Morocco was somewhere that I’ve been eyeing for a while but, as much as I hated to admit it, it was not somewhere I wanted to go alone. Like several other countries in the world, Morocco comes with a reputation, especially for female travellers. From sexual assault and harassment, unwanted physical contact and violence, I think I’ve heard it all. However, as many bad things as I heard about Morocco, I also heard amazing things; stories of friendly locals inviting travellers into their homes for a meal and of stunning landscapes. So, when my friend and fellow blogger Taylor and I found a cheap seat sale from Ottawa to Morocco in May of 2018, we decided to jump on it and explore this little part of northern Africa together.
As our travel dates crept up on us, I had mixed feelings about the trip. The wide range of opinions made it difficult for me to know what to expect but I honestly believed that since I had already been to Egypt, Jordan, and even Palestine that I knew what to expect. In a way, I did. However, I underestimated the severity of it.
I wanted to love Morocco so badly, I really did. But, in the end, it just didn’t happen and after 2.5 weeks travelling through Casablanca, Fes, Chefchaoeun, the Sahara, Marrakech, and Essaouira, I was more than ready to leave.
So what happened? What was my experience, and what do I think about Morocco for female travellers? Well, based on my own struggles and experience, these are my thoughts.
Cat-Calls and Sexual Harassment in Morocco
Cat-calls and sexual harassment is what I was worried about the most in Morocco. Sadly like most women, I’m no stranger to this behaviour and I’m quick to share. Regular readers will remember my stories of sexual assault in Tonga and that awful night I had in Belfast when I was living in Ireland, or maybe you heard me speak about sexual assault and the #MeToo movement at WITS 2018.
Up until this point, the worst place for cat-calling for me was Italy. I got a bit in Central and South America too on the Panama Canal cruise but overall, as annoying as it is I’ve gotten pretty good at just ignoring it. After all, most of the men that do it just want a reaction and are easy enough to ignore.
Morocco, however, I had very different experiences with cat-calling. I felt like the intent behind was different depending on where I was. In Fes, I have no doubts that it was done to intimidate. Men leered and asked if we were looking for them, or laughing as they called us ‘beautiful’ in a way that was far from innocent. It felt sleazy and uncomfortable and I did clap back a couple of times, unwilling to let them think they had scared me.
In Marrakech, I felt like it was more ‘playful’. Not that it made it better, but it was used more as a ploy for our business. Guys working in restaurants and shops would call out names like ‘Shakira’ in the hopes of getting out attention- and our money. It was just as annoying, but I didn’t feel as personally targeted.
One of the lines we heard the most was “Oh My God”. They all said it in the exact same tone too. One of our nights in Marrakech a man said it to us as we walked back and I just parroted it back loudly in the same tone. He continued on “I like you!” and I wish I had kept mimicking him but I was laughing too hard. It felt pretty good to make fun of him after days of enduring this behaviour.
I shared my experiences daily on Instagram stories and had a few people comment than I was experiencing more harassment that they did. I have no idea why. Obviously, I’m Caucasian with lighter hair and blue eyes-though I tried to hide my eyes under dark glasses most of the time. I did hear from a couple of people that Moroccan men like curvy girls so that could definitely have been a factor. Even now, a week after I’ve left, I still am getting sexually-charged comments on social media. I waited until I left the country to start posting photos on instagram. As I post this blog post, I only have one photo up on my account but I’ve had over a dozen men slide into my DMs with inappropriate comments. I have so many photos I want to share but I’m frustrated by the feeling that I can’t escape.
I did make sure to dress appropriately at all times: t-shirts with high necklines and wide leg pants were my normal go-to. I did wear a maxi dress twice that did show my shoulders but that was as revealing as I got. While I am glad I dressed conservatively to be respectful, I don’t know that it made a difference.
One of the things I found very interesting is that part of our trip took place over Ramadan. Now, I’m no expert but from what I understand means that sexual thoughts shouldn’t happen during the day. This is supposed to be a better time for women to travel, which I was counting on, but it only prevented comments during the day. As soon as the sun set, they were out in full force again. Sometimes I got them anyway, one man asking if I was looking for him. My answer, a stern no, got the response ‘it’s Ramadan, I can’t anyway”. Also, Ramadan didn’t stop children from speaking out. A couple of boys around 14 told me I had a nice ass while a group of 10 or so year olds yelled that they loved me. Both left me wondering how the hell these kids know these phrases and find it acceptable to yell them at strangers.
