Morocco’s reputation as a difficult destination for women precedes itself for a reason. I was forewarned and you probably will be too, but I didn’t let those warnings stop me and you shouldn’t either. Morocco is an incredibly enchanting nation, each city so different, distinct and delightful. Morocco is one of the most diverse nations on the African continent, with rugged mountains, the vast Saharan desert, southern valleys and gorges, miles of coastline that include both the Atlantic and Mediterranean, old medina city centres, souks, modern new cities and rural villages. It is a nation populated with Berbers, Arabs, Sahrawis, Gnawas, and is a nation of complexity and diversity, with a long and complicated history.
Moroccans themselves are incredibly warm, welcoming and hospitable people. I cannot count how many times I’ve been verbally welcomed by Moroccans in my time living here, or how many times complete strangers have helped me. My first time taking an overnight train from Marrakech to Tangier – a city I’d never visited but was moving to – a Moroccan man helped me all the way to my accommodation upon arrival. This included loading my luggage in a taxi, getting me to the door of my destination, paying the fair, and buying my family dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant a few nights later. He was a true gentleman who was kind, generous, helpful and not seeking anything in return. Hospitality like this doesn’t occur everywhere.
I am in love with Morocco and I will never for a minute regret moving here. When the day comes in which I must depart, I will leave with a sad and heavy heart. All that said, there is something you need to know if you are a woman and are considering moving to or traveling here. In my experience, I have found that some people react quite defensively to cultural criticisms of Morocco and, specifically the bad behavior of certain Moroccan men. They seem to take it personally and will respond with statements such as, “This isn’t a Moroccan problem specifically, it happens everywhere,” or “You shouldn’t group all Moroccan men together,” or “If it’s better in your country, why live here?” Yes, some of that is very true, but at best, those responses are deflective and unhelpful, and at worst, they fail to acknowledge the very real experiences women are having here. Morocco does, in fact, have a very real and very big problem. I am talking about street harassment.
Street harassment is defined as a form of sexual harassment forced on a stranger in a public space without their consent. It includes catcalling, whistling, sexually explicit comments, sexist remarks, homophobic or transphobic slurs, groping, leering, stalking, flashing, sexual assault and rape. Street harassment limits people’s mobility and access to public spaces. It is a form of gender violence and it is a human rights violation.
Street harassment is such a serious issue in Morocco and it hinders the quality of life for women in this country both local and foreign. It is my least favorite part of the culture here and I can tell you firsthand, in just a half-year, I’ve had countless incidents, certainly more than I care to admit. Let me preface this by stating that I am not a shy or coy person. I have strong opinions and a strong personality. I’ve traveled alone (prior to having my son) all over the world visiting four continents and over 20 countries. I can hold my own and I’m not afraid to advocate for myself or anyone else. I am non-Muslim, but I dress conservatively out of respect for the culture and choosing to live in a Muslim nation. This means jeans and dresses to my ankles and long sleeve shirts. No skirts, no spaghetti straps, no cleavage, and nothing too tight. Even so, Morocco wears on me in a way no other country ever has and it is, without question, the hardest place I have ever lived. I have never experienced this level of harassment or disrespect anywhere else in the world. It is constant and nearly daily, and after months of it, well, you just start feeling worn down, degraded, and frankly, fucking. over. it. I do not get used to it and I certainly do not become numb to it and I’d like nothing more than for something serious to be done to eradicate it. In a nation that is 99% Muslim, that prides itself on strict reverence to family, high respect and regard for women, and modesty in behavior and dress, Morocco is far from faultless and has a long way to go on this issue.
I would go so far as to say sexual harassment is endemic to Morocco. Not only is it widespread and rampant, it is largely culturally accepted as something that has always existed and will always exist. It is a cancer here and there is a very common mentality that it will not change because, well, men are men. And here’s the clincher: NO woman is immune from it. It does not matter your age, size, ethnicity or religion. Muslim, non-Muslim, foreigner, expat, mini skirt or hijab, married, unmarried, with children, without children, black, white, brown, young, old, every woman is likely to experience harassment of some kind, at some point, even women who are pregnant! So what kind of harassment are we talking about here? It comes in many forms including: catcalling, hissing, leering, staring, stalking, following, groping, whistling, winking, making unwanted sexual advances verbally or non-verbally, lewd language, domineering body language, and reacting aggressively when denied or challenged, sometimes to the point of physical violence.
I have experienced more than my fair share of street harassment, most of which has occurred in broad daylight as I walked with my toddler son in his stroller. Allow me to illustrate:
- My ass was grabbed by an old man in Djemaa El Fna.
- My boob was aggressively grabbed by a minor boy about 10 years old as I walked to the Sunday vegetable market in Tangier.
