'Psst psst': The skin-crawling problem of street harassment in Morocco

The words 'A woman was harassed here' is seen stenciled onto a raised stone flower bed in a street
4 min read
21 March, 2022
Harassment is an invasive act that compromises the safety of women and normalizes the objectification of the female form. It is impossible to deny the long-term effects of growing up in a country where women are treated like over-sexualized objects.

In Morocco, “psst psst” is also used to beckon over a curious street cat. How fitting, that as a teenager, grown men looked at and called to me as they would an innocent, small, homeless creature. I did not even deserve to be addressed in complete thoughts – although the words they did use were never any better.

My parents were always wary of what I wore when I left the house during high school. They aren’t conservative, but rather, feared the reactions my outfits would implicit. They knew it wasn’t my fault that men would stare, stalk, and smirk. But watching their daughter come home in tears from being harassed at the shopping mall or beach naturally made them wary of the “source” of the incidents.

"Being told to wear long trousers or cover my shoulders – usually by people who mean well – only served to over-simplify the complex and multi-faceted reality that I could not walk down the streets of Casablanca without tensing my body and washing my face of any sort of emotion"

You can’t single-handedly rid the world of misogyny, but you can at least make sure your adolescent daughter isn’t the next target of its over-sexualised, paedophilic design.

Pretty is no longer a compliment when it is breathed down your neck by a man who hasn’t even looked you in the eye. It is a threat, a label, another way to dissect the body from the woman who owns it.

Why do men feel like they can taunt, whisper at, and follow any woman (or girl) who passes their line of view? 

Noemi Fernández, author of the thesis Street Harassment Effects on Women: An Exploratory Study notes that “It is important to understand how concepts such as patriarchy, sexism, male privilege, rape culture, victim-blaming, and slut shaming play a role in the street harassment of women.” She also specifies that street harassment “is not only gender-based but racialised.” Unsurprisingly, women of colour usually experience more street harassment.

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Being told to wear long trousers or cover my shoulders – usually by people who mean well – only served to over-simplify the complex and multi-faceted reality that I could not walk down the streets of Casablanca without tensing my body and washing my face of any sort of emotion. Happiness, anger, sadness, curiosity or any other sentiment could be misconstrued as flirting or requesting the attention of every man looking for his next ego trip.

Growing up in this type of environment, you learn the coping skills necessary to get through these situations with some thread of dignity. In Fernández’s research, she found women reverted to glaring at the harasser, verbally standing up for themselves, or opting for a more passive response, either by ignoring them or discreetly picking up the pace to their final, predator-free destination.

"Psst psst will always make my skin crawl. It will always serve as a reminder that no matter what I wear, or how hard I’ve worked to become who I am today, I am still “just” a woman"

My coping mechanisms featured a curated slew of insults in Darija to spit back at the whispers, stares, and comments I regularly received. Sometimes, the man would get embarrassed at all the public attention he was getting for quietly trying to harass a young woman. Other times, they would just laugh. Nothing is funnier than a hysterical woman, apparently.

And when you need help holding someone accountable for their harassment, who are you to go to?

The police certainly aren’t very much help, as demonstrated in this Instagram video showing a car of officers following two young women down the street. They try to get the women’s attention by speaking to them, in an attempt to start some sort of brain-dead flirtatious conversation. The women keep their heads down and continue to walk, ignoring the men who are supposedly tasked with protecting them from this kind of intimidation.

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Harassment is never harassment. It’s always a “compliment”, a “misunderstanding”, or proof that you “can’t take a joke”. But Morocco is far from the only country that contributes to the normalization of street harassment.

When I was living and working in London, I got cat-called by an employee at the shop next to my office. Upon recounting this to my female superior, I was simply told to just “take it as a compliment.” I was 19-years-old, and all I wanted was to be able to go to and from work every day without feeling like my safety was being compromised.

“Psst psst” will always make my skin crawl. It will always serve as a reminder that no matter what I wear, or how hard I’ve worked to become who I am today, I am still “just” a woman.

Yasmina Achlim is an Amazigh-Moroccan-American writer fascinated with culture, art, and the environment. She is a graduate of St Mary’s University in London and has lived in the United States, Morocco, and England