women morocco

Earlier this year I visited Morocco with another female friend. Before we embarked on this trip, we were each individually warned – multiple times – about the harassment we would experience. We were cautioned about the constant catcalls, staring, following and touching (particularly in Marrakech). In one instance, a young woman reported being spat on. I knew this before I entered Morocco, but what I did not expect was the response I would receive when later recounting our own experience to others.

As in the case of those women who had travelled before us, my friend and I could scarcely escape the constant harassment and sexual overtones that dominated our interactions with Moroccan men. In certain cities and towns it was more bearable – the more secluded and slightly less visited Chefchaouen, Ouzzane and Taghazout – but ‘bearable’ is hardly the ideal experience for a female traveller and even in these towns, not a day passed in which we did not experience some form of sexual harassment. To some degree being called blondie and Shakira was amusing, though it did get old and quickly revealed itself to be remarkably unoriginal. What was not amusing however, was the instance in which I parted from my friend to cross the road to a rubbish bin. Within a second I was approached by a man who grinned and indicated he would like some of my “white meat.” It was not only what was said but the manner in which it occurred that left me feeling humiliated and vulnerable. There was the distinct undertone that I was trash and did not have rights over my own body. Although I have singled out this instance, it was far from the only one. Again I was called “nice flesh”, and once was repeatedly denigrated by a group of young men as I sat on the beach (fully clothed) reading my book.

This problem is by no means distinct to Morocco. In Sydney, Australia I have been similarly harassed and in one case had my phone switched off for weeks after one date with a man who couldn’t understand that I was not interested in seeing him again. In all instances I have been made to feel the same, as if I am completely unsafe and powerless. In Sydney however, no excuses were made for that man, apart from that perhaps he was mentally ill. Yet after our visit to Morocco we were told that we should not have expected any different, after all, we were warned and “it’s part of their culture”. If we weren’t prepared to accept it, then we shouldn’t have gone there.

But is the ‘culture’ defence of sexism a valid excuse? In 1860 Florence Nightingale published a powerful essay, Cassandra. In Cassandra, Nightingale deplores the social inferiority of women in Britain, questioning “Why have women passion, intellect, moral activity – these 3 – and a place in society where no one of these 3 can be exercised?” In this Britain “a woman cannot live in the light of intellect. Society forbids it.” Instead women were restricted to fulfilling a domestic role, “conventional frivolities” with “so many hours spent every day in passively doing what conventional life tells us, when we would so gladly be at work.” If the culture defence is valid, should not Nightingale also have accepted her fate as the ‘weaker sex’? After all, society forbade anything more.

The idea that the culture defence is a valid excuse for sexism reeks of ignorance. The struggle for women’s equality has been a shared process throughout the world. Just as Nightingale once argued for greater gender equality in Britain, so too have women fought for equality in Morocco. In fact, in as early as the 1940s the first women’s association Akhawat Assafa (Sisters of Purity) was formed to improve the social standing and conditions of women. Various female Moroccan bloggers have also attempted to draw attention to their situation, including Nidal Chebbak and Nahla Benslama. Progressive perspectives in Moroccan society can already be seen in the adoption of a new Constitution in 2011 which prohibits gender discrimination. In Saudi Arabia too, often held up as the pinnacle of female subjugation, women are working behind-the-scenes to improve their social positions. The Women2Drive campaign, for instance, was developed by Saudi women and encouraged women to actively challenge the infamous law prohibiting them from driving vehicles. In Saudi Arabia too, the King is responding to the internal struggle for greater equality and in January 2013 decreed that the Shura Council, an advisory body to the King, should be 20% comprised of women, a previously unthinkable act. More recently, the gang rapes of a 23-year-old Indian woman and a 39-year-old Swiss national in India were met with public uproar and protests throughout the state calling for an improvement in women’s social standing. And one does not have to look far to see that in our own Western world, women continue to experience difficulty in the work force and public space.

In no society should a woman be made to feel unsafe walking the streets, be spat upon, harassed or touched without her consent. The world is becoming increasingly interconnected and it is no longer permissible for those of us living in the West to continue to excuse poor behaviour by labelling it as a cultural phenomenon, when it has been demonstrated time and again that this is not the case. Perhaps it is time to lend support to the struggle for gender equality, regardless of whether it is in our own states or others, rather than repeatedly turning to outdated and illegitimate defences that permit its continuation.

BY: Jennifer Legg