Most mornings at the NIMAR start slowly. We officially open at eight, but we usually spend the first hour of the day circled around a table, chatting over tea and breakfast. We discuss our weekends, comment on what’s playing on the television in the background, and allow for the occasional preliminary discussion of work-related goings-on. It’s a pleasant way to ease into the day, and a good use of an hour at which there is little else to do. We open this early to stay on track with the Dutch institutional world, which lives an hour ahead of us. In Morocco, however, no self-respecting employee, or NIMAR student, is ready for business until at least 9 am.
This past Monday, as we did a post-game evaluation of my birthday party (which had taken place on the preceding Saturday), the conversation touched on the risks of making a late-night solo drive back home – and from there devolved quickly into thorny territory: the harassment of women on Moroccan streets.
Cynthia and Chaima opened, claiming a lonely street in the dark of night is no place for a woman alone – what with rapists, thieves, and other figures of the underworld.
“Well, what about men?” Farid retorted. “Men are the ones who get robbed, conned, and deceived. People are actually nice to women – you get your bags carried for you, a seat given away to you on the bus, and there’s always a hand ready to help you change your tire.”
Chaima dismissively shook her head. “Oh, Farid,” she chuckled, “you have no idea what it’s like for women.”
Cynthia bristled in agreement. “What?” She demanded of Farid. “How can you say that? Women are constantly treated with disrespect on the street!” Confronted by a skeptical expression on Farid’s face, she then launched into a description of the verbal and tactile varieties of unwanted attention that women suffer daily when out and about, trying to mind their own business. To add dramatic force to her illustrations, she got up from her chair and turned courtyard into stage, enlisting Chaima as co-star in her performance. The two put on their best macho faces, their eyes expressing an exaggerated form of the demeaning lust they attribute to the men they were imitating, and swaggered daringly past each other, Chaima grazing Cynthia’s posterior while the latter stage-whispered disrespectful gibberish into the former’s ear.
“Nine out of ten men,” Cynthia emphasized, shooting meaningful glances in Farid’s direction. “And by the time the tenth guy walks by, I’m about ready to punch him in the face.”
His skeptical expression unchanged, Farid shrugged and lit up a cigarette. “It’s all in your head,” he muttered.
This set off a trigger with the lot of us. Say what? Claiming that we’ve somehow conjured up this constant stream of verbal harassment in our collective mind is like saying that there is no glass ceiling for women, or that men are just naturally better at math.
We icily asked him to elaborate, our swords hanging in the sky, ready to fall with a vengeance when he gave us what could only be the wrong answer. Farid argued first that we’d be lost without the attention. He cited a survey that he personally conducted among his female students: “Nine out of ten said they’d feel depressed if they were ignored on the street,” he reported in subtle reference to Cynthia’s earlier statistic.
We protested that this is no surprise in a society where women hardly ever receive positive reinforcement on other aspects of their being. Moroccan women are raised to be demure and modest; if street comments about their appearance are the only source of compliments they have, no wonder they’d miss them in their absence! But, we assured Farid, no self-respecting, confident woman would prefer unsolicited attention to the freedom of public anonymity. Unfazed, Farid pressed on, introducing his second argument. He reminded us that women receive a lot of preferential treatment in return for the occasional offensive comment. We scoffed, but he proceeded to his concluding argument: we bring this attention upon ourselves by not talking back.
I’d been relatively quiet before, observing the back and forth with curiosity as I tried to theorize what made the various participants in this discussion say the things they said and feel the way they felt. But I felt personally addressed by this last argument, and I stepped in.
“Talking back doesn’t work!” I exclaimed, a bit of this morning’s annoyance with the appreciative soldiers I encountered on my walk to work leaking out. “All it does is make them laugh! Hearing me speak Arabic does nothing but egg them on.”
“Or it makes them mad and makes the harassment even worse,” Chaima added. Cynthia and I nodded eagerly. “Yeah,” we contributed, “and when you react by yelling, they accuse you of crossing the boundaries of propriety!”
Farid stuck to his argument, though, insisting that an angry response is the key to solving this issue. “It’s a vicious cycle,” I offered, trying to be the mediator. A theory began to develop in my head, but I wasn’t ready to put it into words yet, and so I kept it at that. “Women allow this kind of attention to happen by remaining mute, which allows men to keep it up. In turn, the sense of endlessness with men’s attention makes women feel as though there’s no use in protesting.”
We got up, cleared the table and put our dirty teacups by the sink without having reached an agreement.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged by any woman (both foreign and native) who has spent a day on Moroccan streets, that one cannot venture outside without eliciting at least a comment from at least seventy percent of the men one passes by. You learn to drown it out (though the occasional butt-graze is impossible, ever, to ignore, and some days are certainly worse than others), but the principle of the matter is offensive. This primal need that men seem to feel, to comment on any and all female figures within their sight, implies a perception of women as not-quite-real, and as not-quite-human.* It is, in all honesty, a very frustrating kind of objectification. But not only that; it is offensive, on a deeper level, that men seem so completely unashamed of their behavior – that society seems to accept this kind of uncivilized comportment.
If we are all so bothered by the fact that we cannot anonymously walk alone outside – by the fact that we will never be able to sit down on a park bench to read a book in peace, to stop outside a shop window and ogle the shoes on sale, or to wait on a street corner for a friend without eliciting a whole lot of unwanted attention – what can we do to make it stop?