- I’ve been followed by men in cars and taxis multiple times in multiple cities. They typically drive in a slow, stalkerish manner either just behind or beside me, often motioning for me to get into their vehicle or asking me to “come here”. Some have parked while I’ve gone into a shop and awaited my exit.
- I’ve been followed into shops a few times.
- I’ve had young boys make lewd comments as they pass me on motos and bicycles.
- I’ve been leered at, hissed at, stared at, winked at, more times than I can even count.
- I’ve had men approach me saying things like “nice, fat ass” and “nice boobs” and “I like your body” and “thank your mother for me”.
- A man followed me on the street as I walked for 15 minutes, then proceeded to flag down my taxi, get in the seat behind me and started asking questions. I got out of the cab five minutes later to shake him off. I did not want him knowing where I lived!
- A Jeep full of men were gawking and commenting as I walked to the post office one afternoon. I had my fill of it, flipped them off and yelled, “go fuck yourselves.” The driver immediately u-turned the Jeep and drove up beside me screaming at me. I yelled back, but it was aggressive and scary and perhaps could’ve turned into a nasty altercation.
- I’ve been followed home into my apartment complex late at night by a complete stranger.
- I’ve been directly propositioned for sex.
- A man approached my family in the medina in Marrakech. I felt he was a creepster so I didn’t engage with him, but my family member mistook his creepiness for friendliness and talked to him for a while. He followed us around and was quite insistent on helping us. I told him again and again we didn’t need his help. At 11 pm that night he showed up at our riad asking for us. Luckily management didn’t let him in. I was aghast! My family member had told him where we were staying! Never, ever do that! We ran into this guy a couple more times and he was always on us like stink on shit. The only way I could get him to leave us alone was to get in his face, threaten to report him to the police, and take his picture. That seemed to do the trick.
- I was solicited by a male sex worker while shopping in the medina in Asilah. He approached me from out of nowhere, spoke only in Spanish and said, “You are beautiful. I want to sleep with you. Come to my house. I do massage.” He showed me half-nude photos of himself on his phone, was very insistent, followed me for over 30 minutes and was very hard to shake off.
My aggressors have ranged in age from about 10-years-old to men old enough to be my grandfather. If there is any benefit at all in not understanding Darija (Moroccan Arabic), it is that I am unable to understand the litany of things that have been hurled at me verbally.
Why Is Sexual Harassment So Rampant?
Excellent question. You may be wondering if it’s necessary to even discuss this and while it likely stems from numerous factors, I do think it’s important to dissect the causes so we can treat the symptoms and, in time, cure the disease. It is cultural? Is it because premarital sex is illegal in Morocco, punishable by imprisonment? Are men sexually frustrated as a result? Is it men’s way of flirting? Is it the sexually stifled reaction of a fairly conservative and modest culture? Is it because men traditionally dominated the public sphere and believe it is theirs to do as they please? It it due to widespread gender segregation resulting in lack of social interaction between the sexes? Do men simply not know how to socialize in appropriate ways with women? Is it because misogyny runs deep? Is it due to gender inequality? Is it because there is a lack of education surrounding women’s rights? Is it because there are no fully enforced sexual harassment laws in Morocco to protect women against it? Is it because Morocco is a fairly male-dominated society and men behave this way to assert that domination? It is purely to intimidate women? I’m afraid I cannot pinpoint a direct cause and it’s most likely a combination of all these things.
There is no separation of religion and state in Morocco. In most Muslim-majority nations, various aspects of Sharia (Islamic Law) are incorporated. Islamic law, does in fact, form the political structure of Moroccan law including Moudawana, or Moroccan Family Law. Morocco has one of the most progressive family law codes, except for Tunisia, but for Moroccan feminists, it still has a way to go. Misogyny exists worldwide but it seems to run a little deeper in the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) and we cannot pussyfoot around the topic of religion if we are to address this subject entirely. In the Surah An-Noor (The Light, Noble Qur’an), Allah states: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will make for greater purity for them. And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. (24:30).
In Islam, both men and women are encouraged to be modest in dress and behavior and respectful of one another. There isn’t an addendum that states: “If a woman isn’t dressed modestly, you are permitted to harass her because she clearly welcomes it.” I’m being facetious here, but I’ve actually heard Moroccan men say “women who dress immodestly want to be harassed.” Sexual harassment in Morocco is a cultural issue not a religious one, but it’s mighty hard to separate the two as religion heavily influences Moroccan culture. Muslim men take great pride in being Muslim and very few will admit to being non-practicing, but as long as they do not abide by the entirety of the Qur’an, aren’t they being religiously hypocritical? How many Moroccan men have harassed a woman at one point in their lives? If nearly every woman who has set foot on Moroccan soil experiences it, just how many men are really out there doing it?
