My knees never feel the breeze and my shoulders never see the sun. I walk quickly down the street, footsteps marked with purpose. I focus my gaze elsewhere, avoiding eye contact with strangers. I cross to the other side of the street. I do everything I can to become invisible. By doing so, I become invisible.
And yet, they see me. Maybe it's my eyes that shine with the excitement of new surroundings. Maybe it's my pale skin, a marker that I'm foreign. Maybe it's my playing with a new language, my stuttering over grammatical concepts and guttural sounds. Maybe it's the absence of women sitting in cafés or public restaurants or lounging on the street corners. Maybe I've been infected with the rush in which women walk. Maybe it's "just the way it is," and always will be. Maybe it is only to be expected, to be ignored, to be brushed off. But it begins to seep into me and is leaving fractures and cracks.
Everywhere I go, I am called after, hissed at, shouted at. I try to ignore the eyes that are grazing over my body, regardless of my intentionally conservative dress—nothing showing but my ankles. My eyes focus on the cat napping in the sun as I walk past it, on the bright of the Coca-Cola advertisement at the corner store. I'm grateful at times like these that I do not understand all of the Arabic I hear. But that doesn't matter.
My body does not feel my own. I do not feel my own. My smile falters, my voice fades, and I feel trapped. I cannot walk on the streets alone, I've been told by my host mom. I cannot travel alone, I've been told by the program. I cannot sit in a café alone, I've been told by Moroccan friends. The world started to close in: I have school, the classroom, the garden outside of school, the tense ten minute walk home, and the house. The house is lovely and commanding and reeks of mold and the pressure of a hospitable host mother who is constantly telling me "Eat! Eat!" I do not have a room of my own, I'm starting to go mad.
Classes have not been easier. Some of our male peers are young, brash, and bold. They walk where they want, they study in a cafe alone, they can speak to strangers, they are practicing their Arabic, they are learning about the culture; they are succeeding where we are failing. They do not notice the space they take up in class by speaking, nor do they notice the way the women have shrunk into the shadows of the discussion. They enter the classroom joking about how their male Moroccan language partners taught them how to "play tennis"—as in watching women walk on the street by moving their heads back and forth—and when they laugh, we don't.
All I want to do is disappear. Instead, I find myself shutting down, wanting to shut out, ending conversations with my host mother abruptly because I cannot hear her tell me to eat or to smile or to be happy one more time. I need space for emotions, and to ride the exhaustion that sensitivity incurs; I need space for the anger. But I find that there is no space of solitude for women in Tangier.
I believe that there is always a right book for the moment, you just have to be blessed to find it when you need it. All year Living A Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed sat on my bedside table, waiting for summer break. So, today of all days when I officially shut down and shut out, I began to read it.
Ahmed's words flowed over me like warm water, allowing me feel the calm left over after crying cleansing tears. She weaves together an embodied feminist theory that stems from her own experiences and asks what it means to be feminist, how to find a home in the title, how to constantly question, and how to find ways to enact a life of kindness aimed at dismantling systems of sexism, racism, colonialism, and capitalism (and most importantly, the intersections therein).
"A feminist movement might be happening when a woman snaps, that moment when she decides not to take it anymore, the violences that saturates her world, a world. A feminist movement might happen in the growing connections between those who recognize something—power relations, gender violence, gender as violence—as being what they are up against, even if they have different words for what that what is" (Ahmed, 2017, 3).
I am snapping, will snap, have snapped. This daily barrage and constant commentary by men on the street has undermined my being, my worth. I feel like I'm unraveling and trying to lose my self. This has taken place in only one month.
Can you imagine the impact staring at the ground, avoiding eye contact on the street, has when you have done it your whole life?
Our Moroccan host sisters are seventeen and twenty-one with thick dark hair that reaches down their spines. They could be twins, and they lounge around the house in matching kandouras (traditional house dresses). They spend the day on Instagram and in front of the mirror applying mixtures of natural items to beautify their skin, their hair, their lips. I've learned that if you put pepper in your hair, it will grow long. If you use rose water on your skin, it will become less red. And if you get married in the summer, you will be divorced by winter. This doesn't stop them from putting on six inch heels to stumble to engagement parties and wedding parties and come home laden with cookies at three in the morning. While one is studying languages and hospitality, and the other wants to be an Instagram model just like every other seventeen year old in the world, I can't help but feel that their lives have already been charted for them. Their parents already bought them houses nearby for when they get married. Not if, when. They will work, and they will be married. They will wear kaftans that glitter and have their family members cheer them and sing to them and follow them with music and drums and happiness. And I wonder what happens when the week-long wedding is over?
