Lessons from Morocco: How NOT to Treat Women

19 01 2008

Marrakech at night 

When I first started writing this blog, it was because I thought it would be a good way of combining, interest, passion, work experience (you never know), and activism. However, all this time that I’ve been writing, especially on the feminist side of things, everything has just come out from my head, things I thought or ideas based on how I saw the world around me, with what little experience I’ve had. Even though I felt strongly about the topics I wrote on, the process of writing each entry was more of a mental pursuit than anything else (as opposed to an emotional or a personal pursuit). Like I said in one of my earliest entries, while I believe it’s important to bring attention to capoeira from a feminist perspective, I myself have never personally experienced sexism in capoeira; I’ve yet to truly enter the workforce to face the glass ceiling; and I’ve had to deal with little else in my everyday life.

Then, I went to Morocco.

It wasn’t horrible. The sights were striking, the scenery was different, the food was cheap and amazing, and it was all very interesting and something to experience. However, I don’t know if all of that makes up for the deep, ugly gash that is the flaw in Moroccan (male) culture.

[Note: I’ve gone over some of this already with my friend who came here with me, and she did bring up the point of cultural relativity, so I do realize it exists, but I’m going to put that aside for now.]

Basically, my friends and I could not go for three minutes—if even that—without getting called at, whistled at, heckled, followed, harassed, come on to, yelled at, beckoned to, hit on, sworn at (because we so rudely weren’t interested), and generally just bothered and interacted with very unsettlingly and annoyingly. 3 minutes.

It was unavoidable, and the men were everywhere. I’m sure “A woman’s place is in the house” is alive and well in Morocco, because no matter where we were and looked in the city (Marrakech, the capital), especially in the old/central part, Medina, about 80-90% of the people you see are men, teenage guys, or boys. I’m not exaggerating. What’s more, they don’t seem to have lives or livelihoods or anything better to do than hang around storefronts or sit on steps and call out slimy greetings to young female tourists who walk by. I am dead serious about this: they’re not in the middle of doing something (although many others who also harassed us were, like shopkeepers), and they’re not just passing by (although many who did just pass by took liberties as well, such as motorcyclists, car drivers and passengers, and pedestrians, who kindly thought we were worth full 180-degree head turns for maximum oglingage as they walked by). They lined sidewalks, lined marketplace aisles, and lined streets, almost as if they were waiting for us, or anyone young with that extra X-chromosome.

And they lined alleyways. Dark, lonely alleyways that my friends and I found ourselves going through when we got lost on our first night, on the way back to our hostel. We didn’t have a choice; it was the only (straightest, quickest, and nearest) way back, and at that hour pretty much all the side streets in Marrakech become dark, lonely alleys. There were several instances when we had to walk in between groups of loitering guys on either side, and speaking for all of us, I truly thought getting mugged or worse was a completely real possibility on at least 5-8 separate occasions that night (read: hour).

There were four of us at the time; we’d traveled in pairs and had met each other at the hostel by accident—so imagine if there’d been only two? (One isn’t even worth thinking about—women and girls, do not travel to Morocco alone! Listen to this especially if you’ll be an obvious tourist, or are young/pretty, and go alone under no circumstances if you have blonde hair. My friend got groped or almost-groped about 4 times in the street—our only instances of actual physical harassment—and it’s very well-known in Europe that most men there and nearby—i.e. northern Africa—love blondes.) [Update: Please see Comments for critique and qualification of this “advice”.] I have never felt so unsafe in my life, and my friend said something so striking and telling afterwards that I’m going to repeat it here:

“Never, in my life, have I ever felt soawkward—being a woman.”

I, on the other hand, after three days, had never wanted to deck anyone more in my life. Everything about this whole experience made it crystal clear to me that my blog isn’t just a waste of time or pointless stirring up of old and tired issues. They are old and tired for a reason. The only reason my friends and I were bothered so much is because we were female tourists (so twice-easy targets) who happened to be “unchaperoned” by any males. We came across other tourists during our time in Marrakech, and the predominant thought in my head every single time I saw an elderly couple, or a family, or a co-ed group of young adults was that they were probably enjoying a completely different tourist experience than my friends and I were, and I still cannot get over the discrepancy.

Do you recall the Comments section of my “Women, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis” post, where Xixarro said, “We can’t be expecting women to go thank every man that passes her ‘normally’, can we”?  Well, it is so bad here, the harassment is so frequent and omnipresent, that every time we passed a man walking towards us, all I would think was, “Please don’t say anything. Please don’t bother us. Please don’t come near us”; and when the man passed without incident, we really DID feel compelled to genuinely thank him for “acting normal”!  It was ridiculous; a man just gave us directions to somewhere without pressuring us to follow him or attempting to stick to us, and we spent the next five minutes exclaiming over how nice he was.

