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.