Cyber-Interaction and the Public Sphere

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Access to the Internet is generating spheres and cultures to predominantly

young publics.12 For school and university students and researchers, the

Internet is used as a strategic alternative to the shortage in academic and public

libraries. The Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi has humorously remarked

that instead of vain attempts to maintain weak university structures, it might be

more beneficial for the state to “convert cybercafés into schools and colleges”

(Mernissi, 2003, p. 35). For most students and academics, the cybercafé may

be the only resource centre: “I regularly use the Internet for my research paper.

In fact, there’s hardly a day when I don’t visit a cybercafé. I also use the Internet

to correspond with my friends for I don’t have enough time to write letters,” a

university student told me. For others, the Internet is the fastest, cheapest, and

most efficient resource centre to get information about European and North

American academic institutions. Likewise, managers and self-employed publics

are becoming dependent on Internet services to track business opportunities,

carry out transactions, and stay competitive. As illustrated in Figure 1, the

cybercafé has about 70% of the total distribution of leisure and socio-cultural

resource centers while the university has no more than 8%. In rural areas where

there are no cinemas, theaters or sports centers, the cybercafé is one of the very

few resource centers available to the youth. For both males and females, the

Internet seems to be the fourth most practiced leisure activity (Figure 2).

Another segment of Internet publics, especially adolescents, uses the Internet

to access a world that is otherwise under the strict control of social and state

censoring authorities. For this young public, regular visits to adult sites have

become an integrated part of their quest experience for identity formation: “I’m

not ashamed to say that I tend to visit sites that show adult material. Those who

have digital TV are no better than I am since they use it for the same purpose.

In addition, I’d rather spend money on this service than develop deviant

behavior. I only watch pictures and I try to be as discreet as possible” (as cited

in M. F., 2002, p. 5). Though cybercafé owners cannot technically monitor the

sites their customers visit, most of them adopt the strategy of “open-view”

position of computer screens to deter users from downloading illicit adult

material. Some managers view their cybercafés as cultural centers and their role

as moral guardians. They resent the thought that their business premises be used

to mediate moral corruption: “When I caught a 10-year-old child downloading

Figure 1. Distribution of leisure and socio-cultural resource centers in

rural and urban zones (%)13

Place Urban Rural

Mosque 96.6 96.1


(providers of pay phone


95.6 45.7

Kindergarten 93.5 51

Café 90 58.6

Primary school 86.6 86.6

Secondary School 73.1 59.30

Middle School 73.1 30.4

Neighborhood Hospital 73.1 57.9

Cybercafé 70 2.5

High School 59.3 8.7

Stadium 51.9 42.1

Women’s Center 43.8 16

Youth’s Center 39.8 11.9

Library 35.2 3.6

Cinema 24.3 0

Conservatory 14.6 0

Sports Center 13.6 0

Theater 9.8 0

University 8 0

adult material, I cleaned all stations from children’s games and decided to

prohibit entry to untutored children,” a cybercafé owner explained to me. The

media also report hilarious stories about Internet users and adult sites. Two

reporters, for example, tell the case of two ten-year-old boys who said they

were searching for “islamway” but ran into an adult site instead, or that of a

recently wedded young man who confessed he was hoping to get adult material

from the Internet to “spice up” his marital life (Bentaleb & Tribek, 2003, p. 7).

Another integrated part of cyber-interaction is “chat.” Most of my informants

state that “chat” constitutes one of their most entertaining and “liminal”

cybernetic performances. For cybercafé owners, chat addicts are “good

clients” since they generally spend more for their cybernetic journey. Chat

addicts willingly admit that they almost always end up spending more time on

the Net than they initially intend to: “I come here to spend one or two hours and

I always end up staying four to five hours,” one informant said. “I start by

answering mail, then I visit sites of relevant interests, and I always finish with a

chat session that may last up to three or four hours.” Another high school chat

addict admits that his parents are becoming increasingly concerned about the

time he spends at cybercafés and the amount of pocket money he now requests:

“My father doesn’t know much about the Internet and almost nothing about

chat, so he can’t understand why I need to spend three or four hours at a

cybercafé.” Even in the workplace where Internet chat is not tolerated, MSN

Messenger is mediating a new cybernetic behavior: “I no longer have to leave

my work station to get a document from a colleague. Now, it’s all done on-line.

