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On Being a Woman in Morocco


Encountering unwanted attention from men is, unfortunately, a reality for female travelers. We have spent four weeks in Morocco up till now and moved from Fez to Rabat last week. It has been interesting for me to observe the different ways women were treated in public spaces in different places in Morocco.

While we were in Fez, I walked for five minutes from my homestay to ALIF when going to class. I’ve noticed that public spaces were usually male-only. I passed by the same café every day and every single time it was only men sitting there regardless if it was daytime or nighttime. Female drivers weren’t a common occurrence in Fes and during the three weeks we have stayed there I may have spotted only two female drivers in the city. Perhaps this explains why women walking in the streets seemed to garner lots of attention. From the first day walking to class with Amani, we were catcalled by men who were driving by in their cars or by the men sitting around in the cafes. During the three weeks we stayed in Fez, Amani and I have been followed twice by men, and catcalled at least once every day. It was even worse when we would go to the Medina. With comments ranging from “Bonjour” and “I love you” to vulgar sexual comments, it was evident that women were not made welcome there.

However, Rabat is very different. Unlike my experience in Fez, Rabat seemed much more welcoming for women than many other places we have visited in Morocco. I have spent about a week in Rabat up till now, but I have yet to experience any unwanted leering or catcalls. It has been a common occurrence for me to see women wearing skinny jeans or short skirts, a sight I haven’t seen in Fez. After speaking to some Moroccan women about this, they all seemed to agree that Fez isn’t the best place for women to be in. In Rabat, women have more mobility and aren’t treated as strangers to the street. And according to my host mother, people in Rabat are more open-minded than people in Fez and more respectful to women. I have really appreciated the fact that I can walk in the Medina and be able to feel safe and not worry about unwanted attention.

Morocco has been one of my favorite countries to travel in, but it is also hard to navigate as a woman. However, this is not surprising because it seems like this is the reality for women everywhere and not exclusive to Morocco only. As a woman living in Saudi Arabia, I have dressed conservatively and abided by the dress code but was still met with unwanted attention. During the one year I have stayed in the U.S, I was not exempt from sexual harassment and neither were any of my female friends. Egypt, my home country, is not much different than Morocco. The month spent in Morocco has taught me how to deal with harassment here and how to avoid it. During this time, I have learned to admire Moroccan women for tolerating and enduring these experiences every day. Harassment in the street is one way of telling women that they don’t belong here, and from my experience, it exists everywhere. Regardless of what women wear in public, there will always be those who oppose their presence and who will treat them as transgressors.


Taxi Troubles and Their Troubling Trends

Yesterday, the craziest thing happened to me: my taxi had no idea where to take me and my housemate when we told him the Darija for “American Language Center,” in addition to a number of notable landmarks (like the Rabat train station). We went on an unwanted tour of the city center, travelling past many commercial roads and landmarks, including the Hassan Tower. You might think that a taxi driver would notice, considering the frequency of travel in this area, if there was an important center for thousands of students, even if he couldn’t remember the exact name of the center. At the same time, however, one can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that we were travelling in the exact opposite direction we need to–after all, it took me two minutes of staring at Google Maps to correct our directions and finally arrive at the proper location.


I bring up this point not for the sake of complaining about the “horrible, stupid taxi drivers” here: on the contrary, they’ve always been helpful, stopping to help us when we’re panicking at being late to class; they’re also honorable, like our particularly unfortunate driver yesterday who graciously accepted only half the metered fare (made higher on account of his own mistake). It instead belied a truth about Rabat that separates it from the much more populous Fez: there is no “there” there. Not even the taxi drivers, in a sense paid to know their city and understand its directions, get lost without any trace. Contrast the experience in a Rabat taxi with that from Fez. The drive from the medina to ALIF in Fez was simple, but so were the drives to all other places we visited, whether Bathah, R’Cif, or even the house of a local friend that was vaguely in the vicinity of the Fez train station. Places seemed real and valuable to the drivers, which mirrored a general sense I got in Fez that has been missing in Rabat. In Fez, everyone made it their business to understand the dynamics of other neighborhoods; girls from the Ville Nouvelle seemed to brave the conservative old city infrequently enough, but nonetheless sympathized for the problems of that conceptually distant neighborhood, and it was their pride in its landmarks and the good people there that ensured they returned. Fassis recognized their cities’ problems–no one reads, Ville Nouvelle residents’ arrogance, medina denizens’ sometimes disrespectful, sometimes “suffocatingly old-fashioned” ways–but most people understood the situation, they talked about it, they recognized it, and at least dreamed of ways they could deal with it. In the meantime, they tangibly lived with it. It was their job to know. It was their pleasure to know.

Wherever I go in Rabat, I get the nagging feeling that I’m stuck in a limbo between a faceless New York City and a hundred small, generic, “developing country”-neighborhoods. Instead of pick-up basketball in the park, there are games of wall-ball and football taking place next to the all-too-common poor families, begging in the midst of one of many upscale concrete jungle-gyms. Stores advertise bikinis even as their customers shun women from wearing them during the holy month of Ramadan. What’s more, these contradictions go on for miles. The city has little sense of self, and its residents don’t seem to mind. The majority of the pleasant people I’ve met in this city are too caught up in the minutia of their daily lives to live in their city. I know of few people outside the medina who know much about their old city, and in general there seems an attitude of obliviousness. The cab rides were only the beginning of these ruminations about how two cities, so geographically nearby and similar, on face value, in terms of class structure, could be so different. It isn’t size, because if that were the case, one might expect the larger Fez to be the city of facelessness. Alternatively, one might think that the capital of Morocco would be more interesting, seeing as it has more money and enterprising people, but that doesn’t appear to be the case either. Instead, I fear it has everything to do with the political dynamic of the two cities, an inversion of the latter supposition–the weight of a non-participatory government may have crushed its host city’s residents’ spontaneity and desire for civic participation. I’m sure this is the theory of a whole paper somewhere, but all I know is the experienced version of the problem–and it would be tragic for all the cultural, communal potential in a modernizing, trailblazing city like Rabat to be lost.