I don't feel particularly qualified to write comprehensively (or well) about this issue. However, sexual harassment has been a large part of my experience here, and I felt a new compulsion to write about my perspective after viewing this fascinating video about street harassment in the States (more on it later).
My experiences with sexual harassment in Morocco have been 99.9% verbal. Unlike in Cairo, where I was often physically grabbed on the street, here the harassment comes mainly in the form of catcalls. It can be anything from a man whispering "Ca va?" as I pass on the street, to a glue-sniffing teenage boy in my old neighborhood shouting broken vulgarities at me, to a man following me and a friend for 15 minutes, asking us all the way if he can practice his English with us. In more escalated cases, men in cars will follow women, commanding them to get in, or will use a crowded city bus as an excuse to grope and fondle.
My most upsetting experience happened when I was walking on the main street of Agdal, a ritzy neighborhood in Rabat. I walked past a young man. (A boy, really. He couldn't have been more that thirteen, and he was probably high on glue fumes.) As our paths crossed, he reached his hands out and grabbed both my breasts. He let his hands remain there for a few seconds, then kept on walking. Completely shocked, I froze in place during the act, then continued to my destination. I didn't (couldn't) react, and neither did anyone around me.
I felt completely powerless. Degraded. Furious. I didn't ask for this; I didn't offer my consent.
And this is how I feel just about every day when I walk down the street and am openly, unabashedly appraised by men.
I studied in Cairo in 2006, the year in which horrific, mass sexual assaults occurred during 3eed al-fitr (the holiday that follows Ramadan). For five hours, a mob indiscriminately attacked women on a busy Cairo street. For five hours, the police did nothing. It still makes me sick to think about it.
Following this incident, if you had asked me what leads to such a high prevalence of sexual harassment in the Arab world, I would have responded that sexual frustration was the cause. In a trend particularly well-documented in Egypt, but prevalent across the Middle East and North Africa, young people increasingly postpone marriage (and thus licit sexuality) due to the rising costs of starting a household. I would have argued that the licit gives way to the illicit, hence the rise in sexual harassment and sexual assault. (It's worth noting here that a reported 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women experience harassment on a daily basis in Cairo.)
Since I left Cairo, I've read more and thought critically about my own experiences, not just in the Middle East and North Africa but in the US as well. Slowly but surely, I've revised my opinion, and come to the conclusion that unwanted, unsolicited sexual advances, whether these advances are in the form of words, gaze, or assault, are an exertion of power, not sexual desire. Men, by harassing women, demonstrate that they hold the power to belittle, to grope, to rape, and that we, as recipients, are powerless to stop them.
To paraphrase this wonderful post (which does a great job of analyzing the dynamics of street harassment in the Arab world): Sexual harassment is a reflection of male privlidge. It is condoned through societal norms, particularly society's unwillingness to protect victims and punish offenders.
How do these ideas apply to the Moroccan context? Firstly, it's hard to argue with the assertion that Arab states, Morocco included, are patriarchal. Family is perhaps the paramount social institution (often, multiple generations live together under one roof), and within the family roles and authority are clearly defined: Younger members defer to older ones, women defer to men. Women are, first and foremost, wives and mothers, roles which relegate women to the home, whereas men have freedom of mobility. This structure leads to what Kandiyoti refers to as the "patriarchal bargain": younger women buy into a social structure that restricts and subordinates because someday, as older matriarchs, they will be able to restrict and subordinate the wives of their sons.
However, this system is contingent upon the ability of the patriarch to provide for those who defer to his authority, and, as economic structures shift and women increasingly take jobs outside the home (which used to be a strictly male domain), men no longer hold the power they once did. The patriarchal bargain is in crisis, and this threatens both men and women. Men display "frustration and humiliation at being unable to fulfill their traditional role and the threat posed by women's greater spatial mobility and access to paid employment," (taken from "Islam and Patriarchy" by Deniz Kandiyoti, in Women in Middle Eastern History, 46), while women are unclear of the alternatives, and if these alternatives are superior to the bargain they've already struck.
I think Kandiyoti's analysis provides a compelling explanation for why street harassment is so out of control in Cairo: Young men are frustrated that they can't achieve the role that's expected of them. They feel impotent and powerless, and, by harassing women on the streets, they both prove to themselves that they do have the power to subordinate, and they also attempt to revert to the old model, where public space was almost exclusively male. These problems of male frustration and unfulfilled expectations exist in Morocco as well, although, in my purely observational opinion, they are less rampant here than in Cairo.
Sexual harassment here is socially condoned through the rationale that it is complimentary: women put effort into their appearance to attract male attention, and many women would be upset if they didn't receive said attention. Maybe it's true that some women seek out positive re-enforcement in the form of male attention, but consent from one woman doesn't equal consent from all women. To assume that we all thrive on your positive re-enforcement is degrading.
It's incredibly frustrating, a feeling which is only compounded by the seeming lack of understanding on the part of Moroccan men.
Anyways, I think now would be a good time to view this situation in a comparative context: it's interesting to turn the tables and apply a similar critique to American culture. As my female readers can probably confirm, sexual harassment frequently occurs in the US as well. I have been groped on the subway, catcalled at by construction workers, and followed for blocks by men who wouldn't relent. And I've heard the same excuse ("It was a compliment.") from American men.
To put it bluntly, we, as Americans, live in a rape culture, a society "in which rape is everyday, common place, and allowed through basic attitudes and beliefs about gender, sexuality, and violence." (This quote is from a video developed by Chicago teens, which explores the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our society. I highly recommend you watch it.)
Don't believe me? Here are some examples of normalized violence against women, all from the past six months or so:
- In the recently-released film Observe and Report, a women is raped for comedic effect. I suppose this shouldn't be particularly surprising, since the film's predecessor of sorts, Superbad, revolved around two teenage boys attempting to obtain alcohol so that they can get two young women drunk enough to take advantage of them.
- During the recent trial of a serial rapist, the defense attorney repeatedly emphasized that the victims were sex workers, as if their profession mitigates the horrific crimes the defendant committed.
- Following Chris Brown's highly-publicized assault of Rihanna, a poll of Boston-area teens revealed that nearly HALF felt Rihanna was to blame for the abuse she suffered.
- In another recent rape trial, the judge questioned the veracity of the victim's claims because of the sexual position the attack took place in.
- When a man exposed himself to a woman on a New York subway, she took a photo with her cell phone and brought it to the police, where she was informed that this "was not a police matter." (This activist group in NYC encourages women to take photos of offenders and email them to the site. They are rad.)
This post is long, rambling, and not particularly coherent. Unfortunately, I don't have any brilliant prescriptions for positive change. I hope, if anything, I've inspired you all to examine how consent is depicted in American media and popular culture. Regardless, thanks for making it through my sprawling ruminations.