I have been confused for many different types of people in my lifetime. I have been confused for sales assistants by awkward, bumbling customers in stores and my racially ambiguous features have had me confused for any nationality that pops into someone’s head at that given time. But that aside, nothing compared to the degrading experience of finding myself lost on a motorway in Marrakech, late into the evening, only to be confused for a Moroccan ‘lady of the night’.
Other than a childhood visit to the Pakistani motherland, of which I have no surviving memories, this was my first time outside of Europe and I was determined to marinate myself in a different culture and render myself sodden with new experiences. My cousin and I had spent the morning meandering through labyrinthine Souks, equally wowed by the creativity of local artists and the lines used by market stall owners to get you to buy their jewellery, kaftans, spices, or rugs. My particular favourites included ‘sister I have seen you before… IN MY DREAMS’ and a pitchy, albeit enthusiastic, rendition of classic Bollywood song Bole Chudiyan.
Lost amongst the intricately woven cobbled streets, we stumbled on the most decadent spa dimly lit by spotlights and complete with extravagant archways. What were two humble, budget travellers to do if not reach deeply into their overdrafts to indulge in a hamam? I did not know that being washed like a newborn baby was something I needed until I experienced it. We left feeling like new women.
After being quoted extortionate prices by taxi drivers, we decided to get two buses back but that second bus never did show up; we must have sat on the curb for over two hours when my bones began to ache with the evening chill. The relaxation that had we paid a pretty penny for began to wear off so I hailed a taxi, willing to pay every last Dirham that I had to get back into the cushy warmth of our resort.
The driver agreed to take us for all the money we had and we drove off in relief but, after getting on to the motorway, he demanded more money. Once we explained we had no more to offer, he ordered us to get out of his car on a motorway in the middle of nowhere. We knew this motorway led to our resort and that if we walked straight for long enough we could find our way back, so we did just that.
After walking for hours, I then saw what I thought was two mannequins abandoned on the roadside but my cousin quickly burst my naive bubble by pointing out that these still, veiled women were prostitutes waiting to be picked up by passersby. This became even more obvious when cars began to slow down and approach us for the same reason and we would have to walk back on ourselves, adding to both our journey time and our rising fears. It became a game to some of these men, they laughed heartily at our visible fear and persisted to try to get us into their car.
Aside from praying that we make it back safely, I remember feeling so disappointed that I was in an Islamic country and yet that sense of community, that was ingrained into my Islamic upbringing, felt like a privilege that these men reserved for their mahram, family members. As an outspoken feminist, I felt compelled to mouth back to these voyeurs but I bit my tongue, knowing that the rules are different here, the stakes are higher when you are women travelling without men. Instead, I cried out loud, reciting the words “please don’t let me die” over and over like some magical incantation that would make me untouchable. As a British Muslim, I am privileged enough to have had an upbringing that married the best aspects of my culture and faith. This only fuelled my frustrations when I realised that I could not pack this utopia of my parents’ making into my suitcase.
Since recounting this story to female friends, they advised me that I should plan journeys to Morocco during Ramadan as the male gaze is essentially non-existent during the holy month. This left me even angrier than before, that the only reason harassment is absent is to earn ‘brownie points’ during a period of enhanced religiosity, rather than a desire to respect women. Whilst progress towards gender parity has taken a more prominent role on the global stage in the last few decades, legal and political progression alone is not enough to shift attitudes towards women unless the negative aspects of social culture are also being rejected and uprooted.