Figure 2. Distribution of leisure activities (%)

Leisure Activity Male Female Total

Reading 56.5 55.4 56

Sport 71.7 35.3 55.3

Travel 46.7 44 45.5

Internet 24.4 19.4 22.2

Cinema 22.3 9.6 16.8

Music 8.7 3 6.2

Arts 7 6.9 7

Theater 5.1 3.6 4.5

Other 6.8 6.9 6.9

Chat has also become an outlet to release work stress and tension. It feels good

to chat with friends and exchange funny documents before you resume work,”

an information engineer confesses (as cited in “ça tchatche,” 2002, p. 45).

Others, still, use computer-mediated interaction as a strategic approach to

break free from an inhibiting spatial exile imposed on them. The combination of

a growing culture of despair among the unemployed and the youth in general

and the daunting requirements European and North American embassies

impose on visa applicants urge many exile seekers to use the Internet to “hunt”

for potential partners, as one of my informants put it, and bypass the deterrent

regulations framed by legislators and policy makers in European and North

American capitals. Stories about Moroccan young men and women who

encountered their spouses in chatrooms and who now enjoy the status of legal

residents in Europe or North America constitute an important body of Moroccan

youth culture. Iman tells of three “wonder” stories in her immediate

entourage. Her brother, for example, met a young Moroccan resident in Spain

in a chatroom and has been maintaining a solid relationship with her. When their

cybernetic interaction developed into a strong relationship, she came to visit

and stayed with his family for one month. Iman is certain that her brother’s

relationship with his Internet correspondent will culminate in marriage. She also

tells the story of a cybercafé owner who chatted with a Canadian woman for

more than a year before she decided to pay him a visit. Their real life encounter

further cemented their relationship. They married shortly after and the cybercafé

owner is now “happily” settled in Montreal. Iman tells also the sad story of a

relative who chatted with an American correspondent for about five years. His

family blessed their engagement and everyone was looking forward to their real

life encounter. So, when the news came that his American fiancée succumbed

to cancer, the whole family was moved to tears. Iman told how for weeks her

relative received condolences from family and friends, as is the case when a

family loses a beloved relative or acquaintance.

Moroccan youth culture now thrives with stories and tales like Iman’s. In a

focus group, Hicham, a 23-year-old middle school dropout, says he uses the

Internet as a strategic means to negotiate the “socio-economic pressure” in

Morocco. He gives as example the case of a young woman in her late twenties

who met an Italian in a chatroom, cyber-interacted with him for about six

months before they married and moved to Italy. With a slightly envious tone,

Hicham adds that “lucky are those who have had similar opportunities to

migrate abroad.” When pressed to say whether he really believed that Internet

chat was an effective solution to one’s problems, he told the group that if he had

had a better mastery of French, he would have married a middle-aged French

woman and would have long been living in Europe.

“Success stories” about young men and women who married foreigners

encountered in virtual chat rooms and migrated to Europe or North America

have generated a popular enthusiasm about the power of this new interaction

medium. An informant has stated that in some working class neighborhoods,

families are now encouraging their children to take up to Internet chat with the

hope of encountering potential partners to help them get the necessary papers

for immigration visa. Under the title, “Chatrooms lead to jail,” a Moroccan

newspaper reports the case of a family feud in which the 21 year convict

assaults his cousin because the latter failed to use his Internet competence to

find work for his sister in the U.S. The case, as documented in the court files,

tells of how the victim has used the Internet to get his sister an employment

contract as a baby-sitter for an American family and how he managed to get her

all the required paper work for immigration. When the news spread in the

family, the victim was approached by many of his relatives who wanted him to

find them employment contracts abroad. His uncle paid him $150 to find his

daughter a job in the U.S. However, his clients soon became impatient and

family relations started deteriorating. Soon, a quarrel between him and his

cousin led to a fight in which the victim was aggressively assaulted. He was

miraculously saved from death and his assailant was held in court awaiting

judgment (Yassine, 2002, p. 7).

