Written by Heather Sherlock and Mackenzie Bartlett
On our second day in Morocco, Mackenzie and I took it upon ourselves to explore the neighbourhood where we live, l’Océan. We were cautious and tentative out on the streets, having heard horror stories about the kind of harassment women face in Morocco. In the few minutes it took to walk to the local grocery store, we were harassed upwards of ten times, consisting of “welcome to Morocco,” and constant attempts to guess where we’re from, including “hola,” buongiorno,” and “hello.” Naturally, experiencing street harassments leads to thoughts of more violent forms of sexism such as sexual assault. When we reached the grocery store, Mackenzie turned to me and asked, “What do you think the police would do if we called them about sexual assault or harassment? Would they help us?” Almost as soon as she finished her thought, we were catcalled from across the road. We looked up to see a couple of young police officers smiling and whistling. I guess that answered that.
Describing the street harassment we face in Morocco can be frustrating, because at first glance “welcome to Morocco” doesn’t seem that bad; it can even seem friendly. However, as most women know and all women have experienced, it’s much more complex than that. When an unknown man speaks to you on the street, it carries an implicit threat of violence and asserts his social dominance in the space. A man saying “welcome to Morocco” isn’t a friendly gesture to be appreciated; it feels like a man letting you know that he’s in control of the situation, and there’s nothing you can do about it but keep walking. Multiply that by five every time you leave your apartment, and you can see how hearing “hello” from an unknown man goes from annoying to frightening very quickly.
Hollaback! is a NGO working to end street harassment, and we find their definition helpful in explaining exactly what the problem is:
[Street harassment is] unwelcome words and actions by unknown persons in public places which are motivated by gender and invade a person’s physical and emotional space in a disrespectful, creepy, startling, scary, or insulting way.
When I (Heather) first visited Morocco last year, we, as women, were given one rule concerning harassment. If a man talks to you or harasses you verbally, you ignore him as best you can and keep walking. If a man touches you, he’s crossed an arbitrary social line, and you are allowed to react, shouting hashooma, or shame. The supposed reasoning behind this is that Moroccan society will tolerate verbal harassment against women, but will defend a woman who is being physically assaulted. However, in my experience, having been groped twice in busy public streets, the Moroccan public was not on my side. When I ran after and told off the first man who grabbed me, he successfully denied my accusations and made it seem like I was the one being inappropriate yelling in the streets. No one stepped up to help me.
All of this is not to say street harassment is a Moroccan problem; we have both experienced our fair share of harassment in Canada. At home, much like Morocco, it can look like a guy grinding up against you in the club or calling you “Sweet Tits” in the street. The big difference for us is the feeling that, more often than not, if a woman is groped by a man at noon on Bank Street, she’s not going to be alone if she tells him to fuck off. Coupled with the fact that street harassment simply happens so much more here, it’s been a lot harder to handle than at home. To be clear, plenty of Canadians will act as silent bystanders when a woman is harassed. However, in our experience, sexual harassment of all forms is more tolerated in the streets of Marrakech than in Ottawa.
It’s worth highlighting that our experience as foreigners in Morocco is one specific type of discrimination. Some Moroccan laws enforce sexist practices and discriminate against female citizens. For example, while extramarital sex is forbidden in Morocco for everyone, only the unmarried woman will face criminal charges while her male partner gets off scot-free. As foreigners, we’ve found that we are unofficially exempt from most of these laws, such as it being illegal for unmarried men and women to stay in the same hotel room. We want to emphasize that despite our experience with sexual harassment, we really didn’t experience a lot of the discrimination Moroccan women can face under their country’s laws.
Street harassment was not the defining part of our exchange by any means. Morocco is a beautiful, vibrant country with amazing landscapes, food, and very generous and welcoming people. We’ve met many enthusiastic, stereotype-shattering Moroccan women and men who defy the type of discrimination that we’ve talked about. Our time in Morocco has inspired us to challenge the street harassment we see, and experience, at home in Canada. If you’re at all thinking about visiting Morocco, you won’t regret it.
Originally posted on Khalid Rocks Rabat