The multicultural and multilingual framework of Morocco entices many Americans. I myself became infatuated with the country after reading Suzanna Clarke’s A House in Fez. So, when presented with the opportunity to volunteer there, I booked a flight and stuffed a backpack full of scarves tout de suite. During my six weeks in Morocco, I endeavored to understand its cultural complexities and differences. The following are some of the most important pieces of advice for women that I picked up first-hand.
Dress Appropriately. Given the various social and cultural practices within Morocco, dress etiquette depends upon location. In my experience, the cities exhibit a rather interesting mélange of traditional (djellabas, caftans, headscarves, etc.) and contemporary (jeans, skirts, t-shirts, etc.) attire. You are not expected to wear a headscarf, but it is important to respect the relatively conservative environment. I wore loose slacks, jeans, cotton shirts, and knee-length skirts in the cities.
Do Not Be Afraid to Immerse Yourself. Stepping out of your comfort zone is essential if you desire to understand Moroccan culture. I do not give this piece of advice to sound like a pretentious world traveler. Admittedly, I went on guided tours, stayed at a couple of enchanting riads, and paid premiums to ride in first class. However, I learned more about Moroccan life from conversing with taxi drivers than from any tour guide. Do not let your status as a woman hold you back. Bargain with vendors in the medina, converse with locals, and do not be afraid to ask questions.
Disregard Unwanted Attention. The aggression some Moroccan men direct toward American women initially shocked me. So, I asked a Moroccan friend how to handle their advances. She laughed at my question then claimed, “They are just curious, Paulina. They see a young woman and want to grab her attention. A few harbor false hope of marrying an American woman, but most of them are just curious.” Then, she recommended I take some hints from how Moroccan women handle male aggression: do not dress for attention, avoid eye contact, ignore the comments, and [if you are courageous enough] reprimand them. La means “no” in Moroccan Arabic, and shuma (pronounced shoo-ma) means “shame on you.”
Respect the Laws.
While traveling in Morocco, remember that you are subject to the country’s rules and regulations. Though limited in comparison to other countries in the Muslim world, elements of Islamic law are reflected in Morocco’s legal system. Sexual relations outside of marriage and same-sex relations are punishable by law; exercise discretion in public. It is also illegal to distribute evangelical/non-Muslim literature.
Here are some other laws to consider. 1) Although foreigners are exempt from the ban on public eating during Ramadan, it is highly disrespectful to eat in front of others during the daylight hours. An angry man confronted some volunteers and myself in Tetaoun because, while waiting for a connection during our twelve-hour bus ride from Chefchaouen to Rabat, we snacked in the empty terminal; I was mortified. 2) The Moroccan dirham is a restricted currency, so bringing in or taking out over a thousand dirham will raise red flags with customs officials. Again, if you do choose to ignore this law, exercise discretion in public (i.e. do not flash your money around at the airport). 3) Moroccans take drug-related crimes very seriously; possession of illegal substances can carry a ten-year imprisonment. Ironically, while hiking in the Rif Mountains, a guide told me that the Chefchaouen region supplies Europe with fifty percent of its marijuana. 4) Material acknowledging Western Saharan independence is illegal. I doubt your guide book will be an issue, but customs did confiscate my geography textbook.
Connect with Moroccan Women. Understanding gender roles in an Islamic country can be difficult, but Moroccan women provide great insight. I was lucky enough to interact with Moroccan women on a daily basis through my volunteer work. However, most visitors are not afforded such opportunity. I suggest hiring a female tour guide if you wish to gain a woman’s perspective on gender roles. In Fez, my group decided to hire a female tour guide to help us maneuver through the medina; she was completely transparent about women’s roles, rights, and realities.
Some Other Tips. Contrary to what many travel sites claim, you can buy tampons in Morocco. You can also buy wine. You will need to present your passport every time you check into a hotel per national security policy. Do not accept rides from unmarked taxis. Petit taxis are metered, while grand taxis are not. When bargaining in the medina, ask for the “Moroccan price,” not the “American price.” I highly suggest avoiding food from the medina if you have a nervous stomach. Although I am a huge proponent of interacting with locals, I would advise against politically or culturally sensitive debate. Do not eat with your left hand. Bring a scarf with you everywhere, and wrap yourself in it if you feel uncomfortable. Avoid heavy makeup, especially during Ramadan.
I am not Moroccan, and I cannot claim to fully understand Moroccan culture. However, I did gain a great deal of insight during my six weeks there. Do not let your reservations about traveling as a woman in an Islamic country hold you back. Be adventurous. Visit Morocco!