So far, I’ve written a lot about my work. I’ve written a little about my travels, and about what life as a PCV is like in general. But I’ve left out a big, glaring piece of life in
Morocco, a piece that many PCVs
struggle with throughout their service: Harassment.
There’s a reason I haven’t yet touched on this issue. I’ve been reluctant to write about it, because I’m not sure how to adequately describe the phenomenon in a way that is both honest and contextualized. Harassment runs rampant in
for complex cultural reasons, and I don’t want to summarize it poorly and wind
up giving people a false analysis. In fact, I’ve tried writing a post about it
on numerous occasions, and every time I’ve only wound up frustrated and unable
to write anything. So I’ll skip the analysis and the dozens of other things I’d
like to write about this issue, and just tell you this: Morocco has a
harassment problem. It happens in the streets, in schools, in workplaces, in
markets. It happens to women young and old, dressed traditionally and modernly,
foreign and Moroccan, married and unmarried. Sometimes it’s a leering, almost
threatening stare; other times, it’s a hiss, a catcall in French, a bad word.
And sometimes, it’s getting followed or even grabbed in the street.
Last winter, some specific events brought the issue of harassment in my site into sharp focus, and encouraged an open dialogue between myself, my mudir (the Dar Chebab director), and the girls in my Dar Chebab about the issue.
Every Sunday, the Dar Chebab girls’ soccer team gets together and practices on the field next to the middle school. Every now and then (when there are no boys playing), we have access to the field itself, but usually we are relegated to the dirt patch on the side of the field while the boys play on the main field. My mudir says that it isn’t because they’re girls, but rather because the municipality runs the field, and the boys’ teams are signed up on the schedule to play during that time. But when, logically, I’ve tried convincing my mudir to go with me to the municipality to get the girls on the schedule, he’s given me a litany of excuses which make the real reason for the exclusion apparent. But perhaps worse than the space issue is the harassment the girls – ages ranging from 8 to 15 years old – receive when we play. They get taunted by their classmates when we walk past the boys sitting near the entrance. They get mocked by older boys playing soccer while they’re trying to play. And a few times, they’ve even had dirty things said to them by older men walking by (the girls refused to tell me what they’d said, but I can infer based on their embarrassed faces). And the other men on the field – the coaches, the parents, even the police standing nearby? They do nothing. They watch from 5 feet away as their sons taunt and harass young girls. They watch as their teammates catcall or mock teenaged girls who are just trying to play the same sport they are. And even when asked to do something, they shrug their shoulders, deny that it happened (even though it JUST happened, in plain sight, 30 seconds before), or worst of all, they join in the mocking.
One day, I had a conversation (which later turned into a heated debate) with my mudir about addressing the issue of harassment on the soccer field. We had just gotten harassed by an entire group of young boys on our walk into the field, while the boys’ fathers sat by and watched. I was asking him to acknowledge the fact that the girls and I regularly get harassed on the field, and to take some bystander intervention steps to address the issue. He argued with me about it, and we ended up entering into a long debate about the causes of harassment, its frequency, the effects it has on girls and society as a whole, and ways that the community can act to bring about its end. A key point that I made sure to repeatedly emphasize to him was that part of the reason it continues with such ferocity is that the men in boys' lives - their fathers, brothers, teachers, coaches, etc - don't teach them otherwise; far too often, men stand by and watch as their sons, students, and neighbors harass young girls, rather than teaching them that it is wrong and offering an alternative. We ended the argument on good terms, and though I didn't convince him of my viewpoint, I know that our conversation at least made him think critically about an issue he likely rarely thinks about.
