Tuesday, June 10, 2014


My experience in Morocco has largely been affected by my gender. Both my happiest moments and biggest challenges have stemmed from navigating the boundaries surrounding it. It has given me the ability to be in places, conversations, and activities that Zach can't experience. It has given me new perspectives on friendship and sisterhood. It has allowed me to meet and learn from fellow strugglers bravely and creatively challenging the status quo here in their country. It is also what makes me take a deep breath before leaving the house, daily preparing for relentless harassment on the street. The threat of violence, verbal and physical, delineates when, where, and with whom I go out. If you ask me what I love about Morocco most, I'll be at a loss to tell you just one. There are too many things I cherish. However, I am often asked variations of the question, "what do you not like about Morocco," and I know this answer. It is hard to be a woman here, and harassment is the daily reminder of that reality. 

First things first; don't paint any broad strokes with this paint brush. I want to be very clear that this should not bolster the stock stereotypes, half-truths and dichotomous discourse that makes the East the great Other of the West, expressly the Arab or Muslim part. Do men here harass because they are Arab? Do they harass because they are Muslim? With the insidious information given, I wouldn't fault you for at least thinking for a moment that the answer could be yes. However, I have been harassed in America, in small towns and big cities, along with many others that are groped, insulted, catcalled, coerced, or assaulted daily. A moment of reflexivity shows us the absurdity of the conclusion; they harassed me because they are Christian (insert religion), or they harassed me because they are white (insert ethnicity).  Here is a broad brush that we can paint with: In every country, every language, and every culture in the world, women and minorities experience unparalleled levels of harassment, which is not normal, or cool, or acceptable, anywhere.

That said, Morocco has got it bad.
"Sexual Harassment is any unwelcomed or unwanted sexual behavior or pressure which embarrasses, humiliates, or intimidates an individual. Sexual harrasment can be physical, verbal, and even non verbal and visual (such as staring or gestures that are suggestive or sexual)."   
I have lived here for 1.5 years now in a semi-urban environment with my husband. I am harassed every. day. that I leave my house alone. This ranges from icky stares, to hisses, to icky pass-by "compliments", to proposals, to yells across the street, to being followed, and on a few occasions being brushed or groped, and I feel lucky compared to many of my colleagues who have faced more serious assaults or don't have a husband or male site-mate to rely on. Some say it is because I am a foreigner, but this happens to nationals as well, and is much less temporary. I've had conversations with 12 year old girls that have already began taking strategic, longer, routes to school to avoid it. I've talked to grandmothers that are still experiencing it. In a participatory analysis activity, women identified sexual violence for them and their children as their number 1 fear. It is pervasive and relentless, and while I can only write this post from my own experience, it isn't just me who thinks so..

Here are some posts from both perspectives: 

Below is a video of Moroccan women sharing their stories.

Sexual harassment is a problem because with it women are perpetually de-humanized. This objectification is the first allowance towards violence. If you see me as an equally valid and capable human being with hopes, fears, needs, and dreams, would you reduce me to a sound for calling animals? Could you assault me if you saw my humanity? It is a problem because this dehumanization has larger social, economic, and political implications. Fear restricts the activities of women and ability to contribute to an educated society, a healthy labor force or impact policy changes. Studies routinely confirm that that many victims experience feelings ranging from irritation and nervousness to anger, powerlessness and humiliation. They have also shown that victims can eventually become ill when subjected to sexual harassment on a regular basis triggering a wide range of ailments, including stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure and depression. I can't imagine us wanting 1/2 of our society in that boat.

If it is such a problem, why does it happen? First, lets talk about the reasons it doesn't happen. Although many have tried to tell me differently, it does not happen because men are men + insert nonsense about biology and animals and can't help themselves. If this were true, there wouldn't exist the of majority of men that seem to be able to control themselves just fine, and even advocate for and support your victims. Meet prefrontal cortex. “It’s a problem, there’s no excuse for it, I’m embarrassed by it.” - Moroccan male. Along similar lines: "women enjoy the compliment. They dress up for us." If women "enjoyed" the compliment, we probably wouldn't call it harassment. If someone is dressing up because they want to get someones attention, they still get the choice of who and when. Lastly, "I just said one thing, so it is no big deal." This one is answered best by Hollaback! "If you want to tell someone they look nice, then consider the following: if people did this to you everyday, people who you didn’t know, people who sometimes whistled, clapped, BARKED, licked their lips, and interrupted you going about your business, then even if someone did it nicely, keeping in mind the advice above… it might not make you feel so great. That one truly-friendly or well-meant thing might seem like just another threatening, weird, creepy behaviour on the part of a stranger." Single actions by many add up. If everyone threw a piece of litter on the ground, we'd have a landfill. You're right that you can't be responsible for the actions of the guy a block down, but you can be responsible for your own. To the harasser, it is one comment. To the harassed, it is a thousand in one.

What I think the actual reason is: Sexual harassment is a reflection of male privilege. It is a manifestation of the structures and patterns of patriarchy. Sexual harassment is reflective of a broader rape culture that tells men consent is not necessary and that violence is the victims fault. It says men are inherently violent and women aren't fully human. It is then condoned and self-sustained through societal norms like the system of inequality it stems from. Sexual harassment isn't about sex at all. 
"Like we said before, street harassment isn’t about sex. It’s about power.  If street harassment was about getting dates it would be what author Marty Langlan calls a “spectacularly unsuccessful strategy.”  Instead, street harassment is about “putting people in their place.”  Sometimes it’s sexual, sometimes it’s racial, sometimes it’s homophobic, and sometimes it’s all of the above." 
From my gender guru Tiffany, "Harassment–in the workplace, on the street–is a way of telling women “you don’t belong here.” My impression is that the world is full of people (male and female) who want to keep women in their place and that place is in the house. The public space should belong to men...Thanks to [America's] (hard won) cultural shifts it is now far less acceptable to make women feel unwelcome in public spaces...Morocco has not made those same shifts and women suffer for it." 

This has become one of my go-to comebacks, learned from a Moroccan lady I heard speak out to her harasser as I walked past them on the street. "Is this street yours or is it ours?" she balked. To me, this question is profound, speaking simply to the heart of the issue. Is this community yours or ours? Is this country yours or ours? She doesn't know I heard her, that I use her line, or that she gave me the confidence to have my own protests, but I always hope another woman now hears me, that I can be a part of this, that this part of Morocco (and America) will change towards a more safe and equitable future, and that speaking out will get us there.     


Rebecca Waldron said...

Very well written, Julie. Thanks for being awesome.

Jenny Jump said...

Well written! As a fpcv this is something I have thought about often. Thank you for sharing.

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