So, what have I learned from this experience? Well, I’ve learned not to look around freely anywhere—because if you accidentally make even the slightest bit of eye contact with a guy, they will react and do or say something unwanted (even 10-year old boys! That’s what they learn). I’ve learned to not smile, because as my friend observed, “Don’t smile. You’ll be a target if you look too happy.” (Most likely because then we’d not only be perceived as Western hussies, but drunk Western hussies.) I’ve learned what it’s like to feel truly unsafe just because of who I am, and what it’s like to seem a minority of 10% because of something I share with 50% of all human beings.

The most frustrating thing of all was that each time I got close to or beyond snapping point, my friend would tell me to calm down because “you can’t change things”—because she was right, it wasn’t just the fact of the matter itself that infuriated me, it was the idea of “this is just how it is” on top of that. But I don’t want to believe that things can’t be changed, because where do you go from there? Nowhere, unless down. Even if I don’t know for sure whether or not things can be changed (although I may have my own sneaking suspicion), thanks to this trip, I now know, believe, think, and feel that they must be.

Which brings me back to this blog.

Update: Click here to read Lessons from Morocco, Part 2: Cultural Relativity and Other Issues

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17 responses

4 02 2008
Jillian York

I just commented on your other post, and then I saw this.

Do you really think it’s fair to tell women not to go alone? I lived in Morocco – alone – in a city much less developed (read: modern) than Marrakech, and I survived. Not once in two years was I mugged, injured, groped or touched. Admittedly, Marrakech is a different beast and I’ve been there fewer times than other cities (but still a significant number), but to automatically tell women not to travel somewhere based on your experience alone (not to mention the fact that blonde hair has NOTHING to do with it – Moroccan women get harassed just as often as tourists).

Your assumptions about the way men view Western women are also wrong! It’s got nothing to do with being “Western” – again, Moroccan women are often treated the same way – not that that makes it any better, of course.

I know Morocco can be frustrating for women, and I absolutely agree that the way many Moroccan men harass women is downright wrong, but please – get a little more experience in the country before you go making blanket statements about what people should and shouldn’t do.

4 02 2008
Joaninha

Hi again, Jillian,

I’m sorry this post disappointed you after the first one you read! I suppose you are right, about telling women not to go alone. I briefly wondered about the issues of writing that, but in the end decided to err on the side of safety/comfort for the women traveling. However, as you pointed out, safety isn’t as big an issue as it would first seem to be, and comfort with a different culture is up to each individual, and I suppose writing that ultimately does play into the idea of women not being able to take care of themselves.

As for the blonde hair and the assumptions on how they view Western women, I can only attribute that to things I’ve seen and heard repeatedly about European and North African men while travelling through/living in Europe, from other women with similiar experiences, and extending that to Morocco. But you are correct in that several days is a very short time to be making such broad judgements about such a large area, as I see clearly now in hindsight (this post was also written while I was still *in* Morocco, in the midst of it all, which may have had something to do with it). Thank you again for commenting!

8 02 2008
Jillian

Hi again Joaninha,

Thanks for responding (to both posts). I understand where you’re coming from – I can tell you that I certainly had plenty of days, much to my Moroccan husband’s dismay, where I would come home and bitch incessantly about street harassment – but I try to err on the side of caution when writing about it, mostly because I think that perspective neglects the millions of wonderful North African/Moroccan men who are NOT that way.

Still, believe me, I do understand how it can feel when you’re in the midst of things. Thanks again for taking the time to respond 🙂

Jillian

9 02 2008
Joaninha

That is very true (the neglecting the wonderful men part), especially as I’ve met some of them myself! You’re welcome, of course (about responding), and thank you again as well!

29 03 2008
Sally

I admit I laughed out loud at this blog entry – because it so exactly summarised what I experienced in Marrakech. Within 3 days I to felt like slapping all men and by the time I left at 5 days, my sister and I were only capable of walking with a dark murderous stare, looking straight ahead with our hands ready to fly out and slap anyone who dared to touch us (and they did). And I might add – if you think the arabs love blondes, they love red heads more, and red heads with womanly hips even more…

But. Apart from the opportunistic groping had in Jemma al Fna, I can’t say I ever really felt unsafe. I wouldn’t have wanted to walk the streets alone at night, for sure, but my sister and I walked along some pretty dark streets between the souks and our hotel without any problems other than the usual cries from the men we’d pass.

