Me too, Morocco edition

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege lately.

Morocco has been surprisingly instructive in this subject already and I’ve been wrestling with how to write about it here.

I’ll start with this: I’ve never been somewhere where the role of women was so distinctly separate from the role of men.

When we first arrived in Tangier, it was pretty eerie to see almost exclusively men on the streets. Where were the women?

My strategy for figuring out how to be in an unfamiliar place or situation is generally to watch the other people around me and see what they are doing. (It’s a versatile tool – it works in a foreign country and it also works at a fancy dinner party when you don’t know which utensils to use.) And as a woman, I always try to look to other women for examples of acceptable behavior. So, the first day when Daniel and I were wandering in Tangier and I saw almost no women, it was a bit alarming.

Morocco is a Muslim country, which of course I knew before coming here, but I had also heard the culture described as a moderate Islam. And I knew that women here were not obligated to wear the hijab or other body coverings, so I thought maybe it was going to be more like Africa or Europe than like the Middle East in terms of women’s roles.

After 2.5 years living in Benin, I was pretty familiar with gender inequalities and had developed some pretty good coping strategies, so I figured I could handle a similar situation pretty easily. However, in Benin I also had a lot of privileges that came with my skin color and my status as a foreigner who was potentially connected to money. Beninese women endured a lot of hardships that I was exempt from as a foreigner.

Life was hard for women in Benin, but I think in a different way than it is here.

(Here is my post about gender in Benin if you are curious.)

In Morocco, I have seen very few women working outside of the home, though the men I’ve talked to have assured me that women do work. Even jobs that are typically dominated by women in other places – selling at the market, making and serving food and beverages, tailoring clothing – are still almost exclusively occupied by men here. Most times of the day, I would estimate that at least 80% of the people out in the town are men.

When I go out with Daniel or other male travelers, most people don’t talk to me. They talk to the men, often addressing them as “sir,” while completely ignoring my presence. When I go out alone, I feel half invisible and half unwelcome. Though I dress conservatively and even wear a scarf on my head a lot of the time, men do stare in a way that makes me feel like I am out of place, not supposed to be allowed in their world. Perhaps most noticeably, if we are walking towards each other on a shared sidewalk, the men here will almost never move over, even slightly, to facilitate a passage when I am alone. I have to either flatten myself against a wall or step out into the street to avoid running into them.

It’s very strange for me, coming from the US, where sexism still exists but it is far more subtle.

Honestly, it does make me nervous. I am vigilant when I’m out alone, sticking to well-populated routes and always on alert for unusual behavior. (You all know that this isn’t usually my nature – I am not a fearful person in general and am quite independent and comfortable doing things by myself.) When this comes up in conversation with male travelers, some think that I am being overly cautious. In their experience, people here are very friendly and open, and they have never had a situation where someone tried to harm them.

Perhaps so, but isn’t that what privilege is all about? Men don’t personally experience these issues and so they think that the issues do not exist.

When men say such things, I share this anecdote: I was out running one morning a couple weeks ago and I came across a Chinese woman. She called out to me as I ran past her and I doubled back. She told me that she had just come from the place I was going; she was watching the sunrise there when a man came up unexpectedly and assaulted her. She managed to fight him off and escape, but was understandably quite shaken up. My desire to run suddenly gone, I walked her back to her hostel and took the experience as a warning to be more careful and not to go to that location alone anymore. After that, Daniel gave me a large carabiner which can double as brass knuckles if needed. I still go running (it is the only alone time I have here, since I live in a hostel with up to 30 other people) but I go in the daylight when others are out and I carry this self-defense weapon. Yes, some men think I am overreacting, but the privilege of their gender is that they don’t have to fear incidents like that.

That said, this aspect of Morocco is confusing because so much of the country and its culture really is so friendly, warm, and beautiful.

Here, I have zoomed in on one part of these things, which in my opinion is not beautiful. But it is still only one part of being here. And even this issue, I have only described from one limited point of view.

You should know this, too: I see so many Moroccan men out and about with their daughters, carrying them gently, buying them sweets, acting as any loving father would. The man across the street spends a lot of time playing with his daughter, doting on her when she comes home from school and walking her there each morning. Sometimes I round a corner and see a young Moroccan couple stealing a few minutes together, holding hands, clearly in love. I see whole families out together on the weekends, everyone laughing and having fun just as American families do. In the evenings, Moroccan women gather on the streets, talking and sharing snacks, like women anywhere. And some men that I’ve encountered have been perfectly friendly, helpful and polite to me. We went hiking at Akchour, a popular nature spot, last weekend and encountered a large group of Moroccan people who ended the hike at the same time we did. The women had done the (fairly strenuous) hike in their hijabs and long dresses and they were having a blast jumping into the frigid water and swimming. They were uninhibited and quite fun to be around.

So I’ve been trying to hold all these seemingly disparate parts of the culture in my head, and it’s confusing. But ultimately, returning to the subject of privilege,

I still am acutely aware that I have a huge privilege to be here, and also to have the option to leave whenever I want.

So many people never have the opportunity to leave their home country, and most don’t have the opportunity to take a year and explore the world as I am doing. I know that my ability to do this is related to the privileges that I have in my life. I had a lot of advantages being born where I was, and those continue to influence my life now.

Last time, I told you about the small family restaurant that Daniel and I have been frequenting. There is a young girl named Laila who helps out there, the restaurant owner’s niece. The very first time I went there, I was out alone, feeling self-conscious and unsure about whether I was allowed to be there by myself. She walked into the alley, saw me and immediately stopped to chat, unlike anyone else who had passed by that evening. “Parlez vous francais?” she asked me. I was thrilled to be able to speak French with her. We chatted very briefly before she had to go, but her eyes sparkled with so much life that her image stuck with me. Each time we’ve returned to the restaurant, I’ve looked for her and tried to learn a little bit more about her.

