Sexual Harassment in Morocco: Volunteers’ Experience

Morocco has a (justified) reputation as being rife with sexual harassment. As I mentioned in a previous post, this is an issue that impacts Moroccan women as well, but in this post I am focusing on PCVs’ experience and my very western/American analysis of the problem as it impacts PCVs. Disclaimer: this is based on my own observations/conversations and obviously does not speak for everyone.

What counts as Sexual Harassment?

An interesting question that would get different answers depending on who you ask. Very few female PCVs haven’t felt the ogling and haven’t learned to keep our pace quick and our eyes down when we pass boys or men (especially groups); or started to cringe when we hear a male voice saying Bonjour or ça va?

PC-Morocco staff seems to struggle with how to prepare us for it and give us coping strategies without victim blaming. One (male Moroccan) trainer was awesome: “It’s a problem, there’s no excuse for it, I’m embarrassed by it.”

Another staff member (female American) gave us a mini-lecture on how someone saying “bonjour” to us did not mean we were being harassed. It was just the way most Moroccans knew how to say hello to a foreigner.

True in theory…and I think her intent was to make us less freaked out on a daily basis. But I also think she could have balanced her message with the acknowledgement that we ladies have awfully accurate perceptions of how we are being looked at/spoken to. Bonjour and ça va might not mean anything lewd. But all too often it is a precursor.

Still, there’s no denying that a few French phrases pale in comparison to what some PCVs endure. Many experience harassment crossing a line into assault…from ogling and following to exposing to groping and rubbing.

Some experience this line-crossing but still file their experience under “harassment.” Technically, I think once it’s physical, it’s assault.  But I am not going to force a victim to accept one definition over another.

My issue is that when we call it all harassment, laughing about how gross it is and lumping everything into “the usual Morocco harassment,” some PCVs might feel like they have to do the same. They don’t. Volunteers from my stage have left because of harassment that has crossed the line into assault and their experiences need to be recognized as assault.

Why Do Men Harass Women?

Not because of what we are wearing. Not because Moroccan men are fundamentally worse than American men. In fact, this is hardly a “solved” problem in America.

Harassment–in the workplace, on the street–is a way of telling women “you don’t belong here.” My impression is that the world is full of people (male and female) who want to keep women in their place and that place is in the house. The public space should belong to men.

But while there are certainly people in the U.S. who feel that way, our cultural norms have shifted significantly, as Mad Men reminds the American viewing audience. Thanks to these (hard won) cultural shifts it is now far less acceptable to make women feel unwelcome in public spaces. Many still chafe at these new cultural norms but they are cultural norms (throughout large swaths of the United States) nonetheless. Morocco has not made those same shifts and women suffer for it.

How Does It Make Women Feel?

Assuming the harassment stays harassment–no physical contact–the result is that women feel de-humanized and/or unsafe.

But again, this is person by person. What one person can laugh off leaves another person in tears.

Harassment makes women feel a lot of things but the most common things I hear are words like “tired” and “exhausted” and “worn down.”

Perhaps as a testament to how much things have changed in the U.S. is the fact that so few people back home can understand the extent of what goes on here.

What Is My Experience?

My site is usually great. From some of the stories I hear, I may have one of the best sites! Many PCVs in Morocco, especially women, live in a very different reality.

Most of my problems are when I am around people who don’t know me. On souk days, when unknown men from neighboring villages fill the streets, I am ogled a bit–both foreigners and ladies being rare at souk. When I go into the big city (Marrakech especially) I get a lot of bon jours and sometimes even someone reaching out to touch/grab me.

Once when I was walking in Ouarzazate a man riding past me on a bicycle exposed himself. Impressive coordination skills! But apparently they did not extend to actually being able to masturbate while riding a bicycle so for that he circled around, rode a little bit past me and then parked on the sidewalk and began to do his business as I was forced to walk past him. This was a very busy street in Ouarzazate but in the heat of the summer afternoon most businesses were closed and the busy-ness was confined to cars driving past. No one saw what he did. It was interesting the way the man made me feel unsafe even though I was in a very public space.

Fortunately, most of the men I interact with on a daily basis are kind and helpful and I generally feel like my site is a safe haven. But even here there are moments:

A while back when I went out for a walk on my own, a teenage boy randomly started walking alongside me, asking if I have a boyfriend and why not? I am young and beautiful. Do I live alone? And do I come out walking a lot? Can I come out walking with him tomorrow? When he would not leave me alone I finally told him it would be “hshuma” for me to go walking with him. He then tried to convince me (after going on and on about boyfriends and how young and beautiful I am) that it wouldn’t be hshuma because we’re just a teacher and a student–100% business! The upshot is that now I feel just a little uncomfortable taking any more walks by myself,

Also recently, while walking back from teaching (which means I am out past dark and am the only woman on the street) a man I vaguely know walked past me with a friend and called out “I love you!”

