It’s been six months since I returned from Morocco. Six months and the most frequently asked question about my 3.5 year highly successful service with the Peace Corps is about my gender – “What was it like to be a woman there? Was there a lot of sexism?”
It’s hard to casually answer this question sitting at a bar, beer in one hand.
Do you really want to hear the truth?
Here it is: I learned to diminish myself and it’s still affecting me today.
But normally I opt for a quick, “Yeah… there was” and change the subject.
It’s taken me six months, but I’ve only lately come to realize just how much the sexism I faced and witnessed on a daily basis changed me. How much it has rocked me to my core.
I haven’t written about this before – I was too concerned with protecting the reputation of Morocco, of my town, of the men in my town who I love dearly. That’s something we are taught as girls, to minimize or rationalize the way we are treated so as not to create a fuss for others. We’re always protecting the reputations of others instead of acknowledging the truths that happen to us. But I’ve promised myself that I won’t do that anymore. My new goal is to be unapologetic – of who I am, who I strive to be, and what I’ve been through. To not stay quiet just because it might make someone else feel better.
I remember once in Morocco I was co-leading a women’s fitness and health event with an organization from Rabat, the capital city. Over the course of the weekend we facilitated fitness classes, led a 5k through the community, and tested participants for high blood pressure, diabetes, and counseled them about nutrition. Hundreds of women attended the sessions over the course of that weekend. But at the closing ceremony we, the female organizers and participants, were forced to stand and clap as an all-male group of “dignitaries” were presented with awards. Men from the local government who had done nothing but sign and stamp a few papers were awarded with medals and trophies for their work “helping women.”
I was furious. I turned to the woman standing next to me, the head of the association, and asked her how she could let this happen. She shook her head and explained that unless we “honored” the men in this way they wouldn’t allow us to host events like this again. And then she urged me to keep clapping.
This was hardly the only time I was forced to stroke men’s egos in the pursuit of securing funding, supplies, or approval for my projects.
Two ministry officials showed up just before lunch to take pictures of a girls’ empowerment camp I was hosting in my first year of service. Per cultural norms they were served lunch first – in a separate room and in heaping portions. When they were finished there wasn’t enough food left for all of the campers and staff to eat.
While living with my first host family I came home from class one afternoon to find that we were having guests over. The men and women were separated into different rooms of the house (this is very common in Morocco) for tea. My sisters and I had to prepare the food and serve it to the men first, and then wait in the other room while they ate. Only when they had finished were we allowed to eat whatever was left.
For the sake of my reputation I was instructed never to be alone with a man, never to invite men inside my home, and never to hug a man. I learned all of the polite words of respect to use, to always show immense gratitude to the men of influence who granted me an audience, to put on a smile, to be over-polite, to not make direct eye contact for too long.
It became ingrained in me. All of it.
I came back to the U.S. unsure of how I would be able to interact with men, and I’m still struggling. I notice it still – I never initiate hugs with men, I always stand about one step behind a man when we’re walking, and I still allow men to make decisions for me (“Where do you want to go for lunch?” “Oh, anywhere is fine!”).
This all happened subconsciously. I internalized all of it. The question I struggle with now is – how do I get rid of it?
The first step is that I have to acknowledge that this didn’t start in Morocco. It’s been happening my whole life and it has continued since I returned stateside.
In high school male classmates played “basketball” during class by attempting to throw paper balls down my shirt. Adult males would comment on “how much [I’d] grown up” while staring directly at my chest. I received multiple detentions for having “too much cleavage” from female teachers who slutshamed and humiliated me. I went through my teens thinking that all I had to offer to men was a nice rack (as if they deserved anything from me at all).
Men have continued to use words to try and control me and the women around me. My ex-boyfriend emotionally manipulated me and tried to mold me into the woman he wanted me to be – even referring to me as “[his] girlfriend of the moment” to my face (we had been together almost three years by then). Just last month my supervisor at the Red Cross made a joke about sexual harassment at our all hands meeting. Other male Red Crossers consistently questioned my ability to do my job and called me “kid” and “sweetheart” instead of learning my name (wanna guess if they did this to my male co-workers?).
These days I spend my free time reading the words of strong feminists and seeking guidance. Most recently I’ve been inspired by Mona Eltahawy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. I’m hoping that by holding those pages their strength and power will flow into my hands. I’m using their words to help find my own – and then to take back the power that men have slowly taken from me.
And on the days when I do feel that strength, when I own my power and call out bullshit I get labelled “aggressive” or “scary” or “intimidating.” More words used to diminish my strength. Why does being an independent, outspoken, smart woman make me intimidating when a guy with all of these qualities is just… another guy? I’m tired of wondering if the men I want to date are “intimidated” by me, or wondering that if I was just a little less opinionated he would have asked me out already.
So, returning back to that frequently asked question. Being a woman in Morocco was hard. The sexism and misogyny I experienced there felt, to me, much more overt. Some days being a woman felt akin to having some sort of contagious disease – always being separated from the men, never getting too close, never touching except for a brief handshake (unless he’s really religious, then you don’t touch at all). And, through it all, I was expected to roll with it, to adapt, to integrate.
At the end of my service my Regional Manager at Peace Corps commended me for how incredibly integrated I was in my community. “Not many volunteers can achieve what you achieved,” he told me. But now I wonder – how much of myself did I have to give up along the way?
This is what it’s like to walk as a woman through this world. From the time of our birth onward, our lives are shaped by the men around us. Even the well-meaning men, the men who call themselves feminists and support my right as an autonomous woman, learn from society around them that they are just a little bit superior, that ultimately they are in control. Each day men, knowingly or unknowingly, do things or say things to diminish us, to make our light shine a little bit less bright.
Morocco changed my life, in good ways and bad. Each day my readjustment process in America finds a new bump. My relationships with men feel confusing and fake. But more than that, my relationship with myself is shaky and less confident. I left one imperfect society for another, neither of which embraces me for who I am.
Finding myself again, picking up those pieces that I’ve shed over the years in attempt to be the woman society told me I needed to be, isn’t going to be easy. It likely will be a lifelong process. As we say in Morocco: shwiya b shwiya. Little by little.
Finally writing this was just the beginning.