Within my first hour of being in Morocco, I became attuned to the way that men dominate public space. Whether you’re walking through the medina or driving past the busy city center, women are conspicuously absent from sidewalks and doorways. There are cafes that are filled entirely with men who sit facing the street and watch as people walk by. Many feminists have discussed the “male gaze” as a theoretical tool, but here it can feel literal. On my walk to school I (and other women) are watched and assessed by dozens of men. Women and women’s bodies are under constant surveillance. From adolescence on, girls’ clothes are policed and their movements restricted.
Additionally, sexual harassment is a significant part of Moroccan and foreign women’s lives here. On September 12, Morocco passed a new law criminalizing sexual harassment, which is a step in the right direction. However, catcalling and other forms of sexual harassment are more common on the streets here than where I’m from. We were encouraged to dress modestly to stave off the worst of the attention, but women can (and do) experience this regardless of what they’re wearing. This infringes on women’s freedom to move about freely without fear of intimidation.
However, there are areas in which norms in Morocco might be considered more progressive than the U.S. For example, norms around intimacy are very different. While romantic gestures and public affection are generally frowned upon, platonic intimacy between people of the same gender is far more acceptable. Men will hug, kiss each others’ cheeks, and even occasionally hold hands (mostly the older generation) in ways that would be seen as threatening to masculinity in the U.S.
The hammam, or public baths, is also a concept that would be shocking to many Americans. I was very surprised when my host mom brought my roommates and me to the hammam and we saw women bathing in a communal space wearing only their underwear or nothing at all. Spaces like this suggest that nudity and women’s bodies are not by themselves the issue; sex, the sexualization of bodies, and the way that women are perceived in the male gaze are the problems. A space that is all-women is seen as inherently unsexual and therefore not subject to the same level of restriction. As a queer woman, I struggle with this a bit, because assumptions like these invisibilize and negate romantic or sexual relationships between women at a conceptual level.
I have only been here for three weeks, and I’ve only spent time in Meknes and Rabat. Like all forms of identity, gender here is complex. Between different cities, and even within the same city, expectations for dress and behavior vary considerably. Within my homestays, for example, my host moms might dress conservatively when traveling outside, but wear shorts or tank tops inside. I am still learning a lot, and my understanding of women’s roles here will likely change as I learn more of the language and culture and become more comfortable in the city.
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<p>I'm a senior at Tulane University majoring in Africana Studies and Linguistics with a minor in Arabic, and I am very involved in student activism. I am a member of Students Organizing Against Racism, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Sexual Aggression Peer Hotline and Education, and I am committed to making Tulane's campus environment supportive and equitable for everyone. I am also a queer student and consider myself part of the LBGTQ+ community on campus.</p>