Lessons from Morocco, Part 2: Cultural Relativity and Other Issues

21 01 2008

Woman walking down side street in MarrakechIn my last post (Lessons from Morocco: How NOT to Treat Women), I talked about how intolerable I found the behaviour of many Moroccan men towards women in the streets to be, and set aside the matter of cultural relativity to be dealt with later—that is, now.  The issue, as my friend pointed out to me, was this: I hated the heckling and calling and kissing noises and so on because I wasn’t used to it.  For women who had grown up in that culture though, they’d be used to it and thus not mind or care.  So, since the men were allegedly all bark and no bite, I had nothing to worry about and should be fine if only I let go of my own cultural prejudices (i.e. the idea that everything they did was inappropriate and disturbing).  Even my friend, who although just as feminist is much more easygoing and laid-back than I am, said she didn’t mind as much towards the end of the trip, whereas I was more sick of it than ever.

My response to this is: it doesn’t matter if you’re used to it or not; it’s the principles and the ideas behind the actions and reactions that matter.  Cultural relativity only works to a certain extent, and past that you could very easily find yourself arguing for letting people get away with murder.  There are many cultures around the world that harbour certain practices, such as female circumcision/genital mutilation in Africa, polygamy and sexual/sexual child abuse in Canadian and American towns such as Bountiful, and the abandonment or killing of female babies in China.  These things are all culturally or religiously entrenched practices, and accepted as normal by the people within each culture, but clearly, that doesn’t make them right.

Alright, so if cultural relativity doesn’t make the men’s and boys’ behaviour in Marrakech right, why, exactly, is their behaviour wrong? 

My very first instinct would be to say it’s wrong because of how it made me feel—unsafe, uncomfortable, and vulnerable everywhere I went, no matter when or where.  That should be enough; it’s why bullying isn’t allowed in schools, isn’t it?  However, cultural relativity does create some leaks in this one.  As mentioned above, I only felt the way I did because I wasn’t used to experiencing that sort of behaviour on a daily (read: minutely) basis.  So, since I was (supposedly) never in any real harm, I had no major reason to feel unsafe/uncomfortable/vulnerable and thus my feelings alone, as a reason on their own, polemically speaking, might not be enough to condemn the behaviour as wrong.

Taking my emotions out of the equation then, why is it still wrong?

Moroccan man in Marrakech souks (market streets), possibly catching Joaninha in 100% tourist mode

I really struggled to answer this question in a way that would hold water rationally and objectively.  In the process, I came up with several smaller points that backed up my main one, even if I didn’t know exactly what that was, yet:

1. It objectifies women.

The idea that it’s acceptable to call at and suggestively greet random women in the streets wherever they go implies that women are ever things to be looked at and commented on, as if we were not touring a foreign city or going out to dinner, but deliberately parading ourselves in front of the men/teenagers/boys clustered on the sidewalks.  You know that feeling you have when someone is staring at or watching you, even if you don’t see them?  Imagine being permanently in that state, and change the staring to leering.  Welcome to Marrakech! 

2. It degrades and demeans women.

After about two days, I realized part of why the calling, etc., bothered me so much.  Even if the men did not seriously believe their behaviour would get them what they wanted (although who knows), underlying it all was the idea that they would call, coo, or whistle, and we (women) would come.  Like we were animals.  Or infants, or children, come to think of it.  This reminds me of my “Playing Women in the Roda” post, where I said the “Chauvinist Theory” equated women capoeiristas to beginner capoeiristas; and of the incident where MSNBC’s Chris Matthews pinched Hillary Clinton on the cheek.  It’s the idea that just because we are female, we are somehow less than full or full(y) qualified persons, and can be treated accordingly.

3. It alienates and encourages self-oppression of women.

On our second last night in Marrakech, we met three other women our age and shared a laugh over the mass idiocy we’d all had the good fortune to experience.  Then, they said something that completely chilled and disturbed me.  At one point during their trip, they told my friend and me, they’d gotten so fed up with all the unwanted male attention that they decided to wear headscarves, like many Muslim women in the country do.  And you know what?  The attention, according to them, decreased dramatically. 

