Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tales of Morocco 666: "Traveling As A Woman in Morocco...The Good, The Bad, and the Rude"

January 29th, 2008
The craziness of Marrakesh, Djemaa El Fna

So it's about time I say a few words about women in Moroccan society. The short and the skinny of it is this: I have read that the past forty years have brought about incredible changes and opportunities for Moroccan women: voting rights, custody rights, inheritance, educational opportunities and so on. Many women now enjoy the opportunity to go to college and study abroad and don Western apparel.

That said, Morocco is still a man's world. Everywhere we've traveled, the male species dominates the landscape. It is men who are the taxi drivers, the business owners, men who pray in the mosques, men who are the cooks in the food stalls, the merchants in the carpet stores, the emloyees at hotels and internet cafes. It is men who are smoking cigarettes and drinking "Berber Whiskey" (otherwise known as some seriously caffeinated mint tea) in the streetside cafes. It is men hanging out in the restaurants and boys who play soccer in the alleyways.We have had very little opportunity to meet women here. I can count on my hands the few women we have seen who were involved in the economic sectors of working class society: a women making bread for us this morning on our street, a women at our hotel in Marrakesh, two women working at two internet places I've seen now, one female waitress. All of the cleaning staff at our hotels have been composed of women and we were told on no uncertain terms by one manager when we requested that our shower drain be fixed, that it was for the maid to solve, as it was "woman's work."

We did meet two young, Westernized Moroccan women on our train to Marrakesh who wore quite stylish clothes and were savvy travelers. They'd both spent many years living in Europe and had returned for work in Morocco. I asked them if they noticed any differences between being women here and in Europe. They said, they didn't notice any differences at all.

If you ask me, I think that's a load of s**t.
While upperclass Moroccan women may be enjoying the new opportunities that the 21st century are bringing them, I think that the newest liberties women have won in this country affect the working class last. Most women in the countryside and much of the cities, are limited to a narrow range of jobs and roles. I believe that, with time, all of these conditions for women will improve.

What It's Like To Be A Foreign Woman Here (under 50)

The last 24 hours have been challenging for both Mom and I. We had heard such a wide range of experiences among people who have traveled to Morocco about how women travellers are treated, everything from "Moroccan men are the most aggressive in the world" to "You won't have any problems at all; Moroccan men have changed in the past twenty years and they won't bother you at all."

As always, the truth lies a bit in between. We've met many incredibly helpful and respectful men over the past two weeks since we arrived...from random acts of kindness on the train to men at our hotels who have given us advice about where to find the best beans and chicken brochettes in all of Oarzazate.

That said, unfortunately, there are still several assholes around. It seems like last night we must have been wearing "asshole perfume" because we seem to have attracted every one of them in this square kilometer.

Granted, we're in the heart of the crazy swirl of the city: the medina where thousands of Moroccans and That said, Mom and I are dressed respectfully, head to toe, in long skirts, long-sleeved shirts and jackets, scarves, minimal make-up and jewelry. I could easily pass for a Berber if it weren't for my Western dress and water bottle. (Most women here wear headscarves, some have Western dress with jeans and stylish leather boots, and a rare few are completely covered in Burkas).

*(On an hourly basis, occasional remarks are made towards me of "you're so beautiful" or "where you from," are made to me which I've become quite good at ignoring. But every now and then, the attention becomes harassment and Mama Chihuahua and Hija de la Chihuahua are born!)

One completely tweaked guy came up to us and tried to push hash on us in a smarmy kind of way, another guy shortly thereafter started following me and saying lascivious things in Spanish (they think that they're awfully clever guessing that I must be Spanish) until I turned and told him off in Arabic. Mom backed me up when she caught up with me and still he mocked both of us. Screwing his face up and imitating us, but at least he left us alone.

A bit later in the night as we headed into a small local shopping mall, a Moroccan man got much too close to me and start whispering things in my ear. I completely snapped.

"Sir Fhalek!" I shouted angrily.

It was such an instinctual reaction to having my personal space invaded more and anger at being treated like I'm a prostitute. Mom caught up with me and stepped towards him saying tersely, "What do you think you are doing?! What do you think you are doing?!"

What was amazing (and continues to be so) is that, although it's apparent she is my mother, he didn't show her or me any respect by backing down or apologizing.

It only made him angrier and more aggressive. The three of us were standing toe to toe with each other in the middle of this mall. I was seething that he could be so thoughtless and rude and aggressive and clueless. I could also sense that one of us was about to step up the confrontation another notch and it was on the edge of becoming an actual physical brawl.

Mom took a step towards him to let him know that Mama Chihuahua isn't about to take any s**t from some asshole Moroccan dude, but instead, she misjudged the distance and stepped on his feet, inflaming him more. His energy became more hostile and he started towards her.

Mama still didn't back down and I remained there as well. I so wanted to just punch him in the guts. I was so pissed off and high with adrenaline and the empowerment of anger.

By some miracle, he backed off and slunk away into the bowls of the mall. We watched for him the rest of the night. My heart rate was racing and I was still upset when we got home, my mind racing with so many questions.

"How can a man treat a women like that?" Do they think that women like to be talked to like we're prostitutes? Would he ever treat a Moroccan women like that?

I woke up completely inflamed with the empowered adrenaline that only intolerant an extreme case of PMS can bring on. I sat in bed imagining the ways I could crack his face over my knee, jam my foot into his groin, or just humiliate him in front of a large crowd of his peers.

Mom later said that she could tell people were watching and that she noticed an older Moroccan man who looked as if he was preparing to intervene and possibly help us.

The thing is, I know that there are jerks everywhere. I know women get harrassed all around the world. We just happen to have stumbled on to a denser concentration of assholes last night on our walk through the medina.

Being here with Mom has made me reflect a lot on what it is to be a woman. The harassment I would get here would be a lot worse if I were alone. It's a little less when I am with her. When Steve arrives (which we look forward to on all levels, aside from his wonderful companionship!) we know that a lot of this harassment will lessen.

Still it makes me think of women around the world and how, if I have a son one day, I'm going to god***m teach him to respect his mother, sisters, and the women of the world.

So wherever you are, feel fortunate that you know good men who treat women well!
I know that we will continue to meet wonderful people here, both men and women. Morocco, like the world, I believe, is full of them.

I'm just grateful to be a woman who knows my own worth and I hope to, in whatever way I can, help other woman realize and fight for their own worth, too!

And for those of you who have read this far, yes, we are safe and yes, we will be fine! Please don't worry about us- Plus my knight in shining armor (or at least lots of fleece and a big backpack) will be arriving to relieve us soon.... :-)

Rachel and Karen