Dealing With Invalidation
I’ve talked at length with women about sexual harassment (both Moroccan and foreign women living here, many of whom are married to Moroccan men, as well as some men, both foreign and local) and with the women ironically, it can turn into a very heated and contentious debate. There are always some who react defensively and invalidate the reality of it. Obviously racism, sexism and misogyny exist worldwide, but to diminish what is happening in Morocco truly does a disservice to women here. It’s never okay to trivialize, invalidate, or diminish someone’s experience yet it happens again and again here…by women! It’s also delusional because 9 out of 10 women in Morocco experience sexual harassment and that is a fact.
I’ve come across a small but very vocal sect of women in Morocco who believe feminist ideals are nothing more than a modern form of western colonialism. That we white, “first-worlders” are imposing our enthnocentric values onto them and that western feminism has no place here. It becomes the all too common battle of Islam vs. the West. The “us” who are free v. “them” who are oppressed. To me, that is not it at all and I think reducing it to those terms really misses the marrow. We are all women in the world and the fact is women in the world suffer inequalities in nearly every country on the planet based on socio-economics, gender, lack of equal access to education and opportunities, and diminished representation in positions of power whether governmental, political or financial. Whether a woman self-identifies as a feminist or not, I believe most women would agree that life in Morocco would be better for them if harassment didn’t exist and if there were laws to protect them against it. Most women would prefer to move freely in the public space without such rampant disrespect. That being said, I must also point out that there are some women who seem to enjoy the harassment and respond positively to it. By far they are the minority, but they do exist.
I think it’s important to understand that the MENA is not without its own prominent, feminist movement with many Muslim women advocating for a gender revolution throughout the region. This includes the incredibly bright, courageous, and prolific Arab feminists (see Fatimma Mernissi (RIP), Mona Elthaway and Huda Sha’arawi) as well as the indigenous Amazigh who are steadfast in their fight to preserve their matriarchal traditions. These are fascinating women who have either pioneered the movement or are still very active today in Morocco and beyond. I encourage you to look into their work and movements because MENA and Arab feminism is an entire subject of its own.
Some women have internalized sexism in Morocco, which to me is more disturbing than the street harassment. I’ve personally been called a racist and a colonizer by other women for A) criticizing men’s behavior and B) suggesting that “just ignoring it” ultimately doesn’t change it for the greater good of all women. As a foreign woman, it was made pretty clear to me by a select few that I have no place trying to change things in Morocco. I was told it is impossible and it is not my place. But sexual harassment in Morocco is a women’s issue and I am a woman living in Morocco. It affects me personally. It affects my experience, it affects my family, and ultimately it affects every woman I know here. I live in the world just as you do and I can and will speak out against issues concerning my gender no matter where I happen to reside. To change the culture of street harassment requires a movement brought by us women (local and foreign), by the men who stand against it, and by Morocco’s political and religious leaders. It starts first with respecting, validating and supporting one another!
How To Respond In A Way That Works For YOU
When I first arrived and was shocked by the glut of harassment I was experiencing, I turned to women living here and asked them what to do. Nine times out of ten, I was told to just ignore it. This is obviously the path of least resistance. You give the harasser zero response and go about your business. This may work for many women (the locals are the largest advocates for this) but, personally, I’m not a big fan of the path of least resistance especially when it comes to sexism and misogyny. When men behave badly toward me, I tend to respond. I never want Moroccan men to think I welcome, enjoy or tolerate this behavior. I also believe firmly that ignoring it may work individually in the moment, but it does nothing permanently for the larger collective. It doesn’t challenge the status quo; it doesn’t reject the harassment; and it certainly doesn’t change the culture. Those are my $0.02 on the issue, but every woman must decide for herself what response (if any) works best for her. Here are some options.
Ignore it. Put on your best RBF (resting bitch face), walk with purpose and confidence, and ignore any and all unwanted male attention. This is the easiest option without question and often the most effective in diffusing the behavior. It’s pretty hard to engage with someone who isn’t engaging back. The men harassing you do not even exist. Move on dot com.
Dress conservatively. If you want less attention, show less skin. Women in full niqab still get harassed so I’m not sure this is fully the solution, but there is no harm in dressing modestly and I do believe it works in your favor. Certainly women who dress in more revealing clothing get more attention. If you are part of the “I’ll Wear What The Hell I Want Club”, I’m afraid this is not your option and you are indeed going to attract more attention.
Hollaback. Hollaback to your aggressors to let them know you do not accept, enjoy or tolerate their harassment. Shout at them in your native language, learn a few phrases in Darija (see below), scream angrily or find a tactic that works for you. Connect with others for support and advice. There is a grassroots movement working to combat street harassment globally based on the concept that our bodies are not public space just because they exist in the public space. Check out Hollaback.org for more information. I hollaback! Do you?
