From miles of glorious golden Sahara sand, vibrant medinas, thrilling markets, quaint ocean towns, flavorful tagines, and gorgeous mountain landscapes – Morocco has something for everyone. However, it is important to note that what lies a short, one-hour ferry ride across the Strait of Gilbatrar is a completely different world from Spain and Europe.
Note: I’m writing about this because I want to share my experiences, but I in no way want to discourage someone from traveling to Morocco. While living in Morocco for 12 weeks, we had many good experiences, which I have written about previously, but also some bad. I try to keep it real on my blog – to say everything about Morocco was wonderful would be very misleading.
My family of six and I have been full-time travelling the world for over a year. We have been trying to adapt to the cultural differences we encounter in places we travel to. For example, eating soup with chopsticks in Asian countries, learning how to behave in a Hindu or Buddhist ceremony, covering in conservative countries like Malaysia and Morocco. Because we are only visitors in these places, we try not to draw attention to ourselves as outsiders and at the same time want to show respect to customs that are not our own. Morocco is an amazing place I would love to explore again in the future, but below the rich culture and scenery is a level of oppression and sexism I’ve never experienced before. We were living like locals, had purpose teaching and working, and were doing our best to assimilate, yet still faced the following challenges.
Street scene in El Jadida
We started our time in Morocco in Tangier, at an Airbnb near the ferry port, and after a few days, took the train to a town called Kenitra, outside of capital city, Rabat. Staying in Kenitra was not a good experience for us. We would have been much better off staying in Rabat, a larger city more used to tourism. Walking from the train station was an unsettling experience because of the hostile staring. Being global travelers (and a family with 4 girls), we are seasoned to staring, but this felt different. People were staring in a way that showed actual distaste and aggression. A few days later, we were actually afraid to leave our Airbnb after getting rocks and glass thrown at us just outside a Mosque. Men and boys would walk up to us just to say “f*ck you.”
At this point we did not feel welcome in Morocco, and we were scoping out our options to leave, but then we received an email from the British Language Academy (an English school we had reached out to on Workaway, a site that connects volunteers with hosts to work in exchange for housing, which is how we afford our travels), saying that we were welcome to come live at the academy and help with the classes. This sounded like a good escape from our current situation in Kenitra, and the next day we were on a train to Berrechid, a small city near Casablanca. Upon arriving, we were thrilled that people were actually saying things like “welcome,” instead of the profanities we had gotten acquainted with in our first weeks in Morocco. We thought that what happened in Kenitra was an isolated experience.
A market in Berrechid
A woman makes bread in Berrechid
While things were looking up since arriving and working at the school, being a woman and a foreigner here is not easy. Women in Morocco, at least in smaller towns, have a curfew of seven p.m. Walking after dark labels you a prostitute, or easy – just like that. I was told this by a young female teacher at the school. And even before that hour, walking alone is not safe. In the daytime, I was harassed simply walking 500 meters to the grocery store – surrounded and grabbed by a group of men five to ten years older than me. I wasn’t hurt, but I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done if they hadn’t let go because of my pushing and yelling.
Unfortunately, my experience wasn’t an isolated event. My sister was later harassed playing soccer in a group in broad daylight, and another friend was grabbed while on a run together with me.
Why did these things happen? I can only guess. In my experience sharing these stories, the victim is the first to be blamed. I heard things like: ‘We were drawing too much attention to ourselves’, ‘we were not clothed enough’ , ‘we shouldn’t be out alone’. Victim blaming after the fact frustrated me more than the actual event. It showed me that the mentality is men are able to just get away with doing this. And yes, we were dressed conservatively, and obviously no one wanted to be harassed. There is nothing that says walking around isn’t allowed. It isn’t even about these things. We are women, foreigner women, and that makes us a target.
While living at the school in Berrechid, we went on trips to visit bigger cities like Casablanca, Marrakesh, and Fez. Here, the population of tourists is greater. The cities are bigger, more progressive, and women are able to be out after dark. There is still, of course, cat-calling, over-excited touts, and general staring, as well as a general overlying feeling of uneasiness as men dominate, line the streets, and fill the cafes, but I never experienced physical harassment in these places.
So my takeaway is that the problem could have been the small town mentality in a place unused to tourism. Does that make it ok? No, but at least it means that our experience does not have to be every woman’s experience in Morocco.
The medina of Fez from above
I have talked to women and men alike who see these problems, and are no less appalled by them than I am, but also know that there are many women who think that this is how life is everywhere in the world. It is the only reality that they know. While it is easy to sugarcoat things, or overlook unpleasant realities in an effort to paint the perfect picture of a place (travel bloggers, myself included, get caught up in this more often than not), that just won’t do anything. I have pretty pictures from Morocco, and for an outsider looking at those, it would be impossible to see the realities.
The only way to begin to solve these problems is to bring awareness. Morocco has been making strides towards women’s rights and equality in the past few decades. Today, they have the largest percent of women in the parliament of any Arab country. This is an amazing achievements, and the mentality that needs to be shared with small town Morocco. The more we talk about harassment and sexism, the sooner it will be seen as a problem, instead of an unpleasant normality.
I like to think that these experiences are a learning process, and now I will have a much tougher skin for tackling the next drama. In some ways, I can’t stand Morocco, but then I think of the Atlas Mountains, places like the Sahara, the sea breeze in Essaouria, and the kind and welcoming people we have befriended here who, despite it all, make Morocco one of my favorite countries.
If you are a female traveler and considering visiting Morocco, here are my best tips:
Stay in busy areas or touristy cities. Morocco just isn’t a place you can just hop off a train spontaneously and explore everywhere.
Go in groups. It’s not always possible, but if you can find someone to travel with your experience will be much easier.
Friends on the bus on our way to the Sahara
Learn a little bit of the language. Knowing a few words of Darija Arabic or French can be invaluable. (In Arabic, “safi” can be used to mean “enough!”, “hashouma” means “shame on you,” and “La, Choukran” means “no, thank you.”)
Act like a local. You may not look like one, but dress modestly, avoid eye contact with local men, don’t respond to the inevitable catcalls, and walk with purpose, not confusion. Looking lost 10/10 times will attract someone to come over and ask if you need help.
Find a local Guide. The locals know the good spots, they can speak Arabic, and they can get rid of any aggressive touts.
Having my scarf tied Berber style before the desert by Mr. Hareem
Stay at a Berber homestay, or do a workaway. With a workaway, having purpose made our stay worthwhile and gave us a safe place to recuperate and talk with other people after hard days. Berber homestays are a similar environment, and provide cultural immersion into the local way of life.