While the cat-calls were incredibly annoying, I think it’s really important to point out that I was never actually scared or felt in danger from it. A couple of very sexual comments made me angry, and I did get grabbed on the arm in Casablanca which came as a shock, but nothing actually made me fearful.
Aggressiveness and Harassment in Morocco
I expected the cat-calls to be the worst part of Morocco, but in fact, it was the street harassment and aggressiveness that we experienced that affected me the most. I just couldn’t seem to escape it and people rarely took ‘no’ as an answer. To the point where I actually lost my temper and yelled at a couple of people which is very unlike me.
The first time was in Chefchaoeun where a man kept bugging us to follow him to our hotel. Of course, he wanted money. I told him no at least a dozen times as I waited for my online map to load. Finally, I looked him straight in the eye and actually yelled ‘I SAID NO THANK YOU’. Finally, he got the message.
The second time was in Fes. A taxi dropped us off at a different gate and a young man kept trying to lead us. Again, I figured he wanted money and declined, pulling up my map. Online maps, however, don’t work in the Medina and we quickly discovered he had been following us when he came up from behind us and told us we were going the wrong way. Again, I told him no- we weren’t paying him. He said no payment then took us but, of course, when we arrived he started bugging us for money. I said, no and he called me heartless. He only left when the hostel owner opened the door.
Those are only two incidents but this type of thing happened on a daily basis. People wanting to lead us, people wanting us in their shops, taxi drivers bugging us… it was non-stop. For a while, I was able to handle it. It reminded me of Cairo, Egypt which I navigated and managed to survive and I kept thinking that the next place would be different. But, it wasn’t. I couldn’t escape ‘Cairo’.
For me personally, this is what I had the hardest time with. Mainly because it got to the point where I had enough and felt like I needed to become a different person to get through the streets. I put on dark sunglasses and ignored everyone, doing my best to arrange my features into a RBF (resting bitch face). I felt like a bitch too, and I hated it because I’m normally the type of traveller that smiles and says hello to everyone. But in Morocco, I couldn’t. Any look, any comment was an invitation that ended up with me getting trapped and taken advantage of.
I also hated how much it affected my travel style. I love to wander around, to get lost, to stop and look at things and explore. I felt like I couldn’t do that in Morocco. Every time I stopped to look at something in a shop, to check my map, or just to take in my surroundings I was jumped on. I needed to know, or at least look like I knew, where I was going which required a lot of advance planning that, to be honest, really isn’t my thing.
Other Factors That Played a Role
At the end of the day, it was the constant harassment and aggressiveness that I felt from the majority of Moroccan men that prevented me from loving the country. However, there were several other things that happened during the course of my Morocco trip that definitely impacted the situation and can’t be blamed on the country.
I have to say, I think I started off my Morocco trip pretty positive. While my friend Taylor’s frustration set in within a couple of days, I was able to stave mine off for nearly a week. Even in Fes, which was where we experienced the most harassment, I made it through with a smile on my face.
So what happened that made things change?
Well, I think several factors are to blame, besides me hitting a wall with the harassment.
First off, I barely slept my entire 16 days in Morocco. The beds are rock hard- actually- and I couldn’t get comfortable. I also found it incredibly noisy at night during Ramadan which makes sense as the people were celebrating, but the voices and even drums that we heard kept waking me up over and over again. That’s no fault of Morocco’s, many places have uncomfortable beds and are noisy but I’m sure it definitely played a role in my frustration which kicked in during our second week.
I also had three crappy experiences that I’d never had to deal with before and did make things more difficult. In Marrakech, we actually had to leave the hostel we originally booked. Despite the raving reviews online we just felt uncomfortable when we arrived, like a stranger in someone’s home rather than guests at a hostel. Pair that with the fact that wifi didn’t work (and since we both work remotely, this was really important for us) and the overall mustiness that set off my allergies it just wasn’t a comfortable situation. So we had to leave, fight to get some of our money back, then wander through the chaotic streets of the Medina in search of somewhere new. It worked out in the end, but it was stressful.
