For centuries, the idea that traveling is unsafe for women has been ingrained into societal beliefs, morals and religion. In many countries, there are laws that prohibit women from traveling without male accompaniment and/or permission. However, in present-day America, we have finally begun to understand that in order to stop the ugly truth behind the existential threat that women face, we must create a safer world, not hide from the danger. This awareness has been cultivated by the rebellious women that don’t allow their dreams and ambitions to be confined to gendered borders. These women have inspired me to follow my compass by traveling the world with only limitations that I define myself.
Prior to my semester abroad in Morocco, I had experienced a series of safety lectures, warnings and prayers on my behalf. I knew I would be fine, but eventually, the hyper-focus on safety, instead of “Study hard!” or “Take lots of pictures!” began to take its toll on my paranoia. I mentally prepared myself for any situation. I knew I would be stared at and cat called for being a foreign female and potentially experience sexual harassment. I wasn’t afraid, but deep down the impromptu self-defense lessons started to make me fearful of assault.
I lived in Meknes, a small, conservative city in North Morocco. In Meknes (and most cities in Morocco), there is the medina codima, old city, and the medina jadida, new city. Many American students that study in Meknes, live with families in the new city, with a French-influenced atmosphere to blend into. However, myself and three other American girls lived in theold city, where we walked through the souq,local street market, every day to get to classes. We were harassed daily, hourly, even down to the minute sometimes and it really affected me. I was angry, frustrated, enraged and eventually just depressed. I didn’t understand the culture of the small, traditional city and although it was a major culture shock, I had to accept it. This doesn’t mean that catcalling and sexual harassment is okay, but in many ways it really just…wasn’t that big of a deal. I was never sexually assaulted (Thank God!) and there were only a few occasions that I had to yell at a young boy to not grab me or touch me to get my attention.
However, one incident in particular, left me steaming, forgetting all the advice I had been given about letting it ‘slide off my back’ and going right back to my old ways of aggressively yelling at Moroccans in Arabeezee(Arabic with a touch of English) -- they didn’t teach us how to cuss in Arabic class. I had developed a bad habit of giving harassing men the middle finger since the bird is a universal symbol.
I was hit by a motorcycle while touring the streets in Marrakesh. It was a minor incident, I wasn’t seriously injured, but the aftermath is what was really upsetting. After flying forward a few feet and stumbling to stay vertical, I turned to the man whose motorbike had been equally discombobulated. He seemed very upset and said a few things in French I didn’t understand. An old man who was a bystander of the event rushed over to me and instead of asking if I was alright or telling the man on the bike to slow down, he began yelling at me in Arabic. He called me a ‘dumb girl’ and told me to watch where I’m going! “Seriously?! HEhit ME!”, I responded in English. The man didn’t understand me of course, but after a few minutes of dusting the dirt off and ensuring my body was intact, I walked away physically unscathed, but emotionally shook. The adrenaline rush wore off, my face was hot with frustration and I fought back angry tears. I pushed my sunglasses down over my eyes so my friends wouldn’t see me cry.
We went back to Meknes and continued our studies. I completed my classes for the semester and said some really hard goodbyes. I made lifelong friends, sisters even, women who will remain strong influencers in my life. This experience in Marrakesh was a direct reflection of my overall feelings for my time as a foreign female in Morocco. I felt weak and small -- no more than an annoying bump on a backroad in Marrakesh.
Now don’t get me wrong, I had an AMAZING experience in Morocco and learned many lessons. The biggest struggle I have faced as a strong-minded, independent woman in the Middle East is thinking I am entitled to different treatment or that I can change their culture. I was reminded by my roommate that I was in their country. I had to learn to erase all pre-conceived notions, all comparisons to my home-country, and just listenand learn. I not only learned about myself, but about patience, love and most importantly, acceptance.