By SADIA KHATRI
Photographs by MARK MINTON
Sabah Lazaar watches women pile into the white building of Annajan Cooperative: 16 and 17-year-olds trek from distances of several kilometers away, for a morning spent with sewing machines and computers. The vocational center wasn’t a sight in Lazaar’svillage while growing up—which is exactly why she founded it.
“I never wanted to work in a place where everything had already been provided,” she insists, “That would be an easy way out.”
In Sbaa Rouadi—Lazaar’s dry, humid village—sunset marks the end of activity. Men head home from farming, and women wrap up the day’s cooking. Growing up in its atmosphere of strict gender roles and limited mobility, Lazaar, who is in her early thirties, recalls being more militant than the girls around her.
“I liked to involve myself in civic society,” she says, narrating days spent with her 9 siblings, before moving to the nearby city of Fez. In Fez she did her bachelors in Law. She picked up only a bit of English, but her plaid blue shirt, jeans and matching headscarf betray 8 years spent in the city, before she decided to come back.
“If she had stayed in Fez, she wouldn’t have married me!” her husband Mohammad says, teasingly. He is a lighthearted fellow like Lazaar, always smiling, and assists with the Cooperation’s workshops.
But Lazaar came back because she loved and wanted to develop the place she had grown up in. She also knew what it needed. The problems she had witnessed, as a teenager, still existed, the biggest being financial independence for women. It was then, in 2008, that she started Annajan, with its goal of empowering women in rural areas.
The building is a modest four-room complex, standing in stark contrast to the thatched housesin its vicinity.In a village of 800 people, an impressive 80 women visit the facility daily, benefiting from its various workshops. Lazaaris proud of how far they’ve come, but admits there is much to do.
“The women [in Morocco] do a lot of things, different jobs, but still it’s not approved of by men and the government,” she says. Up till 2011, only 28 percent of women made up the labor force in Morocco. While numbers are increasing, they represent only part of women’s struggles.
Lazaar recalls a particularly challenging incident, where she helped a single mother send her child to school. As simple as that sounds, single mothers are disadvantaged in local bureaucratic settings. Without a spouse, they cannot provide sufficient paperwork to enroll their children into school.
Seeing the 9-year-old finally holding his backpack, in a brand-new uniform, clutching his notebook and ready for school—Lazaar confesses it was her proudest moment to date. The process had taken two years.
It is still, however, the Cooperation that takes up most of her time. The biggest setback is funds. “We have a lot of programs but no funds,” she says, though her face betrays no trace of worry. Funds or not, it is clear she isn’t one to give up.
“Before the year ends, I want to train 100 women,” she says, noting that the Cooperation has met all its goals so far. Lazaar sees no reason to look back, or to leave. She’s here to stay.