Street harassment. It’s just one of the realities of living in a North African country, so I hear. And from my experience, it is definitely real. What constitutes street harassment, though? Americans have a very strict view of what harassment is, sexual or otherwise, but in Morocco that definition is stretched a little bit. For instance, it is not uncommon for a woman of any type to not be able to walk 5 feet down a road in any city in Morocco without hearing men all around her constantly saying “hello” or “how are you?” in at least 4 different languages. This may not seem like harassment on paper, but when you’re constantly bombarded with men attempting to get your attention in passing, you begin to understand.
That being said, the harassment I have witnessed and have heard about while in Morocco has never been a serious problem for anyone that I know. Yes, it is annoying, and yes, sometimes you feel diminished simply by being a woman wanting to walk down the street. However, there are several rules regarding street harassment. The number one rule is that a man is never supposed to touch a woman in the street as part of the harassment. If that happens, a woman has every right to scream “hshouma!” (shame on you!), making sure everyone in the street knows that this man has done something wrong. Then the man usually slinks away as quickly as possible so as to avoid anyone coming to the woman’s aid. However, it is not uncommon for a man to follow you for several (hundred) feet down the road, saying anything at all to try to get your attention and break your focus on the path ahead. The number one rule for women being harassed is that you almost never acknowledge a man’s existence when he is harassing you. This can be quite difficult at first because, at least for me, I usually respond when someone is talking to me. I have missed many American friends, male and female, in the street simply because I have become so accustomed to ignoring what people say to me. You must remain completely focused and try to tune out whatever the man is trying to say to get your attention. Plus, you must not let what he says get to you because if you turn to acknowledge him, he feels that he has accomplished his mission in getting you to stop and pay at least some attention to him. Getting your attention is half the battle.
As Moroccan society relaxed regarding male-female relations in recent years, the street has become one of the most important place for young people to meet each other. A decade or so ago, it was not uncommon for women to meet their future husbands while walking down a regularly taken path and being harassed constantly along the way by one particular guy. The test for the guy was not necessarily what he said to get her attention, but whether or not she thought he was good-looking or not. That could turn harassment into a conversation, and a conversation into a relationship. This still happens today, which is why so many men continue to harass women in the streets, but for some women, like me, who want to walk to class or simply shop, it can be quite a hassle.
Even in something as serious and annoying as street harassment, amusement can be found. How, you might ask? By listening to what the men say to you, an obviously non-Moroccan woman, either walking alone or with a group of just as obviously non-Moroccan women. Most of the time they assume that you are French, but sometimes they try a whole slew of languages just to be sure you understood what they were trying to do. As a consequence, my friends and I have compiled a list of the very interesting things we have heard while walking down the street. The two classics are “oh my god!” and “welcome to Morocco!”, you can hear those every time you step out your door. The rarer are also, consequently, some of the funniest things I have ever heard:
- “Hey Spice Girls!” is almost always heard when you walk amongst your friends in groups of four. I have gotten this comment twice now, and each time both groups (the guy who said it and my friends and I) laughed.
- “Nice shoes!” I was walking down the Souk street one day, and I was almost home, when out of nowhere I heard a distinctly male voice tell me in English, “nice shoes!” in a very happy-go-lucky tone. I never thought I would hear that coming from a Moroccan man about my bright green Keen sandals, but it seems that a lot of men share his opinion because I have heard it almost every time I wear them. Another related one that my friend heard one day was “Oh my god, tell me where you got those shoes!” This wasn’t even talk among friends, but a direct attempt to pique the interest of my friend walking down the street.
- “You’re having a nice day, no?” I had been having a bad first day in Marrakech, when a man asked me this just as I was entering the Souk. I felt compelled to reply because he seemed so sincere, and said “Non, C’est une mauvaise journee” under my breath. Unfortunately, he caught wind of my answer and attempted to reply as he was walking further and further away, saying “Oh, let me help you!” and “Morocco is beautiful!”
- “I am so sorry for yesterday, my friend” At first, I thought that this could not possibly have been directed at me, but when I stole a sideways glance to see who the man was talking to, he was clearly staring at me. Sometimes men learn the funniest things in order to get people’s attention.
So the lesson learned? Walk firm, walk straight, and don’t forget to laugh!