The fascinating story of a pioneer in the fight for women's rights
Among the riders galloping at the Mouseem Mata horse festival, there is one only woman rider. She is determined, passionate and respected among men and women. She has been competing in this peculiar race for a decade. Mata means in Arabic "to ride bareback". It is an ancestral equestrian festival, considered a world and cultural heritage site by UNESCO. The race has Mongolian origins and is about 800 years old. This great event has been promoted, for nine years, by the Baraka family, descendants of the poet Moulay Absselam, creator of Sufism, and also by King Mohamed VI.
It is also a race without a saddle in which about a hundred horsemen, belonging to six tribes in northern Morocco, take part. These horsemen compete fiercely for a rag doll, made by the matriarchies, the women of Beni Arous, in Larache province. In the old days, whoever got the doll had the right to choose a bride as a trophy. This raggedy artifact, also known as Mata, is the only woman who, along with our heroine, Zohra, rides wildly on the esplanade.
Zohra Sidki, that's her name, doesn't know her age. There are no records of his date of birth. Being a grandmother already, she explains that she figures to be in her fifties, maybe sixties. She can't read or write either and barely survives by working as a cook. Small in build, she has a sparkle in her eyes that conveys kindness, generosity and love. She's a fighter and she's also a sweetheart. She's fierce but at the same time maternal. She's stubborn, but she has an energy like no other. But above all her qualities, the most outstanding are determination and courage.
What kind of woman dares to confront her companions so that they respect and accept her as just another rider? What kind of anecdotes will there be of her struggle against the ingrained machismo of her country to be the only Amazon in the region? What is hidden inside the only woman who gallops year after year among more than a hundred riders?
From a very young age, Zohra rode a mule to her father's work in the fields. At such an early age, her passion for the horse began, an animal that symbolizes strength, power and wisdom, being the most venerated quadruped in North Africa. When she was 10 her father taught her how to ride without a saddle, like local men did. Since then, she has been galloping along Tangier's beaches relentlessly. Zohra explains there are no differences between her and her male teammates. They ride together and she considers them as her brothers. At the same time, she feels respected and loved, but she is deeply aware of her exceptionality.
Her dream is to teach and encourage other women to participate in the race. They should also have confidence in themselves and believe that it is possible to achieve this goal. She hopes that, in a not too distant future, instead of a man, a woman wins and takes the prize of the race, consisting of a cheque and a significant amount of wheat.
Unwilling to set an example for other women to follow, her dream will become a reality through the Alamia Laarossia Association, chaired by Nabila Baraka. Zohra will be part of this initiative to instruct and encourage the future Amazons of Mata.
At the same time, she dreams women can feel the freedom that riding and competing in Mata offers. Unwillingly, Zohra is a symbol of feminism, of the beginning of the change in ancestral patriarchal traditions. The opening to a more egalitarian future and society.
She remembers with nostalgia her childhood helping her father. And, at the same time, taking care of the domestic chores, like any other girl or woman in the region. What set her apart from the others was her immense love of horses and her determination to become an important rider. One afternoon she was arrested by the authorities for riding alone on the beach, which was considered unsuitable for a child. Thanks to her tenacity and fierce persuasion, she managed to continue riding in such a patriarchal society.
When the Baraka family resurrected Mata, she was the only woman involved. And not only that, but she happily got the victory. In this way she became a legend and an example of empowerment for other women. To Zohra, Mata is everything. It is her life. It is the ultimate glory.
Apart from recovering this ancestral tradition, the Baraka brothers, Nabila and Nabil, want to make Mata serve also for the economic and tourist development of this beautiful and adorable region of the north of Morocco. Perhaps these great benefactors of the region are the pioneers who, through this cultural, sports and traditional festival, will manage to overcome the inequality of gender in the province of Larache.
There's still a lot of work to be done, but Zohra has already done her bit. What is certain is that Mata is not Mata without Zohra. Every year, the more than one hundred thousand visitors to this attractive festival will have the privilege to enjoy watching Zohra ride like the wind on the esplanade.
Someday Zohra's dream will come true. She will ride her beloved horse alongside other women in the region and will give them global visibility, while promoting a more equal society.