And we too wondered if we were the only ones being targeted, but as we ate a nice meal in the evening markets of Jemma Al Fna, we watched young couples being hassled to come eat at their ‘romantic’ restaurant or buy a gift for the pretty girl, we saw groups of elderly women being accosted by young Moroccan women offering them tattoos and men yelling the same things cheerfully at them as well as at our younger selves, and we saw groups of men (tourists) being accosted to go into a some dark ally for a bit of female activity. It strikes me, as long as you are a tourist, dressed as a tourist, recogniseable as a tourist, the Moroccans have a way to harass you.

For me though, the worse were the 10 year old boys who would ‘show you out of the souks’ and then shout english 4-letter words of abuse when you turned them down (we got lost once… we took note of our surroundings there after and if we ever felt we were getting lost, retraced our steps immediately!). They were the ones who’d be trying to cling onto my arm as I irritatingly shook them off and following us for 20 minutes, insisting we were lost even if we’d managed to get all the way to Jemma Al Fna, at which point they’d immediately demand 20 dirhams as if they were the only reason you were there.

But I will say, we booked a taxi to go see the Atlas Mountains, and our taxi driver was a flawless gentleman all the way, and even though he hooked us up with some of his ‘guides’ in the mountains, again, they were all gentleman, all fair with their prices, and all treated us with respect. And certainly, even just walking the little villages in the Atlas Mountains, the locals may look at you discretely, but none hassled us the way we were hassled in Marrakech.

I don’t know what the other cities are like in Morocco, but I am pretty sure the excessive over the top rudeness of the men in Marrakech is something more to do with the great concentration of men doing nothing there and overwhelmingly large amount of tourists, many of whom have no idea if they are being ripped off or not. Its almost a sport. Not justifiable because it is so tiresome and invasive and eventually, tourists will be scared off as more people leave comments on the web, but, more will follow.

The suggestion to go to the Government craft store first is an EXCELLENT one – I wish I’d gone there on Day 1 instead of Day 3! We didn’t get to badly ripped off, but it defintely helped thereafter!

31 03 2008
Joaninha

Hey Sally,

Haha, it’s always nice to be related to!

And yes, EVERYONE is accosted from a tourism point of view, but I’m pretty sure in terms of random men loitering on sidewalks, it’s just us women that get all the luck. 😄

And yes, we had the 10-year old boys showing you the way out then asking for money, too! And they kept asking for more even after we gave them some, but then we actually said to them it wasn’t fair because we never asked for them to come and had no choice in the matter.

And yes, the more people I talk to the more I think it’s mostly Marrakech rather than Morocco in general…other friends told me that Fez and Casablanca, for example, were better, and that Marrakech was actually disliked the most by all three of them while they liked the other cities.

Anyway, thanks again for sharing your experience!

22 08 2008
Lana

Wow. I feel so much better after reading this. I stayed in the Medina in Essaouira. I experienced the harassment. Even worse. I went with my boyfriend and his six year old son. I finally gave in.

Remember the portion of this thread that says…
“Do you recall the Comments section of my “Women, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis” post, where Xixarro said, “We can’t be expecting women to go thank every man that passes her ‘normally’, can we”? Well, it is so bad here, the harassment is so frequent and omnipresent, that every time we passed a man walking towards us, all I would think was, “Please don’t say anything. Please don’t bother us. Please don’t come near us”; and when the man passed without incident, we really DID feel compelled to genuinely thank him for “acting normal”! It was ridiculous; a man just gave us directions to somewhere without pressuring us to follow him or attempting to stick to us, and we spent the next five minutes exclaiming over how nice he was.”

Beautiful. Its so true for me that I really really did give in.

I picked the nicest one and the one that just happened to be one of the most intelligent and most compassionate men I had ever met in my life. He never once hit on me. I hit on him. He was born in the sand dunes. No joke; he is from the Sahara. Beautiful boy who told me he would keep me safe as long as I was by his side. He treated me like a princess and when I left he wouldn’t let me cry that my relationship with my boyfriend and his son had ended because it was all an experience.

He told me never to cry about him and just to be happy that we could “share a moment together.”

I will never forget him. But I will also never forget that my relationship was destroyed in Morocco.

I just wanted to feel safe. For that, I had to sacrifice my relationship.

25 08 2008
Joaninha

Hi Lana, wow, thank you for sharing that with us. I have to say though that I definitely wouldn’t be able to do what you did, what you described as “giving in” (and at the expense of your then-current relationship, no less). To be honest, given my feelings in that situation, doing something like that would have felt horribly like succumbing to a perverse case of Stockholm syndrome (not that there’s such a thing as a non-perverse case of Stockholm syndrome, I guess). I don’t think I found that such extreme measures were actually necessary or would be, but if you and the guy really truly liked or loved each other (besides him being able to provide “protection”), I suppose that’s kind of different.