That minor incident bothered me a lot. Why? This is a guy who has always been nice and friendly and gave me the impression that he saw me as a human being. Calling out “I love you” in the middle of the street, to someone you barely know (much less love), is not what you do to a person you view as a whole person. It was a reminder that no matter what, some people will see me only as a walking vagina. And I guess it hurt my feelings because this wasn’t some unknown douchebag in Marrakech or Ouarzazate, it was a friendly acquaintance here in N’Kob whom I apparently misjudged.

What Happens Next?

The cultural shifts that need to happen to make harassment less acceptable will be slow.

Supportive male PCVs try set an example for men in their community and both male and female PCVs have been hosting screenings of the sexual harassment video series. My host sister hopes to show it in my site in the coming months. Strategies for dealing with harassment are sometimes exchanged in our FB group but I fear there is still an attitude of “I need to ‘tough it out’ and deal with it myself” that prevents people from sharing. Hopefully PC staff will continue to improve their training but in the meantime, female PCVs continue to leave and I admit that the harassment sometimes makes it very hard for me to love this country.

Ultimately, one of my best coping mechanisms for me is to recognize that this is temporary. I get to leave Morocco any time I want. But I worry what it will be like when I get back to the U.S. Will I be extra-sensitive to the slightest look or comment? Or worse, will I dismiss others’ complaints about sexual harassment with a “at least it’s not as bad as Morocco?” That would be the worst.

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8 thoughts on “Sexual Harassment in Morocco: Volunteers’ Experience

  1. Actually reminds me quite a bit of the type of harassment that went on during my study abroad in Italy in the early nineties. We were in a small hill town and the program was mostly women and American women had the reputation of being easier than Italian women. Though the worst harassment experience I’ve had was in NY. That’s really tough being on your own. Thinking like a mom here, maybe you could find a walking buddy for night time walks.

    • I really wish I could find a buddy for nighttime walks but going out past dark is a huge no for women in my community. I only did it because if I didn’t, I couldn’t work at the Dar Taliba. But I’ve got a break for a few months since school is out for summer. And I promise, I never felt physically unsafe, just overly conspicuous.

  2. Hi Tiffany, I randomly stumbled on your blog online, and I want to say hi, because I think it’s weird to read a stranger’s blog without introducing yourself. This post is really insightful! I’ve never been to Morocco but hope to go some day. It’s great that you’re doing the Peace Corps. Our neighbor’s nephew just got back from PC Tanzania and it’s so amazing to hear all his stories. It’s something I hope to do one day too but when I retire, because I want kids more than I want the PC. I’ve had lots of opportunities to work abroad/study abroad, so I’ve had plenty of adventure and I can wait for the PC:) I’m Liz, mid-thirties, live in the DC area. Hope you’re having a great day on site (or in Rabat, Ouarzazate-wherever you happen to be!)

    • Thanks for saying hi. Going into PC later in life has pros and cons, but the biggest pro is that 2 years doesn’t seem like the rest of your life. So when frustrating things happen you have perhaps a bit more patience.

  3. Hi Tiffany,

    I read your blog yesterday and wrote a really long response commisurating over the harassment and safety issue. Then it disappeared. So I’ll try again. The behavior actually reminds me of what I used to experience when I lived in Atlanta about 15 years ago and occasionally in Seattle since then (though not nearly as often). After 12 years in Atlanta, I felt completely unsafe and only reading your blog did I realize one of the reasons I wanted to move was this feeling of unsafety. Also I am keenly aware that while not all African American men engage in this behavior, the behavior was almost exclusively committed by men of that socio-cultural group in both cities, and it gravely affected how I interacted publicly with them for years. I feel like just only recently am I better about not being offended or feeling harassed, but honestly the fear is still there and still real.

    I also was always so put off bybthe reaction of some women who felt I should just get used to it because that’s just how (some) men behave.

    This post really has given me lots to think about.

    • Wow–I didn’t know that about your time in Atlanta. I’m sorry you had to deal with that. (Selfishly glad you made the move to Seattle so I got to know you!) I also have struggled with “not all [Moroccan] men are like that” and one things I did last time I was in Marrakech was count the number of men who passed me on the street before someone said anything. It was a reminder that even in Marrakech, which has some of the worst harassment, the vast majority of men just walk on by.

  4. Pingback: Sexual Harassment in Morocco: Volunteers’ Experience | Walk A Mile in My Babouches

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