Drowning in Attentions

This time last year, I was filling out the last of the application materials for my study away program, located in Rabat, Morocco. I knew it would be no walk in the park. The Arab Spring uprisings, threatening violence and upheaval even in typically stable Morocco, had me crossing my fingers that the program wouldn’t be cancelled before my flight took off. My advisor was against it, though she signed the papers amid talks of a “plan b” and “looking at options”. She may have known a little of what I would face, but for me there was no “plan b”. I didn’t want a walk in the park; I wanted a challenge-and I got one.

My greatest challenge in Morocco was undeniably my experience as a woman in an unashamedly patriarchal society, particularly street harassment-specifically ghazal and syada, the socially acceptable forms of street harassment.

In Morocco, there are five named categories of street harassment, beginning with compliments and ending in rape. The first two categories are considered socially acceptable and any female visitor to Morocco should expect to encounter them regularly.

The first category, considered the most harmless, is ghazal, the so-called romantic harassment. This generally takes the form of compliments, especially the admiration of the subject’s beauty. Kissing noises would follow me down the street. Men would whisper “beautiful” in my ear as a passed. Ghazal was a daily encounter for me which I eventually learned to ignore so effectively that I sometimes ignored actual acquaintances.

The name of the second category of accepted street harassment, syada, derives from the Arabic word for hunter, and street harassment in this category is thus more aggressive, threatening. Syada is when a man is persistent in his pursuit. If he calls you six times in a row, shows up to your house uninvited, follows you for two blocks, demands that you respond to his comments. When men ‘hunted’ me in each of these ways, they were practicing syada. While this kind of attention can stray into the “unwanted” category, it is still tolerated.
In a seminar on street harassment, taught by one of my female Moroccan professors, this behavior was explained—by the professor and visiting Moroccan men—by saying that women are expected to show their modesty by reluctance to talk to a man; thus, there is no response which will serve as a deterrent. The man sees his persistance as showing his strength.

I hope that, to a westerner, syada’s undesirability is obvious. During one of our conversations on the subject, a friend speculated that perhaps Moroccan women did not seem as alarmed by syada as we were because they did not fear that the situation would turn more serious. What may seem to me to be the actions of a deranged stalker, to them, could be admirable perseverence.

Although syada was sometimes frightening, it was actually ghazal which I had the most diffifculty coming to terms with. It is difficult to explain the anger that comes to mind when I think of the so-called “romantic” street harassment. I remember the impotent rage I would feel at the end of the day. Sometimes, I wanted to hurt the men who yelled at me. In the Egyptian movie “789”, the female lead stabs a man after being subjected to daily gropings. Some days, I imagined I could feel some small part of her fury.

Why? Why would innocent, harmless, complimentary ghazal inspire so much rage?

Part of it was frequency. For the nearly four months I spent in Morocco, there was not a single day when I was not approached by multiple men both physically and verbally. It was exhausting to be constantly ignoring people, avoiding eye contact in order to prevent ghazal from turning into syada, but also watching everyone around me so that I could move out of the way of the men who tried to block my path or split me off from my friends. If each interaction was a drop of rain, then I was in a thunderstorm, and I was drowning.

Second was the fact that every catcall, whistle, and comment was a reminder of my place as a woman in Moroccan society. I was under no illusion that my incredible beauty was the cause of the situation. The compliments were meaningless to me; they had been shouted to every women before.

And that’s it. Ghazal wasn’t about me. It was about the men who harassed me.

They were using me to have some fun, to feel like a man, or just as practice. Every word shouted at me on the street was a reminder that I should be inside, that my place was not in public, that I had no power.

The worst aspect of ghazal was simply the feeling of powerlessness. From the beginning, we were warned not to react, not to engage, to avoid eye-contact. No matter how angry I was, no matter how much I did not want to be approached, there was nothing I could do, because any reaction would have encouraged my harassers. Worse, not only could I not react, I could not control it. I couldn’t turn it off with my clothes any more than I could turn it on. I couldn’t cross the street to avoid the car mechanic who inexplicably liked calling me his “white alligator with blue eyes” because he would follow me. It was real powerlessness in a way that I had never experienced before.

My experience may be different from what others have experienced. In fact, it varied quite a bit from those of the other women in my program. This was for a few different reasons. First: during the course of my research, I often traveled alone. A woman alone is treated far differently than a man or a woman with a man. Many of the men who were studying away with my program claimed disbelief when told stories about the street harassment we’d experienced. They’d walked with us countless times and never seen a thing. I was in Essaouira when a perfect example of this occurred. A cart pushed by a woman was directly bisecting the road and a male friend and I each took our respective halves. Mine, of course, lead me past a group of young men who hooted and hollered and catcalled at me mercilessly. Minutes later, we turned around and passing by the same group of men, in the company of a man, there was silence.

Secondly: I am quite obviously not Moroccan. My appearance–that of a clear outsider–certainly affected my experience. In fact, my flatmates who could, as a result of multi-racial ancestry, “pass” as Moroccans compared their experience with mine–they received very little attention on the street while alone. This, compared to the fact that I could not leave our apartment by myself without being approached dozens of times, made an argument for the fact that men were targeting me as a foreigner. This argument was further supported by their additional observation that the majority of the harassment they encountered was when they were in larger groups, in other words, clearly visitors themselves.

Over the course of my study away I was groped, solicited for sex, lied to, intimidated, complimented, proposed to, asked out, cursed at, and called over a hundred times by a man who called my phone on a wrong number and decided he liked the sound of my voice. Some parts were truly challenging and others were a dream. Being a woman in Morocco was, at times, extraordinarily difficult, but I could never have even begun to understand without actually experiencing what it was like.