To me, that’s even worse than if the attention had gone on as usual.  What’s being said here is not only “You are available for heckling because you are a woman”, but “You are available for heckling because you are a woman with the audacity to leave your face/hair/head bared and not cover yourself.”  I get the feeling not wearing a headscarf in Marrakech might possibly have been the equivalent of wearing a revealing top in North America, which brings us back to the idea of men assuming women are looking/asking for it just because of something they wear (or in this case, don’t wear).  (SeeWomen, Men, and Brazilian Bikinis“).  It didn’t help that while trying to sell her one, a shopkeeper put a scarf around my friend’s head, almost as if to veil her, saying, “This is how our women wear their scarves.”  While we’re on the topic, not that it should matter, but my friend and I were in long-sleeves and pants for the entire trip.  We didn’t even bother with T-shirts, even though it was around 20 degrees Celsius or hotter each day.

Shops in Djemma el Fna, main market square in Marrakech

After looking over all those points together, the answer to my question became obvious, and was much simpler than I thought it was, which is probably why I had such a hard time pinpointing it at the beginning:

I wasn’t heckled because I was me, Joaninha, “English major and obsessed capoeirista”.  I wasn’t heckled just because I’m Asian (though if I hear “Konichiwa” ONE more time…).  I wasn’t heckled just because I’m a tourist—by shopkeepers, yes, but not random men on the street.  If someone exactly like me went on my trip in Morocco, only male, they would not have been bothered nearly as much (although it’s true I can’t speak for any gay male populations in the country…).  The shopkeepers’ heckling didn’t bother me as much by the end of the trip, because I learned to distinguish it from purely male heckling.  Fair enough: they wanted to sell things, I was a tourist, it was likely I was interested in buying things.  The male heckling, though, was not fair at all: they wanted something, I was a woman, but it was not likely I might be interested in that thing.

In short, the majority of the heckling was purely sex-based.  (And I mean sex in all senses of the word.)  That’s why it’s wrong.  Isn’t there something out there that says it’s wrong to discriminate in words or actions based on gender, race, or religion?  Oh yeah—it’s called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

So, it doesn’t matter if you’re used to it or not.  Harassment is still harassment.  Even if it’s not supposed to mean or lead to anything more than an annoyance (albeit a deep, implications-filled annoyance), it’s the ideas and mentality behind the bark that opens the way to it becoming a bite.  Sure, nothing happened to my friends and I, but that’s just it—nothing happened, and we still felt intensely uncomfortable; imagine what it must be like for all the girls and women in the world to whom something does happen?  If the base level of appropriateness in North America is common decency and respectful behaviour, and rapes and assaults still happen, what are the chances of such incidents occurring when the base level of appropriateness in a culture already constitutes verbal harassment? 

Maybe you might say that the rapes and assaults happen precisely because North American men don’t have the “outlet” of heckling women everyday in public, and so are repressed and thus burst from it in more explosive ways, but that idea, ignoring its own lack of merit, again is based on the idea of men “not being able to control themselves”, which is about as vendible as Peter Mans Bridge.

Anyway, I’m glad that I went to Morocco.  It was a really interesting trip, still fun, memorable, and full of new and different experiences.  I’m even glad for the heckling and all that, kind of, because it made me see and feel for real exactly what I’ve been talking about all along on this blog, which I think will contribute to Mandingueira in the long run.

Tomorrow, pure capoeira!

Update: Hmm, so it seems I’ve offended a person with ties to Morocco, according to a comment I received.  Alright, I guess I could have been more careful not to make such wide generalizations (e.g. “Moroccan men”), but something about the comment tells me that wasn’t what he was concerned about.  Oh well; all the blogging experts say you haven’t made it until someone hates you, so maybe this is a good sign? 😛 

Update 2: Aaaaaand…now I have incoming links from Morocco sex and prostitution sites.  That might explain it…