Lessons from Morocco, Part 2: Cultural Relativity and Other Issues

21 01 2008

Woman walking down side street in MarrakechIn my last post (Lessons from Morocco: How NOT to Treat Women), I talked about how intolerable I found the behaviour of many Moroccan men towards women in the streets to be, and set aside the matter of cultural relativity to be dealt with later—that is, now.  The issue, as my friend pointed out to me, was this: I hated the heckling and calling and kissing noises and so on because I wasn’t used to it.  For women who had grown up in that culture though, they’d be used to it and thus not mind or care.  So, since the men were allegedly all bark and no bite, I had nothing to worry about and should be fine if only I let go of my own cultural prejudices (i.e. the idea that everything they did was inappropriate and disturbing).  Even my friend, who although just as feminist is much more easygoing and laid-back than I am, said she didn’t mind as much towards the end of the trip, whereas I was more sick of it than ever.

My response to this is: it doesn’t matter if you’re used to it or not; it’s the principles and the ideas behind the actions and reactions that matter.  Cultural relativity only works to a certain extent, and past that you could very easily find yourself arguing for letting people get away with murder.  There are many cultures around the world that harbour certain practices, such as female circumcision/genital mutilation in Africa, polygamy and sexual/sexual child abuse in Canadian and American towns such as Bountiful, and the abandonment or killing of female babies in China.  These things are all culturally or religiously entrenched practices, and accepted as normal by the people within each culture, but clearly, that doesn’t make them right.

Alright, so if cultural relativity doesn’t make the men’s and boys’ behaviour in Marrakech right, why, exactly, is their behaviour wrong? 

My very first instinct would be to say it’s wrong because of how it made me feel—unsafe, uncomfortable, and vulnerable everywhere I went, no matter when or where.  That should be enough; it’s why bullying isn’t allowed in schools, isn’t it?  However, cultural relativity does create some leaks in this one.  As mentioned above, I only felt the way I did because I wasn’t used to experiencing that sort of behaviour on a daily (read: minutely) basis.  So, since I was (supposedly) never in any real harm, I had no major reason to feel unsafe/uncomfortable/vulnerable and thus my feelings alone, as a reason on their own, polemically speaking, might not be enough to condemn the behaviour as wrong.

Taking my emotions out of the equation then, why is it still wrong?

Moroccan man in Marrakech souks (market streets), possibly catching Joaninha in 100% tourist mode

I really struggled to answer this question in a way that would hold water rationally and objectively.  In the process, I came up with several smaller points that backed up my main one, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was, yet:

1. It objectifies women.

The idea that it’s acceptable to call at and suggestively greet random women in the streets wherever they go implies that women are ever things to be looked at and commented on, as if we were not touring a foreign city or going out to dinner, but deliberately parading ourselves in front of the men/teenagers/boys clustered on the sidewalks.  You know that feeling you have when someone is staring at or watching you, even if you don’t see them?  Imagine being permanently in that state, and change the staring to leering.  Welcome to Marrakech! 

2. It degrades and demeans women.

After about two days, I realized part of why the calling, etc., bothered me so much.  Even if the men did not seriously believe their behaviour would get them what they wanted (although who knows), underlying it all was the idea that they would call, coo, or whistle, and we (women) would come.  Like we were animals.  Or infants, or children, come to think of it.  This reminds me of my “Playing Women in the Roda” post, where I said the “Chauvinist Theory” equated women capoeiristas to beginner capoeiristas; and of the incident where MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pinched Hillary Clinton on the cheek.  It’s the idea that just because we are female, we are somehow less than full or full(y) qualified persons, and can be treated accordingly.

3. It alienates and encourages self-oppression of women.

On our second last night in Marrakech, we met three other women our age and shared a laugh over the mass idiocy we’d all had the good fortune to experience.  Then, they said something that completely chilled and disturbed me.  At one point during their trip, they told my friend and me, they’d gotten so fed up with all the unwanted male attention that they decided to wear headscarves, like many Muslim women in the country do.  And you know what?  The attention, according to them, decreased dramatically. 

To me, that’s even worse than if the attention had gone on as usual.  What’s being said here is not only “You are available for heckling because you are a woman”, but “You are available for heckling because you are a woman with the audacity to leave your face/hair/head bared and not cover yourself.”  I get the feeling not wearing a headscarf in Marrakech might possibly have been the equivalent of wearing a revealing top in North America, which brings us back to the idea of men assuming women are looking/asking for it just because of something they wear (or in this case, don’t wear).  (SeeWomen, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis“).  It didn’t help that while trying to sell her one, a shopkeeper put a scarf around my friend’s head, almost as if to veil her, saying, “This is how our women wear their scarves.”  While we’re on the topic, not that it should matter, but my friend and I were in long-sleeves and pants for the entire trip.  We didn’t even bother with T-shirts, even though it was around 20 degrees Celsius or hotter each day.