In this context, the issue is not whether chat can actually mediate a marriage deal

or an employment contract abroad. Rather, what should be underlined is the

fact that computer-mediated information is no longer merely a medium to get

to cyberspace or interact with virtual beings, but that it is increasingly affecting

people’s everyday life. Cyberculture is now strategically appropriated by

different groups to upstage the exclusive politics of the “global village.” For

these groups and publics, statements such as “porous borders” are “not” mere

figures of speech but expressions of alternative possibilities. The fact that

alternative possibilities are sought in the cybernetic world of the Internet makes

for an interesting interaction between spatial production and new communication


Net communicants also assert that the world of chat is open to all kinds of

participants, including perverts. Female chat users constitute prime targets for

this type of chat room visitor. For most female users, males are not as much

interested in interacting as they are in weaving intimate relationships. Most

female interviewees complain that male Internet interlocutors are too quick to

ask for the personal mobile phone number or email address. Female chat users

also resent the visitors who break the decorum of chat debate by using

improper language (“flaming”), lack of respectful listening to others and

continuous interruption of discussions. Some male chat users try to be provocative

by choosing plain degenerate pseudonyms. In the same way, there seems

to be a general conviction among Internet users that some females appropriate

the space of chatrooms to “hunt” for clients or establish “lewd” relationships.

My informants also seem to know of a common practice wherein some female

Internet users choose to get back at their forlorn boyfriends or partners by

giving away their phone numbers to correspondents met in chatrooms and

deliberately misleading them to believe in the prospects of a perverted liaison.

In such situations, the victimized male protagonist usually ends up changing his

phone number to stop the flow of callers who take him for the female author of

the provocative virtual messages.

Chatroom performance also involves the “risk” of encountering the

counterdiscourse of sexual perverts or gays. A newspaper article reports the

story of a chat user who tells of his correspondence with a gay Net communicant.

The informant admits that his chat pseudonym “Rêveur doux” (Tender

dreamer) may have attracted the gay surfer who started the correspondence.

The informant also tells of how he chose to keep the correspondence in order

“to quench the thirst of his curiosity” concerning the “psychological make-up of

this unusual communicant.” Once he got his correspondent to confide in him his

innermost fantasies, the informant realized that the “playful interaction” was

leading into grey areas and decided to put an end to the correspondence

(Chatbi, 2002, p. 16).14 While they confirm the premise that Internet space is

shot through with conflicts and contradictions, these experiences also highlight

the contribution of computer-mediated interaction to the on-going deregulation

of the public sphere and opening up of debate onto issues which the conservative

power structure insists on subordinating and silencing. In the next section,

I draft an interpretive analysis of a set of cultural implications that cybernetic

interaction may be having on gender relations in Morocco.

Gender and Cybernetic Interaction

The Internet’s contribution to the ongoing reconstruction of gender relations in

Morocco is better viewed in light of the norms that rule the distribution of space.

In Moroccan society, interaction between men and women is produced and

reconstructed through a hierarchical mapping of space. The gender divide is

institutionalized through a strict definition of spatial practices: “(strict) space

boundaries divide Moroccan society into sub-universes: the universe of men,

the Umma (nation) universe of religion and power and the universe of sexuality

and the family” (Mernissi, 1975, p. 81). In general, though women have access

to public spaces, stepping out into the street is still felt by many as an act of

trespassing into a hostile male domain. This may explain why female Net

communicants enjoy the anonymity of the World Wide Web, which allows them

to build relationships without compromising themselves.

In everyday life, the issue of gender relations reveals that performance in a

patriarchal structure may involve life-threatening risks. The guardians of the

traditional patriarchal order take very seriously the playful strategies of

subversive discourses and do not hesitate to use intimidating tactics to smother

emergent voices of dissent. Fatima Mernissi has repeatedly denounced the

“terrorist practices” of this traditional patriarchal system. In an article entitled

“La conversation de salon comme pratique térroriste” [Salon Conversation as

a Terrorist Practice], she tells of how, in the course of a friendly conversation,

the masculinist discourse can abruptly turn into a terrorist practice if “threatened”

by a feminist counterdiscourse. She also reports that she has often been

tyrannized by the arbitrary allegation that she is “totally cut off from the reality

of her society,” that she is “ignorant of Islam and the Tradition” or that what she

says is “simply” plain “stupid” (Mernissi, 1982, pp. 37-39). Conversely, in the

World Wide Web, Internet chat participants can say “anything” in the privacy

of the electronic network.

