Running the Gauntlet: Street Harassment in Fes

Monday, February 9, 2009 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The streets of Fes can be an unpleasant place if you enter them unprepared for what's coming your way.
The heckling began as soon as we arrived in Fes back in September. Faux guides came out of the woodwork, offering tours of the old medina's historical sites. When, in the course of exploring our new home, Jacqueline and I passed a group of young guys in the streets, they might whisper and snicker to each other furtively. Sometimes one might call out "Hellooooo! How are you!" or its French or Spanish equivalent.

After the tenth time in a single day, this pesky chatter could start to feel slightly annoying, but in general, living with it was easy. Smiling, I would either shrug it off or greet them back in Arabic. They never seemed to pursue the conversation much after that. And in truth, their bantering just blended in with the hubbub of the medina. In quaint, still-medieval Fes, what wasn't to love?

* * *

If we had left after a week or two at most, as all the tourists do, that's where it would have ended.
But we settled in, and after a few weeks, the honeymoon phase gradually petered out.

Soon, Fes took on a harder edge. Or maybe with each day we stayed, I simply grew more sensitive, more critical, less patient. Where early on it had been easy to forgive the street kids' jeering, it now started to get inside my head, increasing even more my anger and sensitivity.

With Jacqueline, things grew even worse, and remain so today. Young guys on a street corner stop their conversation and stare blatantly as she passes. Whether she wears jeans or a jellaba makes no difference. Yet more insulting are the lewd phrases in English or French that they sometimes mutter to her. Some even try to deliver their vile messages in close proximity, by approaching her, grabbing her arm, and leaning close to whisper in her ear.

To be sure, catcalling takes place in American and European cities every day—albeit to a lesser degree—and everyone has felt their gaze pulled toward an attractive pedestrian now and then. But at least back home, there exists some respect for the boundaries of a relationship; hardly anyone would dare catcall a woman walking arm-in-arm with her boyfriend/fiancé/husband. So here in Fes, the fact that men and boys in the street make absolutely no effort to contain their perversion when I walk beside Jacqueline, holding her hand, makes my blood boil even hotter. The constant insults to our dignity hurt enough, but the icing on the cake is the realization that, short of never leaving the house, we are so powerless to stop them.

* * *

The futility hit home for me one day in January, when I decided to accompany Jacqueline on a jog. She was preparing for a half-marathon to take place this spring in Rabat, but finding the streets of Fes an inhospitable training ground. I hate running, but thought (naively) that if joined her, the jeers and catcalls and stopped-right-in-his-tracks stares would lessen.

After that day's run, I wished I hadn't accompanied her. The stares and comments were as frequent as ever, Jacqueline confirmed. Even a group of 10-year old girls had cackled and mimicked us. I was happier before I knew how bad it really was. Now when she runs, I usually stay home. Waves of guilt wrench my old-fashioned, chivalrous side every time Jacqueline puts on her loose, full-body running clothes and headphones. Strong willed as always, she insists she's fine on her own, but we both know the outfit won't discourage all the men's stares, nor the music block out all their words.

* * *

There is an ugly, nasty side to humanity. I knew this already, before I arrived in Fes. I knew that human failings—envy, insecurity, racism, ignorance, and countless others—could draw out this dark core of some people. Every day I wonder what it is, precisely, that makes so many boys and men here behave with such disrespect and contempt for us. Jacqueline and I ponder this question frequently, and discuss theories with our friends:

Colonial History?

Judging by appearances, we could be French, and we do speak the language. Maybe that makes us the former colonizer, the hated national enemy.

Modern History?

Political animosity could be a factor in this day and age. In January there were street demonstrations throughout Morocco over the Gaza crisis, with youths cursing Israel and America for pointlessly killing yet more Palestinian civilians.

Religion?

So many Westerners who come to the Muslim world each year do so as missionaries, ignorantly assuming that Muslims want to be "saved" by the Gospel. Many probably find this attitude insulting. In addition, Muslims feel the animosity that emanates toward them and their faith from the Christian world. It leaves many of them feeling defensive, misunderstood, and excluded.

Sexual Frustration?