Shops in Djemma el Fna, main market square in Marrakech

After looking over all those points together, the answer to my question became obvious, and was much simpler than I thought it was, which is probably why I had such a hard time pinpointing it at the beginning:

I wasn’t heckled because I was me, Joaninha, “English major and obsessed capoeirista”.  I wasn’t heckled just because I’m Asian (though if I hear “Konichiwa” ONE more time…).  I wasn’t heckled just because I’m a tourist—by shopkeepers, yes, but not random men on the street.  If someone exactly like me went on my trip in Morocco, only male, they would not have been bothered nearly as much (although it’s true I can’t speak for any gay male populations in the country…).  The shopkeepers’ heckling didn’t bother me as much by the end of the trip, because I learned to distinguish it from purely male heckling.  Fair enough: they wanted to sell things, I was a tourist, it was likely I was interested in buying things.  The male heckling, though, was not fair at all: they wanted something, I was a woman, but it was not likely I might be interested in that thing.

In short, the majority of the heckling was purely sex-based.  (And I mean sex in all senses of the word.)  That’s why it’s wrong.  Isn’t there something out there that says it’s wrong to discriminate in words or actions based on gender, race, or religion?  Oh yeah—it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

So, it doesn’t matter if you’re used to it or not.  Harassment is still harassment.  Even if it’s not supposed to mean or lead to anything more than an annoyance (albeit a deep, implications-filled annoyance), it’s the ideas and mentality behind the bark that opens the way to it becoming a bite.  Sure, nothing happened to my friends and I, but that’s just it—nothing happened, and we still felt intensely uncomfortable; imagine what it must be like for all the girls and women in the world to whom something does happen?  If the base level of appropriateness in North America is common decency and respectful behaviour, and rapes and assaults still happen, what are the chances of such incidents occurring when the base level of appropriateness in a culture already constitutes verbal harassment? 

Maybe you might say that the rapes and assaults happen precisely because North American men don’t have the “outlet” of heckling women everyday in public, and so are repressed and thus burst from it in more explosive ways, but that idea, ignoring its own lack of merit, again is based on the idea of men “not being able to control themselves”, which is about as vendible as Peter Mans Bridge.

Anyway, I’m glad that I went to Morocco.  It was a really interesting trip, still fun, memorable, and full of new and different experiences.  I’m even glad for the heckling and all that, kind of, because it made me see and feel for real exactly what I’ve been talking about all along on this blog, which I think will contribute to Mandingueira in the long run.

Tomorrow, pure capoeira!

Update: Hmm, so it seems I’ve offended a person with ties to Morocco, according to a comment I received.  Alright, I guess I could have been more careful not to make such wide generalizations (e.g. “Moroccan men”), but something about the comment tells me that wasn’t what he was concerned about.  Oh well; all the blogging experts say you haven’t made it until someone hates you, so maybe this is a good sign? 😛 

Update 2: Aaaaaand…now I have incoming links from Morocco sex and prostitution sites.  That might explain it…




12 responses

21 01 2008

Interesting posts.
I don’t dare to imagine what it would do to me if I were in your place.

21 01 2008

Why donnt you go somewhere and dry up!!

21 01 2008

To xixarro: You’d probably stick it out 😛 After a while it really does just get annoying more than anything else (well, until you start really thinking about it).

On vincentFiore: See blog post update!

31 01 2008

You are right about that type of harrassment in the Moroccan streets. I know about it because i’m a Moroccan guy 🙂 but still it’s very mild compared to what happens in other parts of the world (latin america for example). Nothing can justify putting a person in such discomfort, that’s why I invite my fellow Moroccans to be smarter and more imaginative when approching a nice north American lady 😉


31 01 2008

Thanks for your blog. I travelled to Marrekesh with my husband for our honeymoon. I had a man rub himself on me in a store, when my husband was right next door and there were lots of people around. I was even TELLING the guy about my husband. I froze, then threw a shirt (from the store) at him and ran away. Looking back, I was furious that I didn’t say/do more and even more furious by travelers that tell me that it’s the culture so it’s okay. I felt attacked and it was NOT OKAY.

1 02 2008

Sam: I haven’t been to Latin America before, so I can’t compare; still, I don’t think it matters if it’s better than other places—it shouldn’t exist to any degree at all. 😄 Also, hmm, what do you mean by “more imaginative”? 😛

Hi Karen, thank you for sharing…wow, that’s really awful. We mostly only experienced verbal harrassment, I can’t imagine what would’ve happened if they went further. And I think that would count as an “attack”, and you’re right, it’s not okay. Tell those people to read this post, the ones who say it’s “just the culture”! Or you could sic that man on them and see what they say then…

2 02 2008


Actually It does matter that Morocco in this regard is better than other places, and let me explain why. I have been living in Canada for quite long period of time, and I have noticed how women are very well treated and I’m glad that they are. Except in Canada we celebrate each year a sad event. In 1989, 14 young female students were shot dead by a young man because simply they were … women. This shocking story made many Canadians rethink the relationship between men and women. Many years later, the Canadian society is still suffering from high rates of male suicide, and many experts link this phenomenon to the effects of an agressive feminist movement in the society. Honestly between the model that leaves some room for the guys to say “hello” to girls in the streets in their own way, and a model that begets the canadian sad story, I vote for the former.