In order to answer that question, I think we first need to answer another one: what makes it happen in the first place? How did this become such a commonplace public form of male-female interaction, and what motivates men to address women in this way? I’ve been walking around with these questions ever since I first visited Morocco in the spring of 2005. Despite warnings from more seasoned travelers, I spent the first two days of my stay in a state of complete agoraphobia, holed up in my hotel room in Fes without a clue as to how to deal.
After this initial shock, I became intrigued. I began to observe the attention, examining it and experimenting a little with its limits. I’d change my clothing, varying the amount of bare skin I exposed to the public to see if this correlated at all with the frequency or intensity of the comments, stares and grazing hands that came my way. I even donned a headscarf once. The effect? None whatsoever. And so I came up with a theory. I think that this attention has nothing to do with us as women. It doesn’t matter what we wear, how we behave, or how pretty we are. We could walk around covered head to toe in clothing that hasn’t been washed in weeks, flash a smile of black teeth and exude a smell of sweat across a two-meter radius, and some man would still feel the need to whisper “very niiiiiicce” as we limped by. It has nothing to do with us – and everything to do with them, with the men. My theory is that men in Morocco have so few ways in which to exercise and display their masculinity, that anonymous women on the street become the unwitting target of their frustrated need to show the world they’re male.
I’ve devoted earlier posts to the problem of Moroccan masculinity. The Moroccan masculine ideal – defined by dominance, power, and independence – is difficult, if not impossible, for a man to live up to. In a patriarchal society with a developing economy and a high rate of unemployment, very many men are stuck in a position of relative dependence – whether it be on their father, an employer, or some other figure who exercises power.** The result is that they act out their frustrated need for dominance and power in a space where they do not risk offending someone to whom they are subordinate – in the no man’s land where social norms don’t really count: the street.
Furthermore, Moroccan social norms and the gender segregation they sanctify mean that men have very little permitted access to women. There are very few acceptable ways and places for innocent flirtation (flirtation that is not meant as direct prelude to marriage, that is) – in other words, there is no sanctioned way for a Moroccan boy to parade his masculinity around and attract the most appealing female without the risk of consequences. Another frustration they act out in the space beyond social norms – by aggressively flirting with anonymous women who are not a part of their social community. Strict rules within the social fold elicit acting-out behaviors in the abject areas beyond its boundaries.
These norms also ensure that male-female interaction is beset by tension. The politic of segregation teaches children and teenagers that the opposite sex is inherently and dangerously different. It teaches them that the other gender is there for marriage and sex, not for friendship and normal human-to-human relating. It nips any potential for mutual understanding and communication in the bud.
Of course all of this is evolving. Moroccan social norms have been subject to rather rapid change – a development Moroccans themselves conceive of as ‘modernization’ and regard with a fair amount of ambivalence. Men and women can be friends – and one thing I’ve been so struck by in Rabat is the seeming informality and comfort of contact between the genders. But day-to-day attitudes and public behavior always lag a step or two behind institutional social change.
Maybe the crux of the problem hides in our inability to span the gap of understanding between genders. The thing is that Farid can’t understand what it’s like. No non-female can understand this feeling of complete and entire objectification; this denial of your freedom to be anonymous, of your private space, and of your very fellow human-ness; the insistence always to see you as a woman, and never as a person. No non-female can understand how it feels when you are expected to remain demure and modest, yet somehow must acquire a basic sense of self-respect.***
But the thing is also that no female can understand the social pressure on Moroccan men. High demands and huge limitations on one’s ability to live up to them are an impossible combination. The thing is that men are essentially as objectified as women are. In a society where social connections are everything, men are constantly sized up according to their position in the matrix of power relationships and their relative status in relation to the one doing the sizing-up. If men don’t talk down to someone in an assertion of their dominance, they risk having such subordination imposed upon themselves. Who can blame them for acting out?****
So. To make a long story short, the issue comes down to this. Can you be a respectable woman without demurely allowing yourself to be objectified, and without accepting a man’s refusal to see you as a person? Can you be a confident woman without needing positive reinforcement from random lustful machos on the street? And can you be a real man without needing to assert your male dominance by objectifying women?
One anonymous woman on a busy downtown street had her own answer to these questions. As we hunted for cabs on Monday evening after a satisfying meal at Dar Naji, we heard her screaming to some unfortunate male offender.
“Are you a real man? I don’t think you’re a real man, I think you’re a fag! Go get yourself checked out, fag!”
* I’ve had men lean in and clap in my face to see if I’d react. It leads me to conclude they might be wondering if I’m even real. I get the same sense from their laughter at my Arabic requests to be left alone. They don’t hear what I say; they seem to see a doll talking and are surprised by its lifelike appearance.
** And in a society where social connections are everything, that dependence, that subordinate position, is something you are constantly reminded of.
*** Not to mention the recent addition of new, ‘modern’ expectations: women must remain modest, quiet, and submissive, but must now also become ambitious, successful, and financially self-sufficient.
**** Let me make a disclaimer here that I know I am generalizing. The dynamics of Moroccan society are much more complex and intricate than the rough sketch I am laying out here, and the actual currents carrying along the type of male-female interaction that I am discussing here are much more subtle and multi-pronged than I suggest. I’m just trying to theorize a little.