Rabat, Morocco — Picture this: rows of tables line the cafe’s outer wall, and wooden chairs face out onto the street. On any given weekday, dozens of men can be found seated comfortably outside, sipping on their espressos and staring blankly at passersby. Walk around the city and, rest assured, you’ll see the same setup at every cafe and public space: countless men lounging around — not a single woman to be found.
Originally, I chalked this disparity up to traditional Middle Eastern culture, which often encourages women to lay low and distance themselves from men. But I went ahead and asked the locals if they knew the story behind these men who sit around and do absolutely nothing for hours on end, day after day. Do they have jobs? Where are the women?
Turns out the men who spend their time “people-watching” don’t have jobs, nor do they need them. Why? The women in their lives are working full-time jobs in clothing shops and medical centers and financing the household with their hard-earned money. These women return in the evenings, only to light the stoves and prepare a hearty dinner, passing the time by scrubbing the floors and hanging up the laundry.
So, these men can smoke their cigarettes or kick around a soccer ball, while their wives, sisters and daughters slave away to support their families. Go figure.
The Western perspective on gender inequality is based on the premise that women have historically been stereotyped as inferior to men and have therefore been denied access to the same opportunities — both at home and in the workforce.
Yet, here in Morocco, gender inequality takes on a whole new meaning: the culture here feeds the idea that women have a stronger work ethic and are subsequently positioned to fill the roles of both the breadwinners and the homemakers; traditionally, men here have accepted these gender roles and enjoyed the luxury of sitting around and smoking cigarettes for four or five hours on a Wednesday afternoon.
Well, then, doesn’t that mean that the women here should be treated with more respect and revered as higher-class citizens?
For entertainment value and to satisfy what I’d call an “entitlement complex,” Moroccan men, who aimlessly wander the streets or lean up against dilapidated buildings while puffing up smoke, will not hesitate to call out to women and walk alongside them, pressing for their phone numbers or following them for miles until they get bored.
Not all men in Morocco behave this way — just like any trend, there will always be those who fall within this pattern of behavior and those who qualify as outliers. But this behavior is so common that women are cautioned to be on guard, to conceal any valuables and to not engage the street harassment they will encounter. This — the catcalling and the kissing noises and the persistent conversations — is shrugged off, though apologetically, as part of the culture.
I was raised to believe that street and sexual harassment are inexcusable, period. However, I find it especially offensive when those on the receiving end of this shameful behavior are pulling most of the weight in this country and make up the hardest-working demographic.
So, the question remains: how can we successfully push for greater gender equality across the globe? Or, more specifically, how can we effectively extend this mentality that every human life matters and has value while understanding that cultural dynamics and the specifics of gender inequality vary from region to region?
Though we operate with the best intentions, many raise concerns that the United States and Western societies are overstepping their bounds by drawing attention to issues that the locals have learned to work around and have accepted as a way of life.
Several women here have admitted that they feel unsafe walking the streets at night without a male escort, and that they choose to wear a headscarf and reflective sunglasses because they feel safer when they are inconspicuous.
These women, who work tirelessly and endlessly, often don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods. They don’t feel comfortable knowing they’re being watched and followed by men who have nothing better to do with their time and lack the motivation to occupy themselves with something more . . . productive. Yet, in spite of the added inconvenience, these women have gotten used to speaking in hushed tones and keeping a low profile. It’s just how things are done.
So I have to ask: is it wrong to question the norms in someone else’s community, or is it heroic? Whose place is it to fight for someone else’s rights, and who decides?
Daria Etezadi is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Meditations on Morocco appears every other Monday on thehoya.com.