8 01 2009
Jason Pilkes

Hello girls.
It has sure been an interesting read. Well…im a man and I must say misogyny in developing countries manifests itself in street harassment whereas in the west it does in the form of real hardcore porn (women covered in scat, pissed on..double anal..and what not..sorry for being graphic).
So don’t take it too badly dear..anyways…they have their fair share of white sex tourists in casablanca and agadir..women their look wonderful though…but one case has really created huge chasms between westerns and the local men…read about philippe saverty here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/66
so u see..the world is indeed round sister..

30 04 2009
Silvia Wadhwa

I certainly sympathise …. It CAN be a culture shock!!!

But I can also safely say that I have never felt THREATENED anywhere, just varying cadences of annoyed …. Having said that, a lifetime of working and travelling in the orient (from India to Morocco) has taught me a few simple things:

When in Rome, do a the Romans do. Simple.

No short skirts, shorts, sleeveless blouses or tight t-shirts ….

In most Arab countries I usually carry a shawl, scarf or something …. if I feel it warranted, I cover my hair ….

I must admit, the latter has FOR ME always done the trick.

But then again, I have never really been a tourist in these countries and maybe that made me a little less of a target.

And another thing: While young Arab males no doubt trawl the tourist haunts for female “prey”, there are enough WHITE WOMEN looking for an oriental holiday adventure. And that often gives those boys the idea that all western women are like that … sadly so.

On balance, I would certainly not tell anybody NOT to travel to Morocco. It´s a beautiful country and has – like any other place on earth – princes and crooks alike.

As the Moroccans say: Basah! … Really!

12 01 2012
Doc

Interesting that they don’t dress according to our norms when they come to the U.S. Maybe we should deride them for dressing in a living room drape? Always a one-way deal with Muslims it seems.

30 05 2012
Gioco

Thanks for this Gary. Sounds very interesting. As you poetnid out, the event takes place at times of momentous change in the region, and since a large number of the participants will be from Morocco itself, it would be great if some of the papers would address issues like teacher agency, empowerment, praxis, action research, and bottom-up institutional initiatives for teacher development, as a way of creating close connections between teachers’ daily concerns and their classroom practice.

8 09 2010
christine dodd

I have just returned from 3 nights in Marrakech with my sister.
Unfortunately we also felt very vulnerable and unsafe .
Our Riad was within a walled maze and we were very nervous while walking from and to the Riad, day or night.
Groups of young guys were gathered at the sides of the dimly lit alley ways and yes we marched confidently past them ignoring their snide overtly sexual inuendo,s but did not feel safe till we were inside and the door locked.
We are not young women but mature mothers.
The local women especially the older women sneered at us and some spat on the ground.We were not dressed inappropriately and showed respect especially as it was Ramadan.

I was so disapointed as I had looked forward to visiting this city for so long.
Yes it has some beautiful buildings and museums but our anxiety at going out ruined it.

2 05 2011
Lynne

Marrakech was a dissapointment to us to, they do spit on you.
Also beware dating the false moroccan muslim men, ………………….they only want a visa and money out of you

26 05 2011
momofbron

OMG! I am dating a Moroccan man who is the sweetest person in the world. I have always wanted to go to Morocco, Marakash being one of the cities – now you have me scared. Maybe a trip to Morocco, but definitely other cities instead of Marakash. I used to hear stories, years ago about the kidnapping and harassment of blondes, but thought it was fiction. You all just made me a believer. Sorry your trips were so horrible.

21 11 2011
magnus.baculum@gmail.com

I have a friend (tall, beautiful, blonde, long-legged) who goes to Morocco yearly specifically for that reason, to get more attention from men, and indulge herself. Why not do that at home? well, she prefers darker men, and there are not many where she lives, and she says these men are too shy anyway, only approaching a woman if they are intoxicated.

15 09 2015
Anon

I’ve just read this.

I’m on holiday with my wife. We’re a “young” couple. I’m brown, she’s white. I can agree with most of what you’ve said. This whole trip, walking through the streets has been stressful because the whole time I’ve been in “protect my wife” mode. She’s suffered many of the same instances you’ve listed. We’ve done our research, she covered up well etc but we’ve still had a bad experience. It’s put a nasty scar on what was supposed to be a nice trip.

Women here aren’t treated the same. A lot of instances, like a piece of meat. It’s deep rooted and needs to change. I’m not saying every male here is like that. We have met some genuinely nice people but there is something seriously wrong here and it needs to change. It’s disgusting and I feel sick.

We fly home tomorrow. Good riddance.

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