Development Dialogue 2018 | Morocco’s ‘ninjas’: The hidden figures of agricultural growth by Lisa Bossenbroek and Margreet Zwarteveen

In Morocco’s Saïss region an agricultural boom is unfolding, premised on a process of labour hierarchisation shaped along gender lines. Female wageworkers find themselves at the lowest strata and take little pride in their work and are stigmatised. In such a context, how are rural women able to engage in agricultural wage work without losing their dignity and without being stigmatised? What can we learn from their daily working experiences?


While driving through Morocco’s agricultural plain of the Saïss in the early morning, the roads are crowded with vans and pickups that are packed with workers, the majority of whom are women. The way in which these women are dressed has earned them the nickname of ‘ninjas’: they have wrapped thick scarves around their faces, barely showing their eyes (see Picture 1). This outfit is symptomatic of their paradoxical situation: although they are indispensable for realizing Morocco’s ambitious agricultural modernization plans, their contributions tend to go or are made invisible, also by themselves. Female labourers may say that their dress is meant to protect themselves from the sun—“because we do not want to become black”—as well as from dust and pesticides. Yet, in addition to these practical considerations, many also admitted that their scarves conveniently serve the purpose of hiding their faces, allowing them to remain invisible and “anonymous”.


Their experiences are embedded in a new hierarchical labour order that is currently emerging (Bossenbroek 2016). Whereas most male labourers whom we interviewed take some pride in their work as they often get the better-paid jobs and could use it to model and perform a particular modern rural masculine identity, women find themselves at the lowest strata of this hierarchy. This newly emerging gendered labour hierarchy is grounded in, reproduces, but also slightly alters prevailing normative notions of femininity and masculinity in the study area. These prevailing norms divide various activities between the genders, while also narrowly circumscribing what is appropriate behaviour for men and women. Men are expected to be or become the breadwinner of the household, responsible for maintaining their families. A father, or husband, who falls short of financially supporting his wife or family is not well perceived in the society. In this regard, a woman working for wages automatically raises questions about her husband’s (if she has one) ability to provide. During various interviews, women stated for example that “a husband who accepts to let his wife work outside, is not a real man and can expect trouble, or as a young unmarried female wageworker once said when asking about her future husband: “It does not matter what kind of work he does. It is more important that he actually has a job.

Prevailing feminine socio-cultural gendered norms further circumscribe the various activities and identities of female wageworkers. This makes it difficult for rural women who engage in wage work to combine their remunerative activities with the identity of being a virtuous rural woman. Although women often engage in farm work, they take little pride in their activities as rural female identities rather rest on domestic tasks. They are in charge of the good functioning of their household and for raising the children. Their mobility is restricted and closely watched and controlled (see also Belarbi 1995). In addition, the activities rural women engage in as well as their mobility are deeply entangled with notions of honour and shame. These notions guide interactions in certain social contexts, specifically in public interactions between non-intimates (Abou-Lughod 1985, p. 247).

Such normative gender identities and norms are importantly (re-)produced and reinforced by gossip and rumours that circulate. There are for instance many negative stories about women working for wages in the agricultural sector. Male farmers and foremen may refer to female wageworkers as single young women with illicit behaviour, or as women “who make the farmer lose his mind”.

Hence, in order to continue with their wage work activities without losing their image of a respectable woman, female wageworkers develop different tactics. They for instance actively hide the fact that they work and perform as a good housewife in charge of her household, or present their work as a logical extension of their role as mother, as one female mother worker stated: “I have to work in order to keep my children out of the misery and provide them with a better future”. In the meantime, they fulfil the role of female breadwinner and trespass on the public domain, considered masculine, on a daily basis. In doing so, they negate on a daily basis hegemonic definitions of womanhood and come to explore new concepts of self, female status, and human worth (see Ong 1991).

Abou-Lughod, L. (1985) ‘Honor and sentiment of loss in Bedouin society’, American Ethnologist 12 (2): 245 – 261.
Belarbi, A. (Eds.) (1995) Femmes rurales. Casablanca: Editions Le Fennec.
Bossenbroek, L. 2016. ‘Behind the veil of agricultural modernization: Gendered dynamics of rural change in the Saïss, Morocco’. PhD Dissertation Wageningen University.
Ong, A. (1991) ‘The gender and labor politics of postmodernity’, Annual Review of Anthropology 20 : 279 – 309.

This blog article is part of a series related to the Development Dialogue 2018 Conference that was recently held at the ISS. Other articles forming part of the series can be read here,  here and here


About the authors:

LisaLisa Bossenbroek obtained her PhD in 2016 with the rural sociology group at the University of Wageningen (the Netherlands). As part of her research she studied the role of young people in agrarian dynamics and the interactions of processes of agrarian change and gender relations. Currently, she works as a post-doc at the Faculty of Governance, Economics and Social Sciences (EGE–RABAT), Morocco.

zwarteveen-margreet-Margreet Zwarteveen is Professor of Water Governance Education with the Integrated Water Systems and Governance Department at IHE Delft Institute for Water, and with the Governance and Inclusive Development group, University of Amsterdam. She is concerned both with looking at actual water distribution practices and with analysing the different ways in which water distributions can be regulated (through technologies, markets and institutions), justified (decision-making procedures) and understood (expertise and knowledge).



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