In Morocco, cultural and religious norms prohibit sex before marriage, but for a man, marrying requires the ability to financially support a wife and children. In today's economic conditions, many men do not reach this stage until middle age. Before that, their only outlets for their repressed hormones may be prostitutes and Western women.

Unemployment?

The Moroccan government officially quotes the unemployment rate as "under ten percent" but it is likely higher, and the depth of the problem masked by significant underemployment, especially among younger generations. As a result, many jobless youths loiter in the streets, bored, desperate, and perhaps resentful of others' wealth.

Socioeconomic Divide?

In the last decade, the advent of satellite television has brought warped visions of opulence abroad into the salon of nearly every Moroccan family. But the income gap is visible even in the city's streets. In Fes's old medina, jet-setting tourists and foreign riad owners flaunt their wealth in front of the poorest locals, a dangerous divide I discussed in a recent post (see Two Tales of a City: The Realities of Tourism in Fes). My visit to Rabat, Morocco's more affluent capital, last weekend was surreal; without the constant heckling that follows me in Fes, I felt strangely invisible.

Cultural Conservatism and Pride?

Some residents may resent the rich outsiders who are buying up their traditional homes and madrasas, adding modern, Western fixtures and converting them to hotels. If this loss of heritage were not insult enough, the tourism industry also brings alcohol, sex, and other vices to Fes. (Sex tourism is an under-documented but thriving sector in Morocco.) Some may also resent foreign visitors for intermingling with and marrying young locals, disrupting the city's once tightly knit social fabric.

I doubt the street harassment is a simple phenomenon with one simple answer. When some young guy in an alleyway starts heckling Jacqueline and me, it's difficult to discern his motives. Is he just bored? Practicing his English or French? Desperate to get laid? Does he just want a few dirhams? Or is he really trying to degrade our dignity, to avenge some injustice by knocking us down a notch?

* * *

Whatever the reasons behind this behavior, it makes life in the medina unpleasant. We tried moving to a new neighborhood, but that made little difference. Now, in order to cope I rush around with my head down, ignoring everything that is said to me. Thus, the harassment has done more than just taint daily life here in Fes. It has also made me miss out on opportunities to meet new friends—the surprise acquaintances with locals that made my time in Syria and Jordan so rewarding.

To be sure, Jacqueline and I have met some very warm, nice people in Fes, but only through official channels—Arabic class, renting apartments, etc. In her valuable Culture Smart! Morocco guide, author Jillian York sheds some light on why our relationships may be confined in this way:

"There is a huge contrast between public and private behavior. On the street, the rule is everyone for themselves—being there invites attention, and in Moroccan society staring at or approaching a stranger is not considered rude. If you're a woman on the street, you're fair game. ... In a culture with such an emphasis on family, it is no surprise that there isn't much value placed on the civil treatment of strangers. Strangers are not people one owes anything to, and so it is not considered necessary to be polite to, say, shopkeepers or café waiters."
(pp. 51-52)

(Or foreigners who have come here to learn your language and culture, apparently.)

The temptation to embrace cynicism is strong. I have tried to keep from being discouraged, from letting the harassment ruin my time here in Fes. Some recent outdoor activities have helped me cope: climbing Jebel Zalagh, skiing near Ifrane, and playing beach soccer in Rabat. Cooking projects and dinner parties with our new friends Jon and Jen are effective releases, as was last month's retreat to Paris. On days when the heckling really gets to me, I hole up inside, surfing the internet or watching movies, trying to escape the here and now.

Of course, I don’t want be so affected by the harassment that I constantly resort to "escapes." Nor do I want to hold such a low opinion of Fes, or Morocco's culture or society. After all, I came to Morocco excited to explore the country, learn more about the culture, and interact with Moroccans. Today, to hear myself sit around and complain about this place is depressing. It makes me feel ignorant, intolerant, Republican.

I still hope to appreciate this country and its people the way I appreciate the other places I've lived. On the bright side, I have 11 more months to learn how to do that.

6 comments:

Chris said...