Another first- we booked a tour and it never showed up. If you’ve read through my site before you’ll notice that I regularly mention and promote Get Your Guide- I’ve used them all over and love them. So, when we were planning on going to Essaouira we decided to book a private transfer that would be faster, more relaxing, and hopefully stop to let us see those famous goats in trees. Everything was booked, paid for, and confirmed and yet the day of nobody showed. We sat in the lobby for over an hour trying to call-nothing. Thankfully, Get Your Guide tried as well and when they had no luck either they refunded the purchase. However, we still needed to get to Essaouira so did a panicked run to the bus station in the hopes that there would still be tickets. We did manage to get the tickets but we ended up losing a good chunk of the day.
I also, somewhere and somehow, got eaten alive. Some people said bed bugs, others said sand fleas from the desert. I washed everything I brought and had no problems after the initial incident but I woke up one morning covered in these swollen, red bites that alternated between itchy and sore. Obviously, that made me pretty miserable.
Finally, I need to mention the heat. I expected Morocco to be hot but I did not expect Marrakech to be 46-47 degrees Celsius. I’ve never experienced heat like that in my life and I wanted to die. We could barely go out. I sweat buckets- so much so that the black shirt I wore one day actually bled the dye and stained my nude coloured bra. That’s a first.
Of course, none of the above can be blamed specifically on Morocco. Travel hiccups, nasty bugs, and crazy temperatures can happen anywhere. It just sucked that it all happened to me at the same time on top of my frustrations and lack of patience with how I was being treated by the men. While I recognize that these factors cannot be blamed on the country, there’s no doubt that they impacted my personal overall experience.
Feedback from Other Women
Both before and during my experience in Morocco I had women tell me their stories and their own experiences. Some loved it and experienced no problems while others had similar or even worse experiences than I did.
So what makes everyone’s experience so different?
Well, I have a couple of thoughts. The women that I spoke to who really loved Morocco seemed to have a few things in common:
- Some women have only been to Marrakech, which is very tourist-centric and felt like a completely different world to both Taylor and I. It’s much more modern, accessible, and tourist-driven than, say Fes. The number of fellow tourists alone was a bit of a shock to us, not to mention the outfits we saw women wearing. Coming to Marrakech I immediately felt myself relax and become more comfortable so I can understand why women who have only been to this city have had a good experience.
- They travelled with a man or a local friend who knew the area. Being with a man makes a world of difference. Even I noticed this in Egypt. Being with a local also makes for a completely different experience.
- They stuck to the coast: The coastal towns of Morocco are known to be more laid back and relaxed. While our time in Casablanca and Essaouira weren’t without problems, these two places were much relaxed than the in-land cities we visited. We were able to relax even more in Essaouira (our final stop) than in Marrakech, it just felt easy after everything else we had been through.
- They visited Berber cities rather than Arab ones. This came from a woman we met living in Morocco. She was based in a Berber city near the Sahara and said she didn’t have problems-attributing a big part of this to the fact the local Berbers generally had more respect for women than the Arabs. This may be a big generalization but I think it’s worth mentioning as both Taylor and I found the Berber men we met in the Sahara incredibly kind and non-threatening as well.
- They took a tour or stayed in one city and did guided day trips. Guides made a world of difference, even though we only used them twice: once for a half day Medina tour of Fes and then for the 3 day Sahara trip. When we had a guide we were treated respectfully in local businesses and had no problems with harassment or cat calling in the street. The difference between having a guide and being alone was like night and day.
- Their Morocco Trip Was a Luxury Experience: How you travel through Morocco also plays a huge role. Taylor and I backpacked which means we chose hostels and a couple of cheap hotels. However, Morocco also has plenty of beautiful luxury hotels and properties as well. Staying in a top tier hotel with on-site dining and well-trained staff who regularly deal with travellers from western countries is going to be considerably different than what we experienced as backpackers.
Now, keep in mind, again that everyone’s experience is different. I had friends who experienced no harassment in Essaouira while we did. I also know of women who had their worst experiences in Marrakech which I found to be one of the easier spots. These are just general similarities that I have noticed when speaking to other women about their positive Morocco experiences so I think that they are worth noting.
Should Women go to Morocco Alone?
Throughout my time in Morocco I had several women ask me my thoughts on solo travel in Morocco.
Could you do it?
Of course you could.
The real question is; do you actually want to do it solo? That depends on a lot of things and I can’t speak for you but I can say as an experienced solo traveller I was grateful that I was not alone in Morocco.