The riposte of the self-proclaimed guardians of tradition can be even more

violent in the case of female subjects who defy the delimited spatialized spheres,

as is “dramatized” in the tragic incident a Moroccan women rights activist was

victim of in 1991. Touria Jebrane, a popular stage actress and outspoken critic

of women’s condition in Morocco, was scheduled to appear on a highly rated

television program on the Moroccan cable channel 2M. The show, hosted by

a woman journalist, was paradoxically called “L’Homme en question” (“The

Man in Question”). T. Jebrane was going to be the first female guest on this

show. Two days before the scheduled live broadcast, she was kidnapped and

subjected to violent physical abuse. To make sure she would not make a public

appearance in the near future, her kidnappers shaved her head: “This is the kind

of treatment we reserve for women who dare assume a man’s role!” she was

told (as cited in Daoud, 1993, p. 323). In parallel, while online identity

construction may involve a degree of risk, “nobody can punch you in the nose,”

as Rheingold (1994, p. 3) has put it.

Whether at the level of identity reconstruction or spatial and discursive

rehearsals, the Internet plays an important role in mediating a reconstruction of

gender relations in contemporary Morocco. The thriving business of cybercafés

in middle and working class neighborhoods is allowing females to invent new

spatial practices and challenge dominant power relations. Unlike cafés, which

have traditionally been a male territory, the perception of the cybercafé as a

“neutral” cultural space in Morocco is mediating women’s appropriation of this

spatial practice. This can be observed not only in newly opened cybercafés but

also in the reorganization of spatial production in neighborhood cafés that have

transformed an inside section into a cyber. Current female cybercafé regulars

might have only occasionally, if ever, experienced a café space before. In a

neighborhood café/cybercafé in Rabat, I have observed how the behavior of

female customers changes as they cross the café terrace and inside section to

get to the cyber in the upstairs section. From a swift and upright walk with eyes

level as she crosses the first two sections of the café, the female customer

immediately adopts a more relaxed attitude when she gets to the upstairs

section. The fact that the upstairs section is “hidden” from the public eye may

account for the more “off-guard” position of female customers. Yet, what is

important is that the female cybercafé user takes advantage from the fact that

her visits to this new technology space are socially tolerated. In a café, a female

runs more risks of “staining” her reputation, a fact that explains why even a café

regular tends to avoid places frequented by her relatives or acquaintances.

Hind, an 18-year-old Internet user who wears the veil, states that she does not

feel she transgresses social order by frequenting her neighborhood café/cyber

because she visits the cyber not the café. Like Hind, most female Internet users

are accommodating new information and communication technologies to

rewrite spatial production.

However, male users still constitute the majority of cybercafé publics. My

female informants have also confirmed the fact that there are more male than

female pseudonyms in chat rooms.15 As a general observation, one may say that

the appropriation of cybernetic space corresponds to dominant cultural politics

that regulate spatial production and distribution in Morocco. Also, the fact that

Internet service is mainly available in cybercafés may act as a deterrent to

women’s online experience. In this case, when Internet service is available to

more households, one would expect to see more female Net communicants.

Yet, when asked if Internet service at home will substantiate their online

experience, female cybercafé regulars show an ambivalent attitude. While they

admit that home Internet connection may further revitalize their online interaction,

they also fear lest this advantage would affect their access to public space.

Despite the inconveniences a visit to the cybercafé involves, female Internet

users seem to agree that such visits create more opportunities for them to

experience “real-life” public space. The ambivalent attitude of female Internet

users towards the cybercafé provides insight into the on-going interaction

between new information and communication technologies and the publicprivate

divide in Moroccan society.

Though still at a small scale, the cybernetic experience is contributing to a

reconstruction of gender relations. The ritual of chat involves socialization into

etiquette of discursive exchange and intersubjective positioning. All female

informants acknowledge that a chat room is a non-regulated space wherein one

encounters participants with different motivations and intentions. Myriam, 21

years, says that chat rooms’ visitors no longer surprise her: “Some deliberately

seek to offend you. There are a lot of liars ‘out there,’ racists, misogynists, and

some are plain sick in their minds. But now the MSN Instant Messenger allows

you to interact only with those who are ready to meet the principles of

interaction you set.” Myriam asserts that she surfs chatrooms in search of

genuine relationships and resents discussions on sex issues. Layla, also 21,

adopts discursive strategies to marginalize disrespectful or discourteous participants.