Shame them. “Hshuma“ is the Moroccan concept of shame. It carries great weight in Moroccan culture because shame is considered repugnant. Moroccans do look externally for validation so how Moroccans behave in public is of paramount importance. The expression is used in various contexts and situations toward behaviors that are deemed socially wrong and culturally unacceptable. Generally speaking, any behavior that falls outside the social norm is referred to as hshuma including speaking ill of others, swearing, disrespecting elders, anything haram (forbidden) in Islam, etc. The concept of hshuma is best explained as the conscious feeling of guiltiness resulting from doing something perceived as wrong. When in doubt, use hshuma! It works!
Threaten to go to the police. While the police are largely ineffective and won’t likely help you at all with street harassers, Moroccans still fear them. Threaten to report your aggressor to the police and take a photograph of their face or license plate number with your smart phone or camera. This will typically send them packing. I’ve used this method numerous times. So far, 100% efficacy! Please beware that some men respond quite negatively when you defy, deny or challenge them. Only threaten them if you are in a public place during the day and there are other people around you. Do not attempt this alone at night where your aggressor may turn violent toward you. Moroccans are generally not violent people and I never fear anyone here, but you do need to be careful. Situations can escalate and turn ugly real quick. I know women who have experienced physical violence and I myself have been in situations that have scared me a little. Put your safety first.
Learn some phrases. If you want your aggressor to know that you aren’t down for harassment, arm yourself with some phrases in Darija. I highly recommend this if you are going to be in Morocco for an extended period of time, want to maintain some semblance of your dignity, and want to shame/shock them using their native language. Here are some phrases to start you off:
Hshuma alik or 7achouma 3lik: Shame on you. *If you remember nothing else, remember this one! Shame is big in Morocco and this phrase can stop an aggressor in his tracks.
Sir f halek: Go away!
Sir t khra: [literally: go to shit] or fuck off!
Sir t9awed: Fuck off! [most offensive]
B3d menni: Get away from me!
3tini tissa3: Give me space!
Mat9aisnich: Don’t touch me!
Mat3awdS t-tb3ni: Don’t follow me anymore!
Radi nbllR l-bulis: I’m going to call the police!
This Just In!
A prospective new law has just come forth in Morocco which stipulates that “any person who commits physical or verbal harassment of a sexual nature, in the public space, shall be sentenced from one to six months in jail, or will be subject to a fine ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 Dirhams ($100 to $1,000), or will be subject to both.” I don’t when or if this law will pass and go into effect, but this is a very smart move for the Kingdom, if nothing more than to send a very strong message that harassment will no longer be tolerated. First the law needs to pass, then it actually needs to be implemented and enforced. It could prove to be a logistical nightmare as harassment is so ubiquitous. Some commenters on social media have balked, “We’ll need to build more jails because half of Morocco would be arrested!” Regardless, I think this is a very important step in the right direction.
Quotes By Moroccan Women
Saadia F. (52), a housewife from Casablanca says: “It hurts Morocco. It hurts the citizens. It shouldn’t exist, but we somehow have to live with it. I always tell my daughters to be careful and to run away if someone is approaching them inappropriately. My two daughters are taking self-defense classes. I think a woman should know how to defend herself. Morocco is a beautiful country, but as you can see it’s a country that still needs a lot of improvement.”
Anonymous woman. “You know, I wasn’t always wearing the hijab. At first I was harassed every time I went out, sometimes it was awful and just too much to bear. Then I wore the hijab and thought now that I’m a bit covered and more modest in the way I dressed, harassment would stop or at least diminish, but it didn’t. Then, I felt all guilty about it and was wondering maybe it’s me, maybe I’m not well covered and maybe I’m still a source of “fitna” and I felt very bad about it. I decided to wear the full niqab, no more colors (very dark colors, mostly black), and no more clothes that shows the figure. I felt and still feel very good and at peace with my decision, but I would lie if I say that harassment stopped because it didn’t.I still get the harassing gazes and the harassing words about my eyes (though my face is covered). But at least, I feel that it’s not my fault.”
Leila A. (22), a translation student in Rabat says: “I see it and live it every day. It makes me crazy and it makes me want to punch them. Sometimes I try to not pay attention and it doesn’t really bother me. But sometimes when I am alone in some weird streets or when it gets dark outside, I get scared because the harassment might go a bit too far.”
Jihane B. (35), a secretary from Casablanca says: “I think it’s a shame that in the year 2015 some men still don’t know the difference between flirting and sexual harassment. I have been harassed a lot. It’s frightening! You can wear whatever, and they would still annoy you and stare at you. I wish there would be more policemen out there. Maybe this will keep those men at ease.”
Maryam N. (29) a mother says: “During my pregnancy, I thought men would understand that I am married and leave me alone, but I was always bothered by horrible comments that I do not want to recall at the moment. Sexual harassment is everywhere in Morocco and all women suffer from it, even young girls and also pregnant women. It’s a nightmare.”