By Rachel Wishnie-Edwards
Before I begin, I would like to say that as I write this, I worry about offending, or seeming to make judgments on something I only had a brief experience with. I loved Morocco and do not intend to say anything bad about the people I encountered there, but want to write this reflection in order to share my experiences and thoughts with others who may feel similarly. In this piece I hope to lend my perspective in order to pique interest and encourage dialogue among GUWIL members.
I was abroad in Madrid, Spain, last semester when the Paris attacks happened. Many of my friends cancelled their weekend travel plans because they and their parents were worried about safety in airports and other major European cities. So a lot of people were skeptical when I said that I wanted to travel to Marrakech, Morocco, for my last weekend trip, only several weeks after the attacks in Paris. My parents were encouraging, though, and I felt confident in my decision to go. I went with my boyfriend, Rowan, which satisfied many of my friends who had urged me to make sure at least one of my traveling companions was a man, because of how differently they perceived women to be treated there. I was nervous, but I tried to mentally prepare myself for the cultural differences I would feel.
The trip was incredible. The city and its neighboring Atlas Mountains were beautiful and vibrant, and I am so happy that I went. From the beginning, though, when we stepped out of our taxi after dark to walk to our hotel (called a Riad), I felt some of the vast, unfamiliar cultural differences. That night, as we walked the last few blocks to the Riad, I realized that I was the only woman still out in public. After dark, the streets that had been so bustling and crowded during the day were empty except for clusters of men in restaurants or storefronts. They had a sinister feeling, that feeling you get when you walk home alone at night from a bar, and feel powerless against anyone who might try to stop you.
The next morning, I was excited to explore the busy streets. I went to the front desk of our Riad to ask for a map and some recommendations. While helping me plan our day, the man at the concierge suddenly looked up and asked, “your husband is going, too, right?” Caught off guard at the assumption that Rowan and I were married, but uncertain about how he might react to an unmarried couple travelling together, I simply nodded. I went back to the room, where Rowan and I laughed about how crazy it was that anyone would think we, two twenty-year-old college students, were married.
Outside, women in burkas, niqabs, and headscarves were out and about running errands, working, and socializing. I stood out like a sore thumb in my jeans, but I felt safer. As Rowan and I wandered, fending off men trying to sell us their products in the marketplace, I began to notice that the men were addressing only him, not me. When I tried to tell them “no, we aren’t interested, thank you,” several men even told me “I’m not talking to you, I’m talking to your husband.” There it was again. It was not the assumption about our relationship that bothered me but the idea that I was merely a part of him, and that he was in charge of me. I knew women in many Muslim countries were often expected to be dependent on the men in their lives, but I was shocked that Rowan had become my mouthpiece, and the only part of me that was worth talking to.
Over the next few days, we had more and more experiences that reinforced what we had noticed—that people respected Rowan, and not me. Being the loud, assertive person that I am, I had a difficult time leaving most of the talking up to him, so in every restaurant, shop, and museum we went to, I struggled to keep quiet. The experience was sobering—I spent only several days in Morocco, and loved it, but could not imagine living there as a woman under such conditions. Of course, the women I saw were not acting like victims. It was the lifestyle they knew. But small moments, like realizing that I had not seen any fit women because women could not just go on a run or hit the gym, continued to shock me. There are certainly many strong, empowered women living in Muslim countries as in any country, but the everyday obstacles I faced in my short visit were still the greatest culture shock I experienced abroad. I’m thankful for my time in Morocco, but could not imagine a life there with the gender inequality women face each day. We have a long way to go towards equality in the U.S., but I feel lucky to have been born into a country in which women do not live under such strict rules. My experiences in Morocco changed and challenged my perceptions and assumptions about gender equality and female empowerment, and I hope that my time there can continue to push me to explore and fight for these issues.