After the above conversation, I wasn't sure how my girls would react. They had heard the whole thing, since it had taken place on the soccer field, and I wasn't sure if they agreed with what I said or even thought it was as big a deal as I did. After all, I've heard stories from other PCVs about Moroccan girls acting cavalier about harassment, whether to paint a positive picture of
or because they simply didn't take it very hard. I was worried that they'd been
looking on during the argument, shaking their heads and wondering when we were
going to get on with soccer practice. Later, though, as two of the girls walked
me home, I found that my fears were unfouded: Not only did the girls find what
I'd said relevant, but they also agreed with everything I'd said, especially
the part about the reasons harassment continues. For the entire walk home, it
was like a floodgate had been opened, and they talked rapidly, sharing with me
all of their opinions about harassment and all the times they'd seen their boy
family members be let off easily for bad behavior while girls received stricter
treatment. They also shared with me several personal accounts of the harassment
they'd experienced, and what I heard shocked me, though perhaps it shouldn't
have. These girls are only 10 and 11 years old, and both of them told stories
of being harassed in the street, at school, at our summer day camp last year,
and even at the Dar Chebab, on a regular basis. What shocked me wasn't so much
the harassment per se (since I know how common it is), but the fact that so
many of their stories were about things that happened at the Dar Chebab, right
there under my nose. Boys mocking them, making fun of them, saying bad words to
them, pulling their hair - and I'd had no idea that it was happening. My Dar
Chebab is extremely unique in that girls represent an overwhelming majority of
those attending - a phenomena that is rare across Morocco. I had thought that, since
girls basically ran the show, they would be facing little to no harassment in
the safe space of the Dar Chebab. I was wrong, though. When I asked them why
they never told the mudir about it, they responded that they knew he wouldn't
understand, and pointed to our argument as further proof that he was out of
touch. In fact, they said that when they had told him about it once before,
he'd shrugged his shoulders and told them that the Dar Chebab was open to
anyone, and so he had no authority to reprimand the boys or kick them out. My
heart broke at the fact that they'd been experiencing harassment in a space
where they're supposed to feel safe, and that they had little to no faith in
the director of that space to be their ally. I assured them that no matter
what, no matter where they were or what they were doing, nobody had the right
to treat them badly, to harass them, or to make them feel inferior. I urged
them to come to me with any concerns they had, and to tell me if any boy harassed
them in any way at the Dar Chebab, so that I could talk to the mudir and put an
end to it. They didn't seem convinced that we could put a stop to it, but they
did seem utterly relieved and glad to have someone to talk to, a person with
some degree of authority who understood and was finally on their side.
After that conversation, it was obvious that the lines of communication between myself and the girls had been opened widely. I had several occasions where girls asked me to enforce a fair sharing policy with the basketball court or ping pong table, when boys have refused to let the girls play. I also had several open conversations with girls about issues they face and opinions they have, about everything from harassment to gender roles to violence in school to drugs in school. Though I'd spent almost a year with these girls, playing soccer, teaching English, leading activities, etc, it took that conversation with my mudir to open the door to full, honest discussion with them about difficult topics. I think they needed to see me defending them, standing up for an issue that mattered to them and refusing to back down, for them to feel fully comfortable in sharing their thoughts with me. Though its difficult hearing that such young girls face these kinds of problems in their daily lives, I feel a greater sense of purpose in my service knowing that I can serve as an ally, mentor, and sounding board to them during such formative years of their lives.
The conventional wisdom I’ve heard amongst PCVs and many members of Peace Corps staff is that female PCVs should generally keep quiet and ignore harassment, that developing internal coping strategies is a better approach than fighting such a broad social phenomena externally, where the battle is sure to be lost. My experience, however, has taught me the opposite: that at some point, you have to stop towing the line and draw one instead. I have learned that while standing up to harassment won't bring broad social change overnight, being a strong role model and fierce ally for the girls at your Dar Chebab is a valuable thing to do, and can have more positive impact than you realize. When I stood up to my mudir and demanded a response to harassment, I didn't realize that I would be sparking a wave of open dialogue between the girls of my Dar Chebab about harassment; I didn't realize that I would be opening the door for girls to share their experiences and finally feel understood by someone they look up to. But all of these things and more have happened as a result of that one conversation, and would not have happened otherwise. Had I not argued with my mudir that day, had I backed down and yielded to his assertions that harassment is inevitable, I would have been perpetuating the culture of silence that leaves girls feeling isolated and ultimately enables harassment to continue. I may not be on my way to changing an entire culture, and the harassment in my town will surely continue through my service and after I leave, but I am happy knowing that I've provided an outlet, some support, and some guidance to at least a few girls in my town.
And that beats silence any day.