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9.22.2009

2/20/09 Sexual Harassment in Morocco (Rated R)

I'm not kidding about the rating. If you're a kid or teenager, stop reading. If you don't like Rated R movies, stop reading.

The only exceptions to the statement that I've never been insulted or assaulted are of a sexual nature. I've never been explicitly threatened or mugged, though some friends have been. But I have been sexually harassed. It's usually only in bigger cities, though SouqTown isn't immune, and it most frequently takes the mostly-innocuous form of a tossed-off comment from someone walking past me. The comments are often complimentary, along the lines of "Hey, beautiful," but they're still unwelcome. And sometimes it is worse.

Are you still reading? It will get worse. Feel free to stop.

At times, the comments are incredibly sexually explicit, referring to body parts or sexual acts with vocabulary in English that isn't found in any textbook, or even in the usual set of curse words. Vocabulary from the worst kinds of pornography...and strange men use it to tell me what they'd like to do to me. Sometimes they don't use words; they'll whistle or hiss or make kissing noises in my ear as I move past them as they loiter in cafes or streetcorners or shopfronts.

Sometimes it moves beyond comments. More than once, I've noticed men masturbating while staring at me. Sometimes this happens in public cybercafes (which are frequently used to download and watch pornography), and is one reason I spend 15% of my monthly income to have internet access at home. Other times, it has happened in public, outside, on the street. Once, when we were squished in a cab, a man masturbated while rubbing his leg against mine.

That was one of the rare times when harassment reaches the point of physical contact (or "sexual assault", as it would be called in America). This contact is usually "accidental" brushing against me. I'm sure that sometimes it really is an accident. But sometimes it's not.

When men taking advantage of a crowded souq alley or packed tranzit to rub their arm across my chest or rub their genitals against me...I tell myself it's accidental, because it's better than believing the alternative. But when they deviate from their course to cross my path and make sexual contact - grabbing, pinching, groping, rubbing, fondling, you name it, it has happened - I can't make myself believe it's an accident.

Once, a man walked over to where I was trudging down the street, carrying 30 or 40 kilos of bags, and reached out to grab my breast. In the middle of the street. In the middle of my SouqTown. In the middle of a sunny afternoon. Nothing furtive, nothing that he could pretend was an accident, just a fully outstretched arm and grabbing hand, below a middle-aged face bearing the insouciant grin of a naughty schoolboy.

I could write, "Every female PCV has similar stories to tell", but it sounds too much like hyperbole. I do know many others do, because we've shared our stories.

[Update: I first wrote this on 2/20, which is why it still bears that date. I'm revising it seven months later. Rereading it, I just realized something that has changed in the past half-year: we don't share our stories as much any more. The incidents still occur - indeed, worse things have happened than those I've written about here, but they didn't happen to me, so I won't share them. But we've stopped talking about it. Mostly this is because we've realized how little point there it. We all get harassed. We all hate it. Also, we're no longer surprised by it, so the Ohmygoodnesscanyoubelievewhatjusthappenedtome element has faded. Furthermore, talking about it just keeps our attention on it, when we'd rather just move on. In addition, any conversation in mixed-gender settings devolves into blaming the victim, to some degree. What were you wearing? What time of day was it? Why are you so negative? Do you hate all men? All Moroccan men? Are you racist? Should you just leave Morocco and go back to America? So we don't talk about it any more.]

Sexual harassment is a broad and deep problem in Morocco. According to the previous Country Director, it was cited by every ET-ing female PCV as one of the factors driving her out of the country. Every. Single. One. Those of us who stay have different coping strategies. One friend gives vicious stares to every man who bothers her. Another takes a moment to pray, "May God grant you the wisdom to change." Another locks her eyes on the dirt five feet in front of her shoes, to avoid seeing the looks directed her way. Another strips off her clothes and walks around her walled courtyard naked, shouting, "It's MY BODY, GODDAMMIT!" until she feels better. Another acts vaguely dismissive until she's home alone, then curls up and cries.

The government has started making noise about the ubiquitous sexual harassment. Cynics claim that it's because it drives away tourists, and further claim that Marrakesh rarely gets repeat visitors. (Where they get this statistic from, I have no idea, but I can vouch for the volume of harassment that foreign women receive there.) Optimists point to the King's excellent track record with gender issues, notably his support for the moudawana - the new laws protecting the rights of women and girls, and say that a new era is dawning in Morocco. Pessimists point out how little enforcement the moudawana provisions get. Even judges routinely grant waivers that set aside these protections.

Optimism and pessimism aside, Morocco is my home now. So I'll continue to live here, and work here, and hope, here.

Related post here.
Highly recommended discussion of these issues by friend here.

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