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A conversation with Suzanna Clarke, Ubud, Bali

Suzanna Clarke and I met years ago on assignment in Brisbane and caught up again during my trip to Morocco in 2016. Suzanna lives in Fez (in a beautiful old Riad she restored) with her husband Sandy McCutcheon and adopted children Zaki and Malika.

We spent a few days together when Suzanna transited through Ubud with son Zaki on her way to and from Australia to spend Christmas with family.

Given her peripatetic life I thought it would be interesting to talk to Suzanna about the difference for women she notices in the various societies she moves through. Then we got onto the whole #MeToo movement.

LG: What is life like for a woman over 50 in Morocco.

SC: I find it a lot easier as a woman who is over 50 to live in Morocco. When I went to live there I found it pretty liberating in lots of ways because I wasn’t as conscious of how I looked. I find in the West, that I’m bombarded by advertising and other people’s expectations of what I need to look like.

In Morocco the local women seem very comfortable with each other, they have a level of closeness that most Western women don’t have. They walk along holding hands with other women they meet in the Hamman (bathhouse) and have a lot of physical intimacy without being sexual about it. They really support each other, scrub each other’s backs, wash each other’s hair and look after each other’s kids. They seem to be very natural and uninterested in their appearance. Obviously the young women are more aware of male attention. Some wear make up and tight jeans, while others wear hijabs and loose clothing – it’s a personal choice.

When I go back to Australia, because I have travelled between Australia and Morocco over the past few years, if I spend any length of time in Australia I become aware of the pressure to look good. There is a sense that there is a use by date for women, which I find odd. It’s that once your fertile years are behind you, once you hit your 40’s and start to develop a few wrinkles that there is something wrong with that. For younger women, those in public life particularly, say media and entertainment, often seem to lose their individuality – it’s all big blond hair, botox and big lips.

I remember arriving at the airport in Brisbane and seeing billboard after billboard for Jenny Craig or for weight loss this and that and realizing how insidious and what a huge industry it is that works toward making women feel inadequate, just to sell their product.

In Morocco, particularly, where I live in the Fez Medina, there just isn’t that same consumer culture. What’s important is spending time with your family. Shopping
is more a social experience than a consumer one. Women fill a very important role as the matriarch of the family.

LG: You also spend time in Bordeaux (France) so what’s the difference there?

SC: It being a Western society, there’s a lot of pressure on French women too …. you know there’s that book “ French Women Don’t Get Fat”. They are very conscious of their appearance. I think it’s a Western issue really. Traditional societies seem to have other things that bind them.

LG : What are you making of the #MeToo movement ?

SC: It’s a positive the whole #MeToo movement, but if you look at history the way change works there is a hegemony where the dominant culture always comes in and reabsorbs the changes, somehow. But it’s a very interesting phenomenon at the moment. Where I live in Morocco the women seem less self conscious or pressured about their appearance. As they age because they have a role in their society they are not marginalised and seem to me quite powerful figures.

LG: Maybe it’s more of a Western issue? We tend to make women, as they get older, invisible and if you are invisible to the world your issues become invisible ?

SC: I think that’s right. In Morocco there are women who have broken out of that traditional sphere who do amazing jobs as engineers or feminist writers; very high profile women who do wonderful things ….. but they tend to be exceptions.

There is a high level of illiteracy for women in rural areas – its like 90% – and in the cities its around 47% – so the lack of education has really held them back. But that is changing with the present generation, because people are starting to understand the importance of education and its becoming a more affluent society with more opportunities. But there is, sadly, also a high level of sexual harassment of young women, and a high level of social control and domestic violence. However, a country like Australia, where a woman a week dies as a result of domestic violence can’t really talk.

In Morocco, it really is just this latest generation that – because of social media – has been able to make contact with people who haven’t been approved by their father or their brothers. It was only a generation ago that women couldn’t leave the house without being escorted by someone.

But it is still not the done thing for a young woman to go off and live by herself or with a bunch of other girls. Maybe if you have a good job in another city .

On the one hand it is a society that has a lot of social controls but on the other hand it’s also got a lot of respect for women with their particular roles. So it’s very much a two edged sword.

LG: Maybe in our society we have been a little smug thinking we are the liberated ones. But #MeToo happens and you realize how many have been affected, and the level of domestic violence and misogyny in Australia. So just how liberated are we?

SC: Yes, we’ve been sold the fact that we are liberated but in fact all we have is a little bit more freedom than we had say 30 or 40 years ago .… I remember that Virginia Slims ad…. you know ‘You’ve come a long way baby !’. The equal pay ruling felt like a huge advance but in fact we then got employed in different spheres on lower rates of pay. It’s a bit of a con.

LG: Maybe we’ve conned ourselves in lots of ways. I still have to say that I’m a Photojournalist who is a woman …. No man has to go around saying I’m Photojournalist who is a man.

SC: Exactly you are an exception rather than the rule, or still something outside.

LG: That’s why I think the #MeToo is the tip of the iceberg and if it can wake-up the generation of young women we have hope.

SC: It’s really just fighting for basic human rights. When I studied feminism at Uni I was taught that if you substituted some of the things said about women with black Africans or other minorities it would be deemed completely unacceptable.

LG: I think sometimes we are doing that to ourselves.

SC: You mean we want to be good girls and grateful for what we have …. and it’s true if you look at what happens to whistle blowers – they get pretty badly treated by our society when they stand up for something. Most women know that and would much rather not make a fuss and just get on with it.

LG: I think #MeToo is about power imbalance. When someone is in a position of power in your career they can destroy your whole future.

SC: That’s the point and its completely true. I’ll be fascinated to see what it will lead to. I’ve had some scary situations and definitely sexual harassment but I don’t feel compelled to share them, they are so far behind me, it’s not worth making a fuss about. I feel like I got through that I don’t really want to open up that entire Pandora’s box of bad feeling. It’s in the past and I think that may be the case with a lot of women.

If you would like to find out more about Fez check out Suzanna’s website

http://riadzany.blogspot.com.au

Also this is a guest house in Fez that Suzanna has just acquired 

http://www.darelhana.com

Also if you are interested in renting and apartment in Bordeaux, France check this out…  https://bordeauxapartments.fr

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Comments 1

  1. Really wonderful interview, thoughts about #MeToo across different countries and cultures, and as always, exquisite images from Fez in Morocco.

    And of course beautiful portraits of Suzanna and Zaki ….

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