-by. But I knew where the women were. They have spaces; these just aren’t often public.

Visit any Moroccan home in the middle of the afternoon and you’ll find friends chatting over coffee and watching soap operas. Head to the local hammam, a traditional bath house, and the sounds of women’s voices are unmistakable. Hammams are ubiquitous in Morocco; they are central to old medinas and often built into new developments. Even with indoor plumbing, many Moroccans still enjoy a weekly trip to the hammam, not for the bath but for the role it plays in society.

“Come on, yallah! Get your things; let’s go to the hammam,” my sister-in-law chivvied me when I first moved to the city over a decade ago. I had no idea what I was in for. My somewhat prudish American self might have said no had I known what was to come. We bee-lined for the farthest corner of the changing room where women were in various states of undress and I could feel my jaw dropping. The women who, on the streets, appear covered and conservative shed their inhibitions when they walk through the door. Soon, I too was standing ready for what awaited me – every insecurity on display. I felt a cold rush of air as we moved from the changing chamber to the wet rooms.

Marrakech Morocco hammam street
A street sign in Marrakech advertises bath houses for men and women. Photo by Djuliet.

I soon realised I had nothing to worry about. Women and girls of all ages sit in groups, mixed with friends and family. There’s no sucking in the gut, no fear that someone may discover you’ve got cellulite on your legs. Steam rises from the taps and buckets of hot water, while the scent of olive oil soap and walls that are decades old wafts through the chambers. The constant chatter never breaks, only punctured by the cries of toddlers angered when their mother stops their games to scrub them.

This is where women come to meet each other, in a male-free zone. Information passes on the latest happenings in the neighbourhood, all while indulging in the luxury of uninterrupted time to relax under the auspices of a bath. Hammams are starting to fade away, especially in urban areas where dinner parties or special events have become more socially acceptable. But wander by any street in the old medinas and you’re sure to hear the sloshing of water and chatter of women engaged in this time-tested activity.

Chefchaouen Morocco hammam streetThe entrance to a hammam in Chefchaouen, Morocco. Photo by Trevor Huxham.

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