She self-contentedly tells about her experiences with participants she

has “tamed” and “converted” into considerate and attentive debaters. Layla is

conscious of the fact that her achievements are important triumphs in what she

takes to be a declared online war against women.16

Yet, at this stage, online gender relations seem to foreground the degree of

misunderstanding and skepticism, which characterizes the opinion that Moroccan

women and men have of each other. In the view of my female informants,

male chat users are poorly conversant with the etiquette of interaction and

discussion. In general, they hold against them a lack of genuine commitment to

the virtual relationships they start and a near total absence of tact and sensitivity.

Myriam tells of how, after she has become quite involved in a six-month online

relationship with a Moroccan resident in the U.S., her correspondent “disappeared”

without warning. For Myriam, “only a Moroccan can behave in such

a rude and impolite way.” For her, it is inconceivable to “walk out” of a

relationship — be it a virtual one — without explaining the reasons for such a

decision to her correspondent. In fact, male chat users seem to find incommensurable

pleasure inventing flattering self-portraits. Youssef, 19 years, explains

that, “the most effective strategy consists in choosing an enticing introductory

statement to act as bait.” One reliable tactic Youssef recommends is to “be

smart enough to welcome the new arrival by incorporating her pseudonym in

the welcoming statement.” As a matter of fact, Net communicants seem to

agree that the pseudonym plays a key role in attracting correspondents because

it is perceived as a window onto the user’s real-life identity. This explains why

pseudonyms such as Mehdi, Zack, Hicham, or Moonlight (suggestive of

creative and enterprising young men) are popular among Moroccan male chat

users. To further embellish their image, most Internet male surfers claim they

major in Marketing or Advertising and plan to pursue their higher education in

the U.S. or Canada. Omar justifies the reason behind the creation of an

embellished cybernetic identity by claiming that “girls always fall for this kind

of profile.” Omar also believes that Internet users are further encouraged by the

fact that “since you know you may never meet your correspondent, you feel free

to invent the kind of identity you fancy!” (“ça tchatche,” 2002, p. 45).

The negative image Moroccan female chat users have of their male compatriots

partly accounts for their interests in correspondents from other countries. In this

respect, “” is one of their favorite sites because it acts as a

forum for Arabs from different parts of the world. According to my informants,

Moroccan female Net communicants have a preference for Arab expatriates in

North America or Europe or correspondents from the Middle East and the Gulf

countries. As Nawal, 23 years puts it, Middle Eastern correspondents show “a

disarming rhetoric and uninhibited affective and emotional sensibility,” an

opinion that contrasts with the image she has of the Moroccan Internet user who

she views as “a rude, discourteous, and disrespectful conversant.” Conversely,

Moroccan male Internet users provide a different explanation for the misunderstanding

that underlines Moroccan cybernetic gender relations. Rafik, 26

years, believes that “Moroccan women find it difficult to negotiate the realist

approach of Moroccan Net communicants because they have been socialized

into a seductive style mediated by Egyptian and Mexican soap operas and

enhanced by Lebanese video clips.” Others blame Moroccan cultural representations,

which legitimize “macho” behavior while stigmatizing feminine

sensibility. Samir, 21 years, admits that he is “quite expressive and forthcoming

with Net communicants from other cultures but that as soon as he interacts with

a Moroccan female, language fails him and he becomes tactless.”

Last but not least, cyberspace functions as a meeting space where friendships

are made and relationships started and developed. Chat users, in general, tend

to nurse the hope of extending cyber correspondence to real-life encounters.

The potential convergence of cyber upon real world experience makes of chat

and virtual correspondence an alternative to dominant gendered politics of

spatial production and distribution. In the face of a strict regulation of gender

relations along spatial boundaries, cybernetic interaction mediates liberating

experiences, which act as a backtalk to dominant conservative culture. The

privacy of the medium provides Net communicants with unchecked freedom to

meet, debate, exchange information, tell jokes or play pranks away from the

alert and watchful eyes of social censors. Once the cybernetic correspondence

lays out the foundations of a potential friendship, the correspondents extend the

medium of interaction to phone conversations. It is now quite common to see

cybercafé users simultaneously engaged in cybernetic interaction and phone

conversation with their correspondents. Quite a few of my informants note that

the music tapestry of mobile phones and the sustained rhythm of loud phone

conversations inside cybercafés undermine the feeling of “privacy and intimacy”

cybernauts need at times. The next stage in the construction of a

relationship may involve the exchange of pictures before the correspondents set

an appointment in a real-world space, usually a café or a cybercafé (Parks &

Floyd, 1996). In this respect, the simulated world of cybernetics acts as a

subversive backdrop to dominant conservative culture, which insists on policing

gender relations along territorial borderlines.

