AMELN VALLEY, MOROCCO // When the noon sun hits the mountains above the Ameln Valley in southern Morocco, stone and shadow interact to form the face of a gigantic lion that protects the women when the men are away. That is the legend they tell in the valley, where the men have always worked and women have stayed indoors - until now.
"Women don't need anyone to protect them," said Mamass Outaleb, 25, director of the Tifaouine Women's Co-operative. "They just need to be respected." In the past few years, some local women have emerged from their houses to capitalise on an influx of tourists hungry for oil from the rare argan tree, which grows in the valley. In the process, they are quietly shattering tradition. "In the past, women only went out to go to the souq. Now they're going out to work," Ms Outaleb said. "It's about discovering the world, so that a woman isn't left sitting in a corner like an object."
Ms Outaleb grew up in Tamaloukt, one of 26 tiny villages that seem to have sprouted from the mountainsides. Pillars of red granite tower above, and the valley floor below is dotted with the green tufts of argan trees. Argans are rarely found outside Morocco, where they grow in abundance and most are protected by Unesco. The valley's several hundred full-time inhabitants are Amazighs, or Berbers, herders and farmers who have inhabited North Africa since before recorded history.
With water increasingly scarce and agriculture difficult, most families now depend on sons and husbands working in Morocco's cities. Local women founded Tifaouine in 2000 to get themselves out of the house and into business, one of dozens of similar organisations working today in the surrounding Souss region. In 2002, the US Peace Corps helped build a workshop for the group, part of efforts to get Tifaouine and another local women's co-operative, El Baraka, up and running.
"The goal is to work ourselves out of a job, so that Peace Corps volunteers are no longer needed," said David Lillie, the corps' Morocco country director. "Within the cultural context of the community, if there are women interested in working with us, we definitely like to work with women." Many women in Tifaouine hope to move on to better things. But for now, it offers a rare chance to take charge of their affairs.
"I wanted to change my life, and change people's mentality," said Fatima, 31, yanked out of school at age 10 by her parents to mind younger siblings. "And I wanted to have fun." She has been part of Tifaouine from the start and comes to the workshop every day to make leather slippers, bags and cushions. "At first, my parents were against it, but eventually they changed their attitude," she said. As she spoke, Fatima embroidered jagged multicolour patterns into a piece of red leather destined for the heel of a slipper.
"I still want to study," she said, tying off a stitch. "But I'm not sure how." Meanwhile, a tapping came from outside, where Najat Bouloudn, 20, was cracking dried argan fruit between two stones. Nine years ago Ms Bouloudn's parents took the unusual step of sending her to work as a housemaid in Casablanca. She returned home last year. "I couldn't go out and I couldn't make friends, but now I come and go as I please," she said. "Ultimately I want to do something different, but I don't want to leave the valley again."
Argan fruit, about the size of an almond, turns hard and brown in summer and falls to earth. The women shell out and roast the kernels, then use a machine to press out oil with a taste between that of olive and peanut. Mixing the oil with almond paste creates a spread called amlou; unroasted oil is used as a skin ointment. Most of Tifaouine's business comes from European tourists who have discovered the area over the past few years. Some visit Tifaouine's workshop, while others buy the group's products at the nearby Chez Amaliya hotel.
Most of Tifaouine's 24 regular members earn between 500 and 700 Moroccan dirhams (Dh210-295) a month, Ms Outaleb said. "It's just pocket money, but what matters is that the girls learn to work," said Fatima's brother, Khalid, 27, tending the family shop one evening. Like other men in the valley, Khalid has cautiously embraced the idea of women working outside the home. "If Fatima wanted to go to the city, or abroad, that's different," he said. "But here in the valley, no problem."
On a cafe terrace over the shop, Ms Outaleb was drinking hot chocolate. High above, the shadows were deepening on the mountains and the vast face of the lion was melting back into the stone. "In the beginning, the men's attitude was that women couldn't work," she said. "Now they're learning, little by little, that women can do things." firstname.lastname@example.org