Catcalling in Morocco - how bad is it?

Updated: Feb 20

Catcalling is the worst. I love living Tangier, but this is one thing I absolutely hate about it, and depending on the day my attitude can go from "it's not a big deal" to "the next guy who says hola is getting punched in the face."


When I moved to Morocco, American friends expressed concern. "Is it safe?" I told them I feel extremely safe, even safer than in the US; Morocco is very secure, especially places frequented by tourists and big cities, and the risk of gun violence is effectively 0. Emotionally, it's a different story.


In Morocco, "barak mn lbsala" means "enough with the bother!" but it kind of sounds like "blessing from the onion," especially if you mix up س and ص 🙋🏼‍♀️

Catcalling in Tangier

Morocco is one of those places with a culture of catcalling, like Spain where it's called piropeo. In Tangier I know how bad it will be based on the time of year and my location (on a street by street basis). It's worse, of course, in touristy areas and at high tourist season also the high season for piropeo.


The content ranges from hello in any language you can plausibly speak (starting with Spanish or French, because "any white woman in Tangier probably speaks Spanish or French," then on to English, German, even Polish).


It can also get pretty funny, for example I've gotten:

  • "Bonsoir" (in the morning)

  • "Good morning" (in the afternoon)

  • "It's a girl!"

  • "Are you 22?"

  • "Shakira!"

That last one was addressed to a group of friends and we kind of looked at each other trying to figure out which was Shakira. We decided it was the tall one.


There's also, infrequently, less droll comments such as "Fuck you" and "Do you want to have sex?" which are normal things to say to women you don't know, apparently, and reflect the joys of global English (bad words are always the first people learn).


It's important to remember that cat-callers in Morocco are the (vocal) minority. It's a country where being a polite man looks like not talking to women. This was a bit counterintuitive coming from the US when I realized that the landlord of the apartment I was looking at was actually not being rude by avoiding eye contact with me and just talking with the men who were with me, but instead being very respectful.


So it helps to remember that the people who are doing this are being rude, and don't necessarily represent the majority of Moroccan men. If they were being polite, they wouldn't be talking to you.


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Moroccan man, whatever his age, social, or marital status, will do anything in his power to converse with a blonde woman.

It's true! When the Moroccan national team was going to Russia for the 2018 World Cup, there were all these memes circulating telling the Russians to hide their wives and their daughters (and memes are incontrovertible evidence).


Across the Arab world, western women tend to be over-sexualized and seen as morally loose, so men who haven't interacted with many foreign women assume they lead the kind of lives they see in the movies and on TV.


In America, I'm not very remarkable, but when I came to North Africa, for the first time in my life I felt exotic. In some ways it's been incredibly affirming in helping me recognize my own beauty but it also means that I'm hyper-visible when I walk down the street, and hyper-aware of my own visibility.


Disclaimer: I recognize that, at home in the US and in Morocco, I enjoy special status and protections because I'm a cisgender, able-bodied white woman. I've heard stories of absolutely horrific things said and done to Moroccan women in public which are much worse than any of my experiences recounted here. As a foreigner, verbally I may be fair game, but see those police officers with semi-automatic weapons? I know they're there to protect me.


How to walk down the street in Morocco as a blonde

I'm from the southern part of the United Sates (mostly Tennessee and Texas), so when I first came to Morocco, I had to learn not to smile walking down the street and not to reply when someone said "hello!" to me. This went very much against my programming — at first it felt so rude not to smile at people and greet them back — especially in my early days in the city when I didn't have friends and was craving human contact.


As someone with a very expressive (and generally happy) face, I learned pretty quickly how to cultivate my resting bitch face when I was out in public, which is a necessity in any big city. Of course, this came back to bite me when I returned to small-town Kentucky and the guy at the deli asked me why I was so angry. I had a soul searching moment: am I angry? what is going on inside me? but later I realized it was just my resting bitch face in action (crashing up, of course, against an idea that women should always be pleasant and smiley... although in small-town Kentucky most everyone is generally pleasant and smiley, at least on the outside).

"It's a dog!"

For the record, walking down the street in Morocco I do still smile at other women from time to time, that's fine. And kids, I go all out for kids, and also dogs. For kids I smile, make faces or mirror them, and with dogs I give them my most dog-like wide, open mouth smile. (Yes, I'm a mess. But kids and dogs love me.)


I also enjoy listening to music or podcasts for long walks; it's perfect because I literally cannot hear anything anyone says (which, as I discuss below is one of the ways to beat catcalling). However, sometimes I'll hear something that makes me laugh out loud (thank you, Truth's Table). The laughing kind of breaks the resting bitch face, but at least I remain in my own world.


Also, because of the necessity of intently ignoring the world and not listening to people who speak to me, it's normal that I often miss friends who are waving at me, or don't respond to them the first five times they say hello, because I'm too busy blocking out the haters.

Just so you know:

  • Catcalling is not a compliment, it's a power play. It demonstrates that a complete stranger has the right to say whatever he wants and you're powerless to prevent it. Compliments come in the context of a conversation and make the hearer feel better about themselves, whereas catcalling - even when it seems complimentary - tends to makes the hearer feel worse about themself.