To be honest, I don’t think that having two of us made any difference in the harassment we experienced. Hell, in Marrakech we met two American girls and walked around as 4 and that didn’t seem to matter either. As I mentioned earlier, it was pretty non-stop for us. However, being able to have someone to walk around with was kind of like a safety net. We could talk and therefore easily ignore anyone calling after us. We could work together to find out where we needed to go, and we motivated each other to go out and do/see things even when sometimes it would have been easier to just stay in the hostel. I could have done it alone, but I was incredibly grateful to have Taylor with me.
In the end, I think it comes down to the type of experience you want. Are you wanting to test yourself and prove that you can do it alone? I’m not going to stop you. I’m all for women pushing boundaries in travel. However, if you want to truly enjoy Morocco I’d suggest otherwise. Again though, that’s just my opinion based on my personal experience. Take the time and reach out to other women who have been asking for their honest opinions and what parts of the country they travelled to before making a decision.
What I Wish I Had Done
If you have been following me for a while or have read a bunch of my articles, then you will know that I’m a huge fan of independent travel. I’ve only done a couple small group trips at 3 days maximum. I love my freedom and the ability to create my own schedule. However, if I could do it all over again I’d join a tour.
I know several women who experienced the magic of Morocco by being part of a group tour and, to be honest, I’m envious of their experience. As I said earlier, I really wanted to love Morocco and unfortunately my experiences with the men and harassment prevented me from doing so. I think that if I had been on a tour I would have had a completely different experience and probably come our loving the country. After all, as I said earlier, it really is beautiful with some fascinating places to see.
I’ve heard incredible things about Intrepid Travel’s Morocco tours which are small group trips so, if you are looking for an idea, check them out. They have several options that will allow you to have an authentic Morocco experience with the added security of travelling with a local guide. You can check out Intrepid’s Morocco tours here.
What About Men Travelling to Morocco?
While I’ve written this article mainly for my fellow travelling women, I think it’s important to discuss what some of the men I met along the way told me as well.
I spoke with a few men in Morocco, a couple of which were travelling with their wife/girlfriend and one in particular who was travelling solo. While my ‘subject pool’ wasn’t very big, they did have many similar comments. Mainly that they felt uneasy at times too.
Sure, they didn’t experience the cat calls but they did have the same thoughts on the harassment in the streets; people constantly in their face to come to their shop, get in their taxis, or to guide them somewhere. They expressed a similar feeling to Taylor and I about needing to constantly be alert and aware of their surroundings, especially in Fes.
I did speak to a young Australian backpacker in Essaouira who told me his experience actually bordered on physical violence. He had two local men on separate occasions threaten him and tell him to ‘get the fuck out of their country’. Granted, I don’t know how he acted or if he did anything to facilitate this behaviour, but I was surprised as I didn’t expect to hear that male travellers would have problems.
Again, I didn’t get the chance to talk to many male travellers in Morocco, but I found it very interesting that those that I did speak to indicated that it wasn’t exactly easy for them either.
Final Thoughts on Morocco Based on My Experience
Despite the fact that my experience was not what I wanted, I want to make it clear that I did not hate Morocco. I honestly think it’s a beautiful country with lots to offer and, in the end, I am glad that I had that experience. Fes, despite probably being where we experienced the most harassment, is actually a fascinating city. Chefchaouen is just as beautiful as the photos show, the Sahara was incredible, and Essaouira was adorable. But, while I do recognize that these places have tons of potential, I think the way Taylor and I chose to travel through Morocco impacted our ability to really enjoy them and have the positive Moroccan experience that I know others have had.
I also want to point out that while this article focused on the negative interactions we had with men, we did meet a few good ones too. Mind you, it really was a few (I actually counted; there were 9) and all of them were in the tourism sector. However, most went above and beyond and were genuinely kind and friendly. They were a pleasure to talk to and if these were the type of people that other travellers had the majority of their interactions with, then I can understand why some people say that they loved the local people.
Morocco for me was definitely an adventure. It was my 56th country and while I am grateful for the experience, there’s no doubt that it was the most difficult and trying destination I have been to. Again, this is just my personal experience- everyone’s is different. But, I wanted to share my honest thoughts and opinions for any other women who are looking to go. Please recognize that I am not telling women, or anyone, to avoid Morocco. If it’s on your list, then, by all means, do it. Just take my experience into consideration as you plan and, if you are worried then consider joining a tour.
Have you been to Morocco? I’d love for you to drop where and your experience in the comments to add to the conversation.