For African women passing through Morocco en route to Europe, begging on the streets becomes a way to support themselves, but also reinforces humiliation and shame.
The population of African migrant women who are attempting to cross to Europe as their “final destination” and who are stuck on the Morocco-Spain borders have no visibility. They are mainly from Ivory Coast, DRC, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon and Guinea. When the crossing to Spain proves difficult, they prefer to stay in Morocco rather than return to their countries of origin. They perceive their return as a shame, even a failure of their migratory project. That is why despite the difficulties and the extreme precariousness in which they live, they choose not to admit to their families that they have failed, or that they were scammed by smugglers, and that making a living in Morocco was harsh and difficult. Crossing to Spain often takes longer than they expect and requires steep financial means. It also requires belonging to a network that allows them to stay constantly alert for possible opportunities to cross over.
After spending a few days or even a few months in Rabat, Casablanca, or Dakhla, migrant women may head for Tangier or Nador based on the information provided to them by their network. For the women I encountered, the first destination in Tangier or Nador was one of the camps set up in the forests, which are organized by ethnicity. Life in the forest or in the camp is very challenging, especially for women. In some forests, the women have their separate space, which is not far from that of the men, but in others, men and women live in the same space. However, while the proximity to men can protect the women from Moroccan assailants and other migrant groups, it also makes them vulnerable to their “brothers” or the men from the same camps who can become aggressors, forcing women into having sexual relations in exchange for protection. To that extent, sexual violence and harassment is almost like a rite of passage, which tragically marks these women’s experiences of mobility. They perceive conditions of existence in the forests as a life reduced to survival and one which is not worth living because it is more degrading than that which they led in their countries.
Significantly, the quest for autonomy and a better future has contradictory effects for these women. They are seeking to escape systemic oppression and social control in their home country only to find themselves stuck in new structures of domination: the control of the male group to which they belong, the control of the Moroccan state, and border security policies in general. In their struggle to survive they find themselves forced to practice begging in order to support themselves.
Begging, for both Moroccans and others, is a practice imposed by the social and economic context of Morocco; In the case of migrants, it is also the result of restrictive migration policies. It is a source of income that allows them to earn small amounts of money day by day and to finance their crossing to Europe. This practice of begging is mainly designated by the expression “Taper Salam,” other expressions are also used such as “Je travaille” (“I work”), “Je fais le feu” (“I do the traffic light”), or “Je fais la manche” (“I beg”). However, this practice requires special preparations and rituals. Before starting it, the migrant must find out from their companions with prior experience how to expose their body, what terms to repeat, how to approach passers-by and the possible places where this activity can be practiced. Simulations are done before practicing this activity in public. The preparation consists of dressing in old clothes, covering the hair and leaving only the face visible. In short, they dress in such a way that their poor conditions are visible and easy to spot by passers-by. The practiced bodily gestures convey modesty and helplessness and the use of Islamic lexicon is employed to tap into the concept of Islamic charity, or the giving of alms, one of the five tenets of Islam.
The majority of migrant women see begging as work, since there are specific schedules and protocols related to the practice. Begging can involve circulating between cars, reaching out to passers-by during the few seconds when cars stop at a traffic light. Other migrant women sit outside busy places, such as bakeries and supermarkets. Most importantly, begging is a spatial practice and requires the appropriation of a place that is not occupied by other migrant women. It is often difficult for those who have newly arrived to claim a place, as the rivalry over space sometimes produces discord and violence.
Although they see it as necessary work, the practice of begging is one of the sources of shame for women; it makes them feel humiliated and consequently more vulnerable and stigmatized. It is a downgrading that is experienced by migrant women in relation to their initial project and their positions in their country of origin. Passers-by can also reinforce this feeling of humiliation through insensitive, calculated gestures such as pressing hard on their hands when giving them a coin to hurt them, throwing money from above while they are sitting so as not to touch their hands, or rolling down the car windows and throwing money instead of handing it to them.
Ultimately, for these women the practice of begging is not a choice, but rather an obligation, a necessary migration strategy. It is the only way that allows the passage to Europe and to glimpse prospects for a future much less obscure than having stayed at home or being stuck in Morocco.