  • Catcalling doesn't only happen when you are a woman walking alone. It does decrease when you're walking with a man or in a mixed group, but incidents can and do still occur. And of course groups of foreigners always attract attention and people eager to "help" you. (Again, as with catcalling, it's best to ignore the people who seek you out with directions or recommendations. If you need help or recommendations, choose to ask someone who's minding their own business.)

  • Dressing more modestly and/or "less attractively" doesn't mean you won't attract attention. No matter how much you change your behavior, what you wear, and how you present yourself, you cannot control others' actions and choices.

The more you try to control others by policing your own body, the more it takes a toll on you because you're sacrificing your personhood for people who don't care. Catcalling may not affect you to this extent if you're just exposed for a week or two; it's something that wears you down over time.


How to handle catcalling

  1. Ignore, ignore, ignore. Silence can be just as powerful, if not more, than words. Again, this is something I've learned in Morocco: ignoring someone is not rude, and it's politer than saying something negative. In a catcalling scenario, silence is powerful because it communicates that words which were intended to reach / provoke you missed their mark. Sometimes I imagine I'm in the center of a force field, existing on a totally separate plane from these men, so the things they're saying have no power to affect me.

  2. In the moment, find someone to help. If a person doesn't go away but keeps following you, you can immediately step into a nearby shop and ask the shopkeeper for help. You can also find a policeman and ask for help or even just stand next to them until the other person goes away. Remember, for every rude person, there are 99 polite people minding their own business but happy to step in and help if you ask.

  3. Show up as fully yourself. For me, I've decided it's not worth it to try to "hide" or somehow be "less feminine" when I go out. It makes me I feel extra gross and less confident in myself, and like I said above it doesn't really change anything. In another article I'll talk about how I approach dress in Morocco, but I do my best to choose clothes that are culturally appropriate and that I look and feel good in so I can show up fully myself in all my fully embodied femininity.

  4. Keep doing things that make you feel human. Find ways to reclaim your voice. I have a friend in another North African country who, once she gets to a safe distance will respond (to herself) to what the person has said. And a good morning to you too, sir.

  5. Have healthy friendships. Having close friends and people you can talk to about your experiences is so essential - they help reinforce the truth of who you really are, they show you you're valuable, and they remind you that these shenanigans are not okay.

For me, catcalling can make me feel like such an outsider - extra alienated and alone. So it helps me to lean into relationships that make me feel like a belonger in Tangier, like hanging out with a friend's family or even just walking into my neighborhood hanout and exchanging friendly banter with the shopkeeper. These are things that help connect me to the truth about me.


I talked towards the top about how since I came to Morocco I've been feeling the most beautiful I've ever felt. But that doesn't come from random guys on the street, that comes from friends.


What's the solution?


On an individual level, the best is when you feel at home and confident in your body and can hold on to that no matter what people say. Maybe this is easy if you're thick-skinned, but I'm sensitive and things people say can really hurt me, even when I don't know them and remind myself they're being rude. It does affect me and it does really make me angry. Do these guys think they can just get away with it? Someone needs to show them that what they're doing is wrong!!


For the times I just can't stand not to talk back, I did learn some things to say, like "hashim shwiya!" (have a little shame!) but I've found that talking back to the person only encourages them to continue the conversation.


Once there was a guy who was really annoying me and finally I said, exasperated, "Fik bssala bizzaf!" (you're being really annoying, literally: you're full of bother!) and he replied "Fik l3rrbiya bizzaf!" (you're full of Arabic), which actually made me smile a little.


In Arab culture, clever wordplay covers a multitude of sins, so humor is a powerful tool for diffusing a situation, but let's face it, as foreigners very few of us are going to get to a point where our minds and tongues are fast enough to say just the right thing. This is why I keep coming back to the strategy of ignoring them. Silence is the best policy.


Healthy communities help a lot


Another time I was walking with a friend in Casablanca and a man started yelling after us "Hello, how are you! Hello, how are you!" We duly ignored him, but then his 3-year-old daughter who was with him started yelling "Hello, how are you! Hello, how are you!" which definitely broke the tension. We laughed and said hello to the little girl.


The father looked embarrassed and like he was having an epiphany: Why was it ok for him to yell at foreigners, but he felt embarrassed when his daughter did it? Was it okay for men to yell at strangers in public but not women?


As the victim in the situation, you don't have a lot of power in the moment to flip the switch and cause that deep reflection and embarrassment in the mind of the perpetrator the way a peer or a cultural insider can, in this case the 4-year-old daughter.


There's a need for social action and campaigning, but for me right now the fight looks like showing up as myself, focusing on the people I know, and forgetting the rest — cultivating that core of unshakeable self-confidence, my anti-hate umbrella.


Notes:

  • In this article I've tried to be sensitive to others and aware of myself in context: my experiences are not normative and my suffering is not "equal" or "like" that of oppressed groups. Let me know how I can do better.

  • For the concept of defiant embodiedness, or "showing up as fully yourself," I'm indebted to the Witness BCC, especially their suite of podcasts.

  • I hope this post is helpful for you, whatever your ethnicity or gender, and that it encourages you to live a fully embodied life in whatever context you find yourself. I also hope that, when we find ourselves in positions of power and privilege, we can fight for each other courageously and humbly.

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