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Meet the adventurer: Morocco's first female mountain guide, Hafida Hdoubane, on a life shaped by the High Atlas

Hailing from the Atlas Mountains, Hafida Hdoubane became one of Morocco’s first female mountain guides in 1994 and has been leading hiking groups in the country ever since.

Published 21 Mar 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 4 Apr 2022, 17:31 BST
Hafida Hdoubane believes tourism in Morocco can be a force for good in our post-pandemic world. "Tourists have ...

Hafida Hdoubane believes tourism in Morocco can be a force for good in our post-pandemic world.

Photograph by Emma Gregg

I’ve been an official guide and tour leader since 1994. I was one of the first women to land a place on Morocco’s mountain guide training course, and the first to qualify. At the time, most of the guides working in the Atlas Mountains were European, and Moroccan women were expected to stay at home and focus on raising a family. But I decided to tread a different path.

I grew up in a family of strong women. I was the eldest of five sisters and my dad didn’t hide his disappointment at not having a son. That made us tough. We had to prove ourselves. When I told my mother I wanted to work in the mountains, she said, “What about the wild animals? The lions?” Needless to say, we have no lions in Morocco! I think it was just her way of saying how worried she was.

While earning my guiding diploma, I wasn’t treated any differently from the men on my course. We all had to race up and down with heavy packs on our backs. If anything, I took on tougher challenges. I didn’t want anyone to think special allowances had been made for me.

I think I have the best job in the world, but I’ve had to make sacrifices along the way. Balancing my job with a marriage and motherhood hasn’t been easy. Partly because of these commitments, Morocco still has very few female mountain guides. I have just one son, and sadly my marriage didn’t last.

If people are jealous of my achievements, I have to walk away. Sometimes it’s women, who think I have an easy life, laughing and joking with tourists while they’re hard at work farming and looking after everything at home. And sometimes it‘s men. But in general, Moroccan attitudes towards career-minded women have changed a lot since the 1990s. We see that in politics, business and other domains.

There are differences between male and female guides. One is that I’m often seen as a mother or sister figure, particularly by women who don’t know Morocco well and are apprehensive about certain aspects of travelling here — staying safe and being culturally sensitive, for example. My job is to be safety conscious, reassuring and empowering. I’m also a bridge between worlds, connecting tourists with local people. Because I’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, I understand both sides. We may live different lives, but in many ways, our needs are exactly the same.

I’ve led many trips in the Moroccan Sahara, but I’m happiest in the mountains. I have climbed Morocco’s highest peaks more times than I can count. A bit like the people who live in the Atlas Mountains, I’m a nomad at heart. There’s something about hiking through those amazing canyons that makes me feel totally free.

I believe that tourism in Morocco can be a force for good in a post-pandemic world. Tourists have a lot to offer people in rural Morocco, and not just financially. They can demonstrate the value of education, independence and a sense of adventure. In return, rural Moroccans can show tourists that wide open spaces and close-knit families are important and valuable, too. 

Hafida is a freelance guide who offers tours with Intrepid Travel

Published in the April 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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