Many of my expectations were turned on their head when we arrived in Morocco. I’d read countless articles inferring that female travellers were not treated well in Morocco. That they would be constantly cat-called and harassed in the streets.
My experience of travelling as a woman in Morocco wasn’t like this at all.
From reading blogs from other female travellers online, I expected that being a female traveller in Morocco was going to be difficult, if not downright horrible at times. This article and this one are two particularly shocking ones that I read about the way Moroccan men react to women travellers. One said the harassment was so bad that she “felt like bloody raw meat in a lion’s den.”
Despite the accounts from other female travellers, I was undeterred from visiting Morocco (so strong was my desire to stay in a riad!) I was much more comfortable with the idea of travelling to Morocco mostly because I wasn’t travelling solo. I would have Luke with me. Though many women who were with their partners or in groups of friends also reported that they still got hassled in Morocco, I expect that it’s probably better than being a solo female traveller in Morocco.
Well, here’s how my travel adventure in Morocco went…
Arriving in Morocco
When we arrived at customs in Marrakech, I waited for Luke to go ahead of me when having our passports checked, deciding that in Morocco women probably didn’t go first. Luke extended out his passport, but the man behind the desk said: “Ladies first” and gestured to me to hand over my passport. He said to Luke: “She is the Queen, and Queens go first always.” I was so surprised that my first encounter with a Moroccan man was so starkly opposite of what I’d been led to expect, that I dumbly handed my passport over without being able to speak.
Outside the airport, we jumped on the bus that goes into Marrakech city centre. The driver was a woman. Having just recently read the story of Manal al Sharif, the Saudi woman who was imprisoned for driving, I was taken aback again. Even though I knew Morocco was not as strict as Saudi Arabia and other countries, I was excited to see a woman working behind the wheel. By now I was also embarrassed to have all these negative preconceptions about what it was like to be a woman in Morocco.
In the street in Morocco
After reading blogs from other female travellers, I expected to be harassed on the street (particularly when I was out alone without Luke). Let’s be clear that all travellers in Morocco get ‘harassed’ on the street. By that, I mean that locals will try to direct you or ask you where you want to go or try to lead you somewhere as soon as you so much as glance at Google maps on your phone. If you follow them in the slightest, they will then promptly start demanding payment for their ‘help’ even if you said ‘no’. Stallholders inside souks will shout at foreigners walking by and they will pressure you into buying their wares. And – worst of all – the guys trying to get foreigners to eat at the meat grills at Jemaa el Fnaa (the main square in Marrakech), will basically accost you.
Did this happen more to me than to Luke? No. Did Moroccan men catcall or harass me anymore this when I was with Luke? No. Did they do so when I was out on my own without Luke? No.
Contrary to everything I’d read, Moroccan men were only ever polite and friendly to me. In most cases, men I passed in the street didn’t interact with me at all. They walked their way and I walked mine. A few tried to take me to wherever I was going, but I just said “no, thanks” and they left me alone. Never did a Moroccan man catcall at me. Never did a Moroccan man grab at me except for one guy working in a souk who touched my shoulder to try and get me to buy his spices.
I heard a few stories before I went of Moroccan men offering to buy women from their partners for a hundred camels. Well, no one tried to buy me either, not even the men in the desert. I actually kind of got the impression that this was some kind of rumour and that no Moroccan guy would be silly enough to attempt it. Or maybe it’s just gone out of fashion (or I’m not worth any camels).
I’m not sure why my experiences travelling as a woman in Morocco – especially when out alone – were so different. Perhaps it’s that Morocco has become more liberal or more used to tourists since the women travellers’ whose stories I read visited. Maybe it’s because I’ve visited quite a few countries where tourists get hassled, and I just block things out or don’t notice. I never make eye contact with men in the street and am pretty good at ignoring people who try to hassle me. It might also be that my resting ‘disinterested’ face puts men off from attempting to start a conversation with me.
What I will say is that when I was walking on my own walking around the towns, I was distinctly aware that only 1 in 50 people was a woman. Most likely because all the women are inside their homes preparing food, cleaning and looking after children. The streets and cafes are dominated by men and although I never felt threatened by anyone in Morocco, there is something unnerving about being in a foreign country and being the only woman in crowds of men. It’s an experience that women from countries like the UK are not used to.
So in Morocco, there are ‘men cafes.’ They’re just ordinary cafes but the only patrons are men. There are no women at these cafes. And to be honest, it’s most of the cafes. Just rows and rows of men sitting in cafes, drinking coffee or pouring mint tea. The men will sit there for hours. There are cafes where women can go, but it seemed there were less and that they were mostly on terraces rather than on the street like the ‘men cafes.’ The men cafes became a bit of a running joke between me and Luke because it seems so unfamiliar and odd to us. But if you were a woman and approached a ‘men cafe’ on your own, you would definitely feel uncomfortable.