Though the Internet and cybernetics are not yet integrated into Moroccan

mainstream practices, cyber culture is rich with fabulous stories about online

romantic involvement. The story of Hajar and Mokhtar, which an informant has

reported, bears the ingredients of a Hollywood production.17 Hajar, 23 years,

and Mokhtar, 27, were neighbors but did not get along at all. They resented

each other so much that they picked a quarrel every time they met. Their

reciprocal feelings of hostility turned into aversion and none of their respective

friends could bank on their reconciliation. Hajar reproached him his insensitivity

and rudeness while Mokhtar did not like her aloofness. The turning point in their

relationship occurred when they met in a chatroom. It was not long since Hajar

started frequenting a cybercafé when, in the course of a chat session, she felt

attracted to a new arrival. Hajar remembers that even though the guest

introduced himself as “Mokhtar,” it did not occur to her that it could have been

her neighbor. They immediately connected and Hajar invited him to meet in a

private chat room. In their subsequent correspondence, Hajar gathered

unfailing information that her correspondent was none but her neighborhood

acquaintance. For her, this discovery was astounding. She could not make out

how a person could be so intolerably rude in real-life and so irresistibly sensitive

in the virtual world. Mokhtar had the same reaction when he knew about the

real-world identity of his correspondent. The protagonists’ cybernetic relationship

developed into a real-life love story culminating in their engagement. It was

moving to hear that this story had a sad ending because Mokhtar died in a road

accident a few months before the wedding.

Hajar and Mokhtar’s story is interesting in more than one respect. First, it

highlights the gradual incorporation of an emergent cyberculture into everyday

life of Moroccans. Stories about online romance are opening a breach in the

opaque veil of conservative culture by short-circuiting the gendered spatial

division engineered by a patriarchal power structure and rewriting the simulated

world of cybernetics to rehearse new identities and alternative relations.

Second, this story announces the discovery of a new space in the mind of

cybernauts and addresses alternative possibilities to real-world social constraints.

The politics of spatial division which consist in regulating access to

social spaces and meeting places are being undermined by the world of

cybernetics, which opens up more spatial freedom to meet and interact away

from the sanctioning social and cultural authorities. Also, whether the story of

Hajar and Mokhtar corresponds to real-life events or whether it incorporates

the figments of its authors’ imagination is of secondary importance. The fact is

that it underlines an interaction between cybernetic and everyday life experiences

and points to the repercussion of such interaction on social relations and

human communication. The importance of such interaction is that it is inventing

unprecedented experiences in Moroccan culture.

However, while this story reads like Hajar was the lead agent in the cybernetic

interaction, the fact is that cyber interaction may be reproducing dominant

gender relations. My informants, for example, assert that they would rather give

up a chat correspondence than engage in conversations or debates on “taboo”

issues like sex, religion or politics. Even if virtual correspondence warrants

participants’ absolute anonymity, female Internet users are reluctant to state

their personal views or opinions and commit to an exchange they would not

allow in real life. They are also generally overcautious in their cybernetic

interaction and a female chat participant is less likely to be the first to ask a male

correspondent for personal information or invite him to a private chat room.

Also, while a female chat user can keep more than one cybernetic relationship

going at the same time, she is generally reluctant to extend a cybernetic

relationship to a real-life encounter for such a decision involves “risks” she may

not be ready to take. In addition to the risks a real-life commitment may entail,

there is first that of “falling” on “a bad catch.” Layla, 21 years, tells of a twoSocial

year cybernetic relationship she had with a correspondent from the Gulf and her

total disappointment when she met the real person when he made the trip to visit

her. She says he was as “sweet and nice” in real life as she expected him to be

but that she, nonetheless, did not connect with him, a fact which made her

position difficult to negotiate. Overall, online female behavior is still framed

within dominant norms of Moroccan culture, a fact indicative of the enduring

impact of the patriarchal culture and its socializing institutions.