Reflection in the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Clarke.

I’m writing from a cafe in Fez, one chosen for the sole woman sitting in the window, in hopes of avoiding the hostile, lecherous gazes I’ve come to expect from the all-male clientele of a great majority of cafes in Moroccan cities.

To celebrate a year of living in Togo, I’m taking a vacation in Spain and Morocco, with the dual purpose of a respite from West Africa and the first rendezvous with my girlfriend since leaving home last June. Morocco seemed like a logical choice — I’ve wanted to travel here since studying Arabic in Egypt nine years ago, and flying into Spain was a reasonably priced option for us both.

Morocco is more beautiful than I had imagined. The tile work and geometric flairs accenting even the most pedestrian details are the antithesis of the drab state of disrepair universal to poverty-stricken Togo. A vacation here offers up a diverse range of options: mountain hikes, desert treks, coastal reposes, forays into the souks and riads of ancient medinas.

When Two Women Walk Together

Yet at times I’ve questioned our decision to meet up here. This is the only two weeks we will spend together during my two-year stint abroad. And, frankly, Morocco isn’t the most relaxing place for two women, queer or not. Vendors here are infamous for aggressive hawking, and without a male in our party, ignoring advances to enter a shop or restaurant can quickly turn into receiving a torrent of misogynistic verbal abuse.

Not to mention traveling as a couple. Despite having booked a double bed at one hotel, the concierge, upon seeing us, assigned us a room with two twin beds. We were able to successfully switch back to the original room, but the decision to ask was reached only after having to confront a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and anger. I knew we wouldn’t be holding hands in public when we booked a trip to Morocco, but the constant paranoia is getting under my skin more than I thought it might.

A Romanian man we met in transit said, “If it is any comfort, Moroccan women get the same treatment.” The thing is, this isn’t any comfort at all. It makes me mad, very mad. In fact, I feel assured that indignation is the appropriate response, and the thought that I could find relief in the fact that my degradation is gender-based rather than racially motivated is not just cold comfort, it distresses me almost as much as the harassment itself.

One thing I gain from travel is solidarity with other women.  As I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realize that a culture of devaluing women, while generally less overt in the West, is just as pervasive in my home American culture as elsewhere. The fact that the color of my white skin makes me stand out and garner more unwanted male attention in Togo hasn’t desensitized me to harassment or made it easier to experience it in other places.

A Lesson in the Journey

And yet, I’m glad that I made this journey. Traveling reminds me to be grateful for the privileges I have and makes me more sensitive to the bonds I share with women worldwide. If I hadn’t come to Morocco, I never would have tasted the tang of an authentic tagine, felt the release of a traditional hammam, or seen the breathtaking splendor of the world’s third largest mosque, set with a backdrop of the sea.  Another reason I travel is the beauty of a place and its history for its own sake, and I’m not going to be deterred from that.

The Hammam by Ernst Rudolf. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The Hammam by Ernst Rudolf. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Also, had I not come to Morocco, I would never have been moved to tears at the World Sacred Music Festival by the deeply spiritual Bolivian matriarch Luzmila Carpio as she sang of protecting our environment, our mother the Earth, and the importance of cherishing our elders. I wouldn’t have seen the art of  Hiba or Ghita Khamlichi, vibrant teenage Moroccan artists of international distinction who provoke thought and controversy with their bold strokes and visions of peace across diversity. I wouldn’t have tasted the homemade spiced chicken offered by a group of friendly Moroccan women on the train from Marrakesh to Casablanca, or extended my gratitude across the language barrier by sharing my grapes.

Besides the sensory treats and moments of kindness and inspiration passing between strangers, at the end of a day here I feel pride in having undertaken something challenging and for navigating something new with my partner. You might have found a good traveling companion if you still enjoy her company after weathering the vicissitudes of traveler’s stomach, hours of medina mazes, repeated harassment, and getting robbed on her birthday and subsequently spending your first evening together in a foreign country’s urgent care unit, replacing vital medication.

Certainly this trip has brought challenges we didn’t anticipate, but the process of facing them, and ourselves, is part of what travel is all about. When this trip is over, I’ll be ready to return to Togo with a fresh perspective and recommitted to working alongside my Togolese counterparts to advance gender equity. The more of the world I see, the more urgent this work seems to me.