3 02 2008

Hey Sam,

Whoa. Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, hold on a minute. Do you know what you’re saying here?

First of all, if you can give me links to any of these “studies” done that link male suicide to feminism, I would really appreciate it so I can see for myself. For now, even though I have not seen evidence for either way, I really cannot bring myself to believe that is true, just because of how deep and destructive the implications of that would be. You’re implying, especially with “vote for the former”, that feminism is actually harmful, giving anyone who wants one a “reason” to shut down the movement—when all we want is equality. Obviously there is room for men to say “hello” on their street, but as for “in their own way”—what way is that? Groping? Calling out lewd things? Grabbing a woman walking by? Doing or saying otherwise inappropriate things that make women feel unsafe or uncomfortable everywhere they go?

You are basically arguing the counterpoint I only semi-seriously suggested in my post, that rape attacks (in your case, suicides) are possibly a “result” of “repression” of men. Like in my post, my rebuttal is that this whole line of reasoning is based on the idea that “men can’t help themselves”, which as has been established over and over and over again, is not true.

Again, by “voting for the former”, you are saying that we just have to take it, that that’s how things are, and at least “it’s better than the alternative”—because you constructed an alternative of mass shootings and suicides, not simple equality. Can you see how destructive that is to women? Leaving alone the fact that there’s no valid way to prove feminism begets male suicide (that’d be like trying to prove anti-racism begets Caucasian suicide) (and the mass shooting may or may not have happened anyway, we can’t know, and happened because he hated women, so it actually seems to support my point because an atmosphere like the one you voted for discourages seeing women as equals/actual people), you are suggesting we just take it and leave things are they are because of one single incident that actually suggests we *can’t* leave things as they are, and something that is very, very, very hard to prove and as I mentioned, wouldn’t make sense because its implications are unthinkable?

You seem nice and I appreciate that you wrote your comment respectfully, so I hope mine didn’t seem like an attack on you. I was just a little shocked by some of what you said or its implications, so I really hope I was able to make it clear why, above!

4 02 2008
Jillian York

Hi Joaninha,

I just wanted to say that I completely understand your feelings on this and don’t believe that Morocco’s harassment situation should be handled gently or with an air of cultural relativism.

You’re right – you weren’t treated this way because you’re a tourist (though that doesn’t exactly help the situation). I lived in Morocco as a foreigner for two years, learned the language, learned the subtleties of how to dress appropriately without sacrificing my principles (read: not wearing a headscarf) and none of it mattered one bit – I was still harassed, each day, by the same men.

Incidentally, so were my Moroccan female friends (who do not wear headscarves either).

I was also a teacher in Morocco, and frequently used this subject as a topic of conversation – and my students, mostly teenagers, agree that this is a problem that needs to be solved.

Traditionally, Moroccan men and women have little contact before marriage – in urban areas, however, this is changing – women are being seen more and more in cafes and even nightclubs. Hopefully, as men and women are allowed more freedom of contact (and this appears to be happening a lot with the next generation, even in more subtle ways), the way men in Morocco treat women will change.

4 02 2008

Thanks for your comment and support, Jillian. I realized that the Moroccan women experienced it too, as it was a hostess at our riad that told us the men were all bark and no bite. I agree that things do look promising with the potential results of increased contact and your students’ attitudes, and hope that will turn out to be the case! I’ve also read your comment on the other Morocco post, and will reply to it there.

5 02 2008


I didn’t mean to make my 2nd posting that controversial ! Anyway I think we both agree that the stalking is hideous, and I know it will vanish sooner or later because it’s not an intrinsic trait of the Moroccan society. Just today a largely read Moroccan newspaper published a series of articles dedicated to this topic, they titled it “Sexual Harassment : A Dangerous Game Between Men and Women”-my translation. Here is the link for those who can read Arabic
The roots cause of this violence in disguise lies probably in the violence endured by the man himself from the system (political, economical, social problems), and which he transmits to the weaker (the woman in this case). This is why the formula “don’t do this or else!” won’t work at all here. The well being of the Moroccan woman is tightly linked to that of the Moroccan man and vice versa.


5 02 2008

Thanks for the link Sam—I do wish I could read Arabic! That’s an interesting point, about people under hardship from the system passing it on to those with still “less power” (in society, etc.) than they have. Although, that would probably be more applicable if they transferred it to “weaker”/less powerful men as well, not just all women. It’s also interesting that this article came up, because while I was still in Morocco, I saw a magazine cover with the headline (in French) “Morocco: The Sexist Kingdom?” But between your comments and Jillian’s, it does look like progress will, hopefully, be made for the better!

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