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On Being a Woman in North Africa, Part I

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There aren’t many things that bother me in Morocco. Of course I get annoyed when a business opens a half hour later than their hours state, or when there is so much bureaucracy to do one simple task (AUI is notorious for this). But these are minor things that can be understandable. However, the one thing that does bother me a lot in this country is the men.

Of course, I am generalizing here. There are tons and tons of Moroccan guys who are nice and sweet and aren’t rude in the least; however, my general experience of the attitude that men have toward women–specifically foreign women–is appalling. Let me explain.

Shopping in the souqs are wonderful. You can find everything in there from western clothing and silverware to keftans and Moroccan tea sets. Each city’s souq has its own flavor, too: in Marrakech everything is brightly colored, relatively clean, and caters to tourists; whereas in Meknes the souq is darker, dirtier, and a one-stop shop for Moroccans. Funny enough, I would pick the Meknes souq over the Marrakech souq any day–the reason being the level of harassment I get in each city.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt uncomfortable in Marrakech. Passing by three shops warrants five men to try to engage you in conversation. Usually, they will start out with a simple “Hola” or “Bonjour” or “Hello” in hopes that their knowledge of foreign languages will entice you to come look at their wares. Some are more aggressive, in that they will physically come up to you and start speaking in English about why you should buy their tagines or rugs or jewelery. And yes, while annoying, most of it is tolerable. But the most obnoxious and unavoidable part of the passage through the souq is what the men call out to you from behind.

When you’ve made it clear that you are not interested in what they have to sell, some will start making comments about you and your appearance. While walking though the medina in Essaouira with a blonde friend, men would call out to her “Barbie!” or “Lady Gaga!”, warranting her to cover her hair with a black scarf. I myself have been harassed by men shouting “nice ass!” or making lewd noises as I walked by. As soon as the shop owners stop seeing you as a potential customer, they feel as if they have the right to objectify you for everyone to hear.

And of course, this is not limited to the shopkeepers in the souqs and medinas. Men everywhere will try to get your attention with this verbal harassment, and I’m not sure exactly what they are trying to accomplish. Do they want me to turn around and introduce myself? Or do they want me to turn around and punch them in the face? Perhaps it’s something that men with low self-esteem issues do to make themselves look bigger; after all, most of the harassers on the street are usually in a group of guys. Regardless, it is rude and ugly and chauvinistic. To think, many of these men have mothers and sisters whom they would fight for if anyone were to verbally harass them!

This is to say nothing of the café culture around here. It is the norm for men to sit outside cafés with a tea on the table and a cigarette in their hand as they watch the world go by; and when I say the world, I mean women. The staring gets uncomfortable, especially for a westerner. Many Moroccan women wear a traditional garment called a kaftan. It is a type of closed, full-length robe that comes in various patterns and styles, all of which are meant to be worn loosely. Many women who chose to wear the kaftan also wear the hijaab, which means that really the only thing uncovered are their hands and face. Of course, this is a very different style of dress than western women. Pants are generally tight-fitting and many kinds of shirts are as well. So even if you were to walk through a city with jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt, it would still be considered more provocative than the keftan and you would therefore merit more attention than a traditionally dressed Moroccan woman.

Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to walk around Marrakech or even Meknes in a keftan and a hijaab. Undoubtedly I would be stared-at less, and the cat calls and chauvinistic comments would probably stop. I wonder if I would even be spoken to in English (because although I don’t quite look Moroccan, I don’t look American either). Someday, I want to try this experiment. But until then, I will wear what I want and keep ignoring the men here.

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1 Comment

  1. Asmaa.az says:

    What you wrote is very true.
    Men ( not all) act like they have never seen a woman/girl before, it’s disgusting it makes me so mad at my own people.
    I’m moroccan, i wear a scarf, and my outfits are kind of fashionable and modest, but when i pass by a cafe, there i find 1000000 eyes staring at me.
    When i’m in Marrakech, they talk to me in every language possible thinking i come from abroad, it’s almost avoidable.
    I went to lot of places in morocco, and it’s the same and i hate it as hell, it’s my number one reason for wanting to live abroad.
    Nice diaries btw 😉

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