I spoke with my twenty-one year old language partner about women in Morocco, or at least I tried to. She is kind and effervescent, but underneath is a seriousness that is masked by youth and undermined by her nervous self-conscious giggles. She is bored this summer, she finished her studies and is waiting to begin a Masters in education. She tells me that her friends get married and she never sees them again. They disappear into their marriages and children and never leave the house. She is beautiful, but hides behind sunglasses because she doesn't think she is. Our conversations feel stilted, not only because of my Arabic, but because of her incapacity to extend beyond the limits of the world as she knows it. She shakes her head when I tell her that my Black friends on the program experience racism, "There is no racism against Blacks in Morocco," she responds. I urge her that there is, I share the story of how a storekeeper refused to let my friend purchase a soda. I share the story of how taxis never stop for them. I tell her I heard about a time that a man hit my friend because she wouldn't high-five him and accept his money after he called her a 'good African.'
"It's just because of all the refugees in Tangier are from Africa," she says. I realize there is no point in reminding her that Morocco is in Africa.
"A sensation is often understood by what it is not: a sensation is not an organized or intentional response to something. And that is why sensation matters: you are left with an impression that is not clear or distinct...Feminism often begins with intensity...Over time, with experience, you sense that something is wrong or you have a feeling of being wronged. You sense an injustice. You might not have a word for it; you might not have the words for it; you might not be able to put your finger on it. Feminism can begin with a body, a body in touch with the world, a body that is not at ease in a world; a body that fidgets and moves around. Things don't seem right" (Ahmed, 2017, 22).
Something here feels not right. It is a wild world, and some days it feels impossible to ignore the weight of the violence in it and hide behind forced smiles framed in foreign spaces.
"At the time, each time, something happens. You are thrown. These experiences: What effects do they have? What do they do? You begin to feel a pressure, this relentless assault on the senses; a body in touch with a world can become a body that fears the touch of the world. The world is experienced as a sensory intrusion. It is too much. Not to be assaulted: maybe you might try to close yourself off, to withdraw from proximity, from proximity to a potential. Or perhaps you try to deal with this violence by numbing your own sensations, by learning not to be affected or to be less affected...Maybe you adopt for yourself a certain kind of fatalism: these things happen; what happens will happen; whatever will be, will be" (Ahmed, 2017, 23-4).
It is not my place to fight the whole society here. I am here as a guest, a visitor for two months, an explorer in the language, nothing more. But the personal is political. And my personal experience is connected to and a part of a collective experience of women in Morocco. Moroccan women have written about these experiences, particularly Fatima Mernissi in Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women (1991) and Fatima Sadiqi's Women, gender, and language in Morocco (2003). This is nothing new, but the exhaustion is new to me. I want to refuse to ignore the catcalls and learn phrases to yell back in Arabic at the men: Have you no shame? What if I was your sister? What would your mother say? I want to refuse to accept it as is—this should not be the everyday for every woman. I refuse to accept the fatalistic shrugs that say "That's life." But then I find my mouth sewn shut, my eyes flit down again, and I walk quicker, eager to get to my destination and away from the eyes.
There is a bright light in the darkness of every day sexism and racism: my Arabic teacher is a wildfire burning in a dry desert: She shines with joy; she is a dervish of daring and tells us stories of growing up as the only daughter with five brothers; She tells us that she always demanded to be treated the same; She introduces conversations in class about the place of women in Moroccan society.
Today when I asked her where a woman can go to be alone in Tangier, she smiled sadly and shook her head, "There is nowhere." Her sigh of exasperation told me that she looks for that place too. That every woman needs a room of her own.
She tells me about her dreams to be independent, to travel the world alone, to have a house of her own, regardless of what people will say about her, a woman living alone. Then she sighs and says, "It's hard in Morocco to do that as a woman." And in the next breath, she is smiling again and reminding me that everywhere there are hardships. Everywhere has its problems.