Understanding street harassment in Morocco

Probably the most common question I hear from people considering going to Morocco, or who know that I’ve lived there, is “isn’t the street harassment supposed to be terrible there?”

Whether earned or not, Morocco has a reputation for being one of the most unsafe countries for women traveling alone. Stories of being followed, inappropriately touched, and bombarded with lewd comments circulate all over travel sites and many travelers are nervous to add Morocco to their itinerary for fear of suffering the same harassment.

Figuring out whether Morocco and Middle East countries are really unsafe for women is a top priority of many travelers, myself included.

But is street harassment in Morocco really that bad?

The answer is a bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. The harassment will be frequent, constant even. Facing and your stress will be a huge part of your visit. But it will also be of a different nature than some of the harassment you’ve encountered before.

Before we start talking about how much street harassment really occurs, we should remember that comparing street harassment in Morocco directly to that in our home countries isn’t really all that helpful, because the cultural context and therefore the significance of the harassment are different, and the harassment itself often takes a different form.

Understanding street harassment in Morocco is an essential first step in dealing with and reducing it.

So instead of talking about it as better or worse than street harassment in the United States, let’s talk about Moroccan street harassment as its own part of life abroad.

One of the first things I did when I got to Morocco was attend a session hosted by a scholar named Farah (who gives generally incredible advice about living abroad) where she explained a bit about the types of street harassment we were likely to encounter and the reasons it might happen.

It was eye opening, because her session asked me to understand harassment through the lens of actual Moroccan culture.

It allowed me to recontextualize it and begin to navigate what at first seemed scary and foreign and to understand the sorts of harassment I was likely to encounter.

It was a great lesson because, while it was completely honest about the high level of harassment I was going to be facing, it laid a foundation for me to begin to understand when to be afraid and when to simply brush it off.

A quick note I’d like to add here--trying to understand why you are being frequently harassed and whether or not you’re in danger doesn’t necessarily mean that what you are experiencing is okay. It isn’t. But the purpose of trying to understand is to reduce some of your stress levels, not to necessarily lend your acceptance to the practice itself.

The first thing I learned is that there are three main reasons that harassment happens.

1. Ownership of Public Space

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The first is about space. Traditionally, public spaces like streets and cafes were the domain of men. Women were permitted to move through them as guests while accompanied by men, but were not welcome to take up space on the streets or to sit in coffee shops where men were enjoying themselves.

Women were instead the masters of private space, the home.

That has since changed as the country began to liberalize in the 1950s. Women are no longer required to wear headscarves or to cover themselves completely, and no longer need a man to escort them through public spaces. However, the tradition of male sovereignty in the streets remains.

Although women are generally safe and welcome on the streets, they are seen as less entitled to space.

This means that, similarly to harassment in the united states, men might sexualize or mistreat women as a way of claiming dominance over the space. This sort of dominance-based street harassment will take different forms, both expected and unexpected:

  • No one will stop you from sitting in a café full of men, but they may stare or leer at you. There are some cafes that are more female friendly than others.
  • If you find yourself walking on a collision course with a man, expect that he won’t move for you, even a little. He’ll most likely run into and look shocked that you didn’t move for him completely.
  • Men might follow you or pass too closely within your personal space bubble as a way of announcing their presence

This form of harassment is often subtle, but it can be maddening for many longterm visitors. The best way to deal with it is to remind yourself that it is a temporary part of your life and form close bonds with other women who can support you in asserting your right to space.

2. The Hunt.

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The other reason street harassment happens is about sexual expression.

There’s a term that used to be popular among boys on the streets in Morocco to refer to an attractive woman: ghazella, or literally, gazelle. The roots of this term are pretty clear: you, the woman, are the gazelle, the prey. And they, the men, are the hunters.

It’s a bit crude, but it reveals an important piece of sexuality in Morocco.

Morocco is a country where it still isn’t totally permissible for unmarried men and women to spend time together. Young people can’t flirt openly, young couples don’t hold hands or go to dances together. People have to police their own behavior in public spaces.

So when it comes to finding the person you’re going to marry, there aren’t a lot of options for getting a woman’s attention.

So what do young men do?

They “hunt” women publicly in the streets. Many women will act coy about these advances, being unable to publicly welcome them. It becomes a game where boys profess their love publicly, in the street, where no one can accuse either of them of illicit trysts and women neither welcome nor deride them. And then they get married.

In other words, the hunt is about expressing attraction in socially permissible ways.

It’s similar to how American grade school boys express their crush on a girl by acting mean toward her. That is to say, definitely not completely acceptable, but coming from a place of legitimate attraction.

This type of street harassment is about expressing interest, and not establishing dominance, and can take less threatening forms:

  • A man commenting on your appearance without using sexually explicit language, ie “you’re very beautiful!”
  • Attention-grabbing antics like singing, dancing, honking, etc.
  • Asking you to go for tea or help them practice their English

These exchanges may still be annoying and jarring, but it’s important to be able to recognize them as something that in this country isn’t necessarily meant as a threat.

Even if this differs from the way things are in your home country, it’s important to bear in mind the context of Moroccan street harassment and understand that in a new place, with different rights and rules about how public spaces work, your radar for danger can change as well.

 

3. Manning Up

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The third and final reason that street harassment is so prevalent in Morocco is about masculinity. Men simply feel like they have to.

This type of harassment is not sexual in nature, but an extension of the idea that men should own public spaces. The fact of the matter is that many young boys feel that if they don’t harass women in the street, they can’t be accepted by their male peers.

Many young men harass women for the sake of being seen doing it.

It will happen to girls in headscarves. It will happen to women in burqas. It will happen to young women, it will happen to your grandmother. It will happen to every single woman, regardless of how modest or sexually available she seems.

Note: this is actually one of the biggest things people misunderstand about visiting Morocco. 

This harassment will come mostly from young men who loiter on street corners throughout the cities, and looks like:

  • Lewd comments
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Insults
  • Taking photos of you without permission

The best thing to do about this type of harassment is to ignore it and remember that these boys are performing. The street harassment is about their friends and gaining social acceptance as a male, not about you.

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So street harassment in Morocco is bad if you’re comparing it to how often you get harassed at home. But you’re not necessarily any less safe.

This harassment is largely about performance and space, and you’re still unlikely to be legitimately threatened in public.

This doesn’t mean it won’t add stress to your life though.

If you consider yourself a feminist, it can be hard to come to terms with this part of your new life.

Many people in Morocco, even fellow women, will not understand your distress or will tell you to just get over it if you seek out support, and this can lead to feeling isolated and lost in addition to feeling threatened on the streets.

So what can you do to?

First, try to abandon your knee-jerk reaction to things that are problematic in your home country. Feminism operates differently everywhere, and it isn’t your place to judge or change parts of a culture that is hosting you as a guest.

Instead, make an effort to understand the nuances of street life in your new home without projecting your own cultural lens onto what you see.

Also remember to practice self care, though. Start maintaining your own mental health early on in your adventure and find spaces where you can unwind and feel safe.

So if you’re going to Morocco, mentally prepare yourself to experience harassment. But don’t let it deter you from visiting. Morocco is a beautiful country, and a very safe place for tourists, even single women, to experience.

 

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