When I think about gender in Morocco, I think of Laila. What is her life like? She is 14 now…what is in store for her as she grows older? I don’t know enough about Morocco yet to even guess at the answers to these questions. But I do know:

I can leave this place whenever I get tired of it, but for Laila and thousands like her, this is real life.


First impressions

We’ve been in Morocco for over two weeks now and so far, it has surprised me. Though it is on the same continent, Morocco seems wildly different from anywhere else in Africa I’ve been.  Daniel wrote on his blog about his first impression of Morocco as a kind of in-between place, a melting pot of different cultures (find the post here), and I feel similarly.

I have been trying to sort out a theme for this post, but am not finding one yet, so I’m just going to share an assortment of observations and pictures here for now.

Climate and geography:

Chefchauoen, the city where we are staying for now, is actually a bit reminiscent of Colorado. Mountainous and mostly dry. The temperature has been around 80-85 most of the time we’ve been here. It feels hotter than that when the sun is beating down, but there does seem to be a siesta-like culture here, where things kind of close down in the hottest part of the day and reopen in the late afternoon.

The cities are divided into the old and the new. The old part is called the Medina. This part is surrounded by a wall that kept out invaders in the old days (you can see the outer wall in the photo above). In modern times, the medinas are pretty commercial and geared towards tourists, but local people also live there and the architecture is a lot older.

The medinas are difficult to navigate. The many tunnels, staircases, and alleyways make it tough to keep your bearings. After almost two weeks here, I finally am getting the hang of how to get around in the medina. Until now, I felt like I was in a Harry Potter book when I entered the medina – I would go up the same staircase and think I was taking the same route as a previous visit and then I would end up somewhere different than I expected.


The main Moroccan dish is called tagine, which is kind of like a soup/sauce that is eaten with bread. [There is so much bread in the diet here.] The tagines are good and available in a variety of flavors. You can also get the sauce over couscous, which is excellent. A meal like this at a mid-range restaurant here is around $3 or $4.

The best food I’ve had so far is at the tiny “restaurant” in a residential neighborhood pictured below. The owner took my order, yelled it up to the window of an adjoining house, then an old woman poked her head out, and a while later some delicious food was carried out the door by a young girl. Daniel and I have been back a couple more times and have met the whole family and lots of the neighbors. I’m slowly making friends with the 14-year-old girl, Laila, who speaks some French.


You can get less expensive food from fast food places, like the sandwich shop which is down the street from our hostel which sells foot-long sandwiches for about $1. I’ve been disappointed to find out that Morocco doesn’t have much of a street food culture (at least the cities we’ve visited so far don’t). There are a few food stands, but mostly they seem to cater to kids getting out of school, and they sell snacks, not whole meals.


Morocco’s main beverage is a very sweet mint tea (above) which is delicious and sold for less than $1. Cafes where men sit and drink tea and coffee for hours on end are abundant. Moroccan women are never seen at these cafes, but foreign women seem to be accepted there.

There are also a ton of fresh-squeezed juices available here, which are amazing. At juice stands throughout the city, you order what you want and they will cut the fruit and squeeze it for you right then, directly into your glass. In stores, they usually have electric juicers, but the guys at the street stands have to use a manual fruit smasher. It takes a while to make a glass of juice, but it’s definitely worth the wait. The main juices available are orange and pomegranate, which are both excellent, but there are also avocado-based drinks and other fruit options available at the larger shops.

Because Morocco is a Muslim country, alcohol is not readily available here. In Tangier, the first city we were in (pretty large and also extremely close to Europe), there were several bars, but in Chefchauoen, there is only one. Entering the bar is an interesting experience; it looks like any restaurant from the outside except that they have a security guad at the door. Inside, it is packed with people, both foreigners and Moroccans, enjoying a beverage or two. They sell beer and wine to go as well, so we’ve brought beverages back to the hostel a few times and enjoyed them on the rooftop.

Enough ramblings from me for now! Thanks for following along!


The blue city

Rooftop balconies seem to be a theme here in Morocco, and I love it.

Tonight, as I write this, I am sitting on a rooftop at our new hostel in the mountain town of Chefchaouen, Morocco. This town is nestled right into the base of two small mountains and from where I sit, I can see layers of blue and white buildings climbing up the hillside and the silhouettes of the two mountains behind them. And the moon just floated up so a dome of light is peeking out from behind the mountain, which is gorgeous. Dotting the landscape of rooftops are the minarets that extend from each mosque in town, which are lit up against the dark backdrop of the mountains. Five times each day, the call to prayer echoes out from these minarets, a sound that I find beautiful, even if other people in the hostel are annoyed that one of those times is about 4:30am, which tends to disrupt sleep.

This city is known for its blue buildings, which are so beautiful that it’s hard not to take a million pictures while walking around.

Here are a select few:

Lots of stairways here

A blue mosque on the mountain

Beauty down every alleyway

The view from our lunch spot yesterday

Daniel and I both really like this city and we decided to stay here for a few weeks. Our hostel was in need of a couple of volunteers, so we signed up to work a few hours a day at their reception desk in exchange for free accommodations, which includes a place to sleep, free breakfast, and free laundry. So we are now spending significantly less money – only about $5 a day on food, which will make our funds last a lot longer.

I’m still absorbing this place and will write some more once I have a better handle on it, but for now, I will leave you with a recommendation to check out my brother’s post – a cute photo project about the cats that are all over this city. (And please know that it’s not easy to upload pictures here due to the slow internet, so the fact that he got 16 uploaded deserves a round of applause.) Here is the link:

Thanks for reading!