When we arrived in Taroudant, a small town in southern Morocco with little tourist infrastructure, we needed to find a place with wifi to check-in with our Airbnb host. The only places anywhere to be seen were ‘men cafes.’ We sat down at the table outside furthest from the door. I had half expected to be told to go away, but the waiter came and brought us two coffees without batting an eyelid at me. I asked for the wifi code, and he gave it to me. When I went inside to use the bathroom I had to walk in front of rows of men watching football. I went to go in the toilet and the waiter stopped me. I was taken aback and about to leave, but then he turned around from the bar and handed me a toilet roll and said “for ladies” and smiled.
Now I’m not saying that solo female travellers or local women should stride up and sit in the ‘men cafes’ (though they totally should if they desire) and maybe I just hit upon a friendly one, but my experience was very positive. No one sneered at me or gave me a bad look. The coffee was really good and so was the wifi (and good wifi is rare in Morocco). In fact, my whole experience of the ‘men cafe’ was a positive one.
Advice for Female Travellers in Morocco
Though I had very little hassle or problem as a female traveller in Morocco. I can’t say that 3 weeks travelling in Morocco makes me any sort of expert, but I do have some common sense advice for any women planning a trip to Morocco.
Take the same precautions you would at home
In the UK, you wouldn’t catch me walking around Peckham or Brixton on my own at 3am. Research unsafe neighbourhoods just like you would anywhere you travel and be aware of your surroundings. I would recommend making sure your accommodation is in a safe part of each city and look for accommodation reviews from other female travellers before booking.
Morocco, and especially Marrakech, has a lot of winding and poorly lit alleyways in the medinas which are hard to navigate. Though I didn’t feel threated once during my trip, I certainly would prefer not to walk through these alleyways after dark on my own. As for alcohol, it’s expensive in Morocco so it’s quite likely you won’t be drinking that often anyway.
Look like you know where you’re going
This is great advice for any traveller in Morocco who wants to do their best to avoid being hassled in the street. You’ll find that far less people approach you or try to give you directions if you walk determinedly and look like you know where you’re going (even if you don’t – most of the time you won’t). If you look lost or look at Google Maps on your phone, local men will approach you. If they do, avoid eye contact, say ‘no, thanks’ if they offer directions and stride away like you know where you’re going.
Ignore anyone who persists
I hate to give advice to ignore people, but often engaging with local men who hassle you only makes them less likely to go away. It’s a shame to have to ignore people and in some cases they might genuinely be being friendly, but in Morocco it’s just too hard to tell and not worth the risk. Some men may get annoyed at being ignored – frequently, actually – and be quite rude. One guy called me a ‘bitch’ for ignoring him and some similar comments. To me, this only affirms my decision to ignore them in the first place.
Some places are more liberal than others
We travelled around the south of Morocco for 3 weeks, and quickly realised that some towns and cities were much more liberal with dress codes than others. Marrakech was particularly conservative, and local women were mostly all covered here. In other towns, some women didn’t wear headscarves and many wore Western-style clothes. The beach town of Taghazout was much more liberal than the other towns we visited. They’re used to tourists and the town is full of surfers. Here wearing shorts and crop tops is not unusual for tourists and will attract much less attention.
What to Wear in Morocco
While I don’t know that dressing conservatively will guarantee that men don’t comment or harass you, it’s really important to follow the dress codes in Morocco. Women dress conservatively. They wear clothes that cover their shoulders and their knees. Even some women sitting on the beach and swimming in the sea will wear a full dress down to their ankles and their headscarf.
I saw a lot of tourists wearing strappy vest tops and shorts and there were men all over them, catcalling from their motorbikes. I really think that in Morocco it’s not worth the hassle and unwanted attention, though I heard many women who did dress conservatively still didn’t escape being hassled.
What I wore in Morocco:
In Morocco, I wore long linen trousers or black skinny jeans, short-sleeved t-shirts with round necks or shirts and tunics with long sleeves. I mostly wore loose clothing because it was so hot during the day, but in coastal towns where it was cooler, I wore my skinny jeans.
A friend of mine said a girl she travelled in Morocco with wore leggings but just had guys staring at her crotch the whole time. I avoided wearing leggings except when hiking up Mt Toubkal, and no one commented or gave me a funny look (but I was hot, sweaty and hiking). I also wore a headscarf whilst hiking, and later read that many female travellers chose to wear a headscarf in the evenings because they felt they got hassled less.
Another friend of mine who is currently living in Casablanca said that her neighbour suggested that she should be wearing tops with “butt cover” (i.e. long tops that cover your bum) because Moroccan men will stare. Maybe I’m oblivious but this seemed a bit absurd based on my experiences. I mostly wore normal length tops and didn’t have any issues.
My final piece of clothing advice is to wear sunglasses. Wearing sunglasses is magical. No one can see your eyes or what you’re looking at and it means you avoid risking accidentally making eye contact with someone.
Are you travelling to Morocco soon? I’d love to hear about your experience as a female traveller in Morocco.