It did not occur to the American anthropologist Susan Schaefer Davis when she first visited the countryside of Morocco in the 1960s that for more than half a century her life would be linked to the experience of Moroccan women in making handmade rugs.
Her goal at the time, as a Peace Corps volunteer, was to enable women to manage their own affairs in feeding the children and to train to pass on their skills to the younger generations. She fell in love with Morocco, learned the language and became an ambassador for craftswomen in the United States and the world.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Davis talked about getting to know the rug weavers and their craft. She referred to a passage in her recent book, “Women Artisans of Morocco: Their Stories, Their Lives”, where she wrote: “The experience turned me into an anthropologist. I wanted to understand why the women were so fun and feisty, not the passive, submissive beings I had read about in the pages of ‘National Geographic’.”
‘Your Eye Is Your Scale’
After Davis tried to teach the women to use drawing to facilitate weaving, she discovered that they did not need it. One of these weavers saw a young woman in a dress and returned the next day with a replica dress of her own making. Davis learned from this situation something about the women’s practice, which the weavers express with the phrase: “Your eye is your scale.”
“The experience turned me into an anthropologist. I wanted to understand why the women were so fun and feisty, not the passive, submissive beings I had read about in the pages of ‘National Geographic’.”Susan Schaefer Davis
In the book, Davis quotes one woman as saying: “It is the eyes and desire that teach people to do things.”
Davis started a project to promote the women’s rugs in 1994, by creating a website where she resold rugs she had bought. “I was probably the first cyber merchant,” she said.
In 2001, she began selling rugs and other handmade items directly on behalf of the weavers, making sure that all the profits went to the women. She did this on a volunteer basis, bearing some expenses herself. For example, the site was created using her own money and her husband’s programming experience. “Most of the compensation I have received was the tax cut, because I am a volunteer,” she said.
Choosing to Work in the Field
After obtaining a doctorate in anthropology and working in university teaching for ten years, Davis decided she preferred to be in the field with Moroccan weavers. Over time, she became a consultant to the World Bank, the Peace Corps, and USAID, the U.S. Agency for International Development. She has contributed to education projects for girls and young people in Morocco and other Arab countries and has helped establish cooperatives for craftswomen. “It was all fun and gave meaning to my life,” she said. “Plus, I remained a researcher and lecturer on women’s crafts.”
In her first book, “Patience and Power: Women’s Lives in a Moroccan Village” (1982), Davis touched on the complexity of women’s crafts, even though they seem easy from the outside. In the rug industry, for example, women can create an artistic design without following a pre-made drawing, inventing a new design every time.
She adds that women sew against the back of the rugs, and yet the design on the surface looks uniform and beautiful, a skill they perfect through years of training and working bent over all day. Each handmade work is unique and always innovative. Even if weavers work from the same idea, the formation is different every time and bears the weaver’s special signature. Customers value these individual expressions, as opposed to the uniformity seen in industrially produced rugs.
Women Negotiate for Themselves
Davis said her role over the years has been to contribute to highlighting the value of the women’s work. With her respect for the culture and customs of the local community, she was able to work with the women and not to provoke the men. She understood that women could not sell carpets themselves due to social restrictions on their movement or presence in the tourist market, as well as because of their lack of time.
“I don’t know how much my website has helped the weavers, but I’ve found that customers love the unique style of the rugs I offer. … Many also want to hear the stories of the weavers and buy consciously to support them instead of resorting to the merchants.”Susan Schaefer Davis
On how she handled it, she said she learned from the women themselves. She referred to an incident that she documented in her last book: “On one occasion, I asked a woman if she would allow me to intervene to convince her husband to give her a cut of what he gets from selling each rug she makes. ‘It will not be done,’ said the lady, ‘if I asked him directly, as you say. How about you suggest to him that the more he gives me money, the more I’ll be enthusiastic about making the rugs quicker, so he can earn more money faster’.”
Davis said the exchange drew her attention to the women’s ability to negotiate to obtain some of their rights, despite the difficulties “imposed not only by the husband, but also by the surrounding society.”
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She concluded, “I don’t know how much my website has helped the weavers, but I’ve discovered that it appeals to a certain group of customers. They love the unique style of the rugs I offer. They often find asymmetry attractive.”
She added: “Many also want to hear the stories of the weavers and buy consciously to support them instead of resorting to the merchants.”
Paula Khoury is a researcher and journalist who holds a Ph.D. in sociology from EHESS in Paris, where she currently resides.