There I was... atop the jebel... reading Andrew's blog. I thought to myself, "Why am I atop this jebel? And how do I have the interweb here?" But then I realized, "Yeees. But, Andrew's last blog on life in Fes was very cathartic. And I enjoyed it very much."
Maybe one day, I too, will return to that mysterious (and quaint) medina.
Fes.
Bravo buddy.

Patrick Elliot said...

Fascinating article Andrew (as are all of them.) What I wonder is, if you "heckle" back (nothing confrontational, just the translation of "hey buddy, don't you have anything better to do?" with a smile), what would happen?

Jillian C. York said...

First of all, thanks for the compliment to my book :)
Ugh, I hate to say this, but I think the British and French foreigners who live in Fez and Marrakesh are totally to blame for that behavior.
I lived in Meknes, as you know, and while I certainly received my fair share of sexual harassment, no one ever once touched me. Nor was anything lewd said, most of the time. The harassment I received (dressing the same as Jacqueline, presumably) was more like "hey kteta" or a low whistle, or "Pretty American girl." That sort of thing.
But in Fez and Marrakesh, where foreigners live as though they own the place (and in some neighborhoods, they pretty much do), it's gotten so much worse.
As to Patrick's response above - I do heckle back, totally. Especially in the aforementioned cities. I learned really quickly how to say "what would your mother think of your behavior?" and ask that. Shames 'em almost every time. The only folks it doesn't work on is the glue sniffers but they'd harass a chicken.

Andrew Farrand said...

Patrick -
Unfortunately our neighborhood seems to have a lot of the glue-sniffing types, or else the residents just have so little respect for Westerners living here that they completely refuse to listen to us. It's frustrating that Moroccans can so easily enforce good behavior on each other by shouting "Hshuma" ("for shame") while a foreigner trying to push some basic common decency in the streets is just laughed at. Like Jillian, I've had some luck with reminding them their mother taught them better, but it's not effective all the time. And of course, my ability to banter back depends on my own mood, something I think I'll address in my next post.
Jillian -
You're right that the situation is really different outside Morocco's major tourist traps. At one time, I'm sure Fes and Marrakech really did embody the "exotic, mystical" stereotype that their names still conjure up, but as you know, today's reality is a whole different story. I hope that some of Morocco's smaller cities which still have their charm don't end up over-run by tourism someday soon. (It's the central irony of modern travel... we all want to visit these far-flung, untouched places, but we all want to be the only one doing it... A thought to ponder for a future entry perhaps.)
Thanks for your comments!

LInda said...

Dear Andrew, you touched on so many subjects in this post it would take a whole blog post to address them all, and forgive me if this gets too long, but there are two points that answered your own question for you.
First, Fez is unique in that of all the major cities, it is the main one inundated to over-capacity with migration from the surrounding country villages. These people are poor, uneducated and without resources of any kind. It is a huge socio-economic problem with no easy solution and a lot of political history. The hardest hit part of the city is, of course, Fez medina.
Second, drugs and alcohol abuse are a huge problem in Fez, just like everywhere else. And again, because it is a ghetto-area, the medina has a larger concentration of abusers.
One of my neighbors, while discussing the misbehavior of his sons towards my daughter, said he works all day at a hard labor job and comes home late. He doesn't see his kids. His wife is busy trying to manage the housework - and she's pregnant. Neither of them knows how to do anything else and whereas that might have worked in the country, it doesn't work in the city. These kids are growing up on the street just like American ghetto kids - nothing to do and no place to go and learning street survival skills from their peers. There is no cultivation, education, or any kind of supervision.
And finally, just like any other city, there are some areas in Fez medina where perhaps you should not be living. Think about your own city back home. I am sure there are drug and crime-infested neighborhoods you would not set foot in, yet foreigners come here and obliviously buy or rent homes in frightening areas. No doubt, the experience afterward is very unpleasant.

Andrew Farrand said...

Thanks, Linda, for some very good insights.
I wonder about a solution to this negative mix of regional immigration, poverty, low education rates, drug abuse and other factors. Will the government be able to change the situation, engaging youth in more positive activities? Or will religious figures or other social actors intervene? Or is it just a phase in Fes' evolution that will fade away? In any case, let's hope for the sake of the city that the current dynamics aren't here to stay.

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