All this writing about horny men, uncomfortable situations, and marginalized women makes for good entertainment. You write about what interests you, period. While this is a travel blog, it’s also a memoir. It’s a record of your life. It helps you to remember.
And it’s brutally honest.
There’s one thing you don’t do, and that’s lie. Ever. Really. Not even white lies.
“Baby, do I look fat today?” Katie asks.
Silence. Direct eye-contact. Really, this question, again?
“I hate you,” she jokes, and turns away before you answer.
Despite your honesty, you also know when to diplomatically omit certain truths you know will really hurt other people. Some things in your life go unpublished, to spare the feelings of others.
But for the most part, this blog is a platform to sort out your head, to record your life, and to entertain whoever happens to be reading. And being in the view of the public comes at a cost: suddenly you write about what interests them.
Oddly enough, the blog entries you are least proud of get the most views; and your favorites, the fewest. If you wrote purely for readership, you’d probably throw yourself weeping into your keyboard, feeling the sting of rejection. You don’t stand up to criticism well, you admit that. Maybe that’s why you’re the first person to start taking jabs.
“Maria Learns About Islam” almost went unpublished. It was a humiliating admission of your own ignorance. It was also a frustrating validation of preexisting prejudice. Your heart actually started pounding when you posted your blog link to Facebook, wondering whether the title would draw some scary kind of attention.
It did. From one of your distant friends—the very friend you considered the moment you clicked “post.” A Muslim.
While she did not attack you outright, she had a lot of feelings. Some clarifications. Some suggestions. And urgency. You thought perhaps she might accuse you of being unfair.
“Islam is the only egalitarian monotheistic religion,” she’d insisted. “It’s just the patriarchal interpretation.”
Egalitarian… that sounds nice. You haven’t read the Koran, and you are in no position to interpret it. You just find it hard to believe that a religion conceived on the heels of two other monotheistic religions—which made damn sure that patriarchy was here to stay—can be argued as “egalitarian.” What you mean to say is: a religion conceived in a patriarchal time is going to have a tough time being implemented in an egalitarian manner, so a distinction made between what is textual and what is practice is not very convincing.
You don’t care what the book says. You care about how people behave. Actions speak louder than words. Religion is nothing but a sheet overlaying the form of culture—trying to keep the dust off. So your problem, essentially, isn’t with Islam, which has revealed to you a myriad of beautiful, peaceful, and sweet ideals; it’s with Arab culture.
“I don’t like Arabs,” one British tourist said outright, without reservation.
“Morroco? I hate that place. All they do is try to get your money,” said another.
“When I first heard you were going to Morocco, I was afraid for you,” said a friend, who promptly supplied a list of facts and press releases about bad things that happen there, especially regarding gay rights. “At the last Gay Pride, everyone was arrested.”
What Bilal told you about Arab culture didn’t help the case. The grotesque kissy-sucky-hissy-winky gestures from dusty men, the visible Western-clad prostitutes, the sheer seediness of Tangier made it worse. You weren’t a ball of nerves. It wasn’t that you feared for your safety or anything. But you were totally spun upside down by what you experienced.
It was the experience of how men in Morocco treat women, for better or for worse.
First of all, while in Morocco, men treated you and Katie like women. On the surface, this sounds very weird. You are a woman, after all. But you’ll admit to a life of gender-bending behavior, the permission for which was initially granted by your size and strength. You’re bigger than most men. So you can usually do what the boys can do, be it demolition, construction, roofing, kicking down doors, splitting timber, and deadlifting small French cars out of ditches, when necessary.
Your height offers little doses of male privilege. Silly as it sounds, tall people make more money and experience more workplace success; just like men. It’s easier to assert yourself if you can stare down at someone, so people ascribe leadership qualities to you. There’s more: in your relationships, you are typically thrust into the role of “the boy,” being the taller partner, as well as the physically dominant one.
“Maria, you’re not gay. You’re just tall!” you dear friend Marlene drunkenly spouted to you, one evening many years ago, only weeks after knowing you.
Her hidden meaning is that you can’t find a man, because they aren’t tall enough for you.
“Intimidating” is a label you’re stuck with. “If I saw you at a bar,” your host Miguel said to you, “I don’t even know how I would approach you. I’d want to! I just wouldn’t know how.”
People in your life might wonder why, Dear God why, you have so many fucked up stories about men behaving like desperate perverts. You’ve wondered this yourself. Honestly, a nice face will only take a girl so far into this realm. There is, of course, the fact that you are outlandishly open to experience, curious about others, and painfully tolerant of other people’s bullshit.
But you think the last straw is this: it takes the boldest dudes to approach the world’s scariest chick.
Your experience with the boldest dudes has turned you into an exasperated, mistrusting, hyper-sensitive lady, always on the look-out for the next public masturbator (if only to grab Katie’s point-and-shoot camera and go hustling uphill in pursuit). Travel has made you tougher, but also more conservative, and extremely sardonic about men. Sometimes—in the face of all your prior “traumas” with men—you thank your lucky stars that you are a lesbian, and that you don’t need to relate to them, or seek healthy relationships with them.
In fact, the only “use” you have for men is to make other men go away. You can lift things, support yourself, intimidate people, take out the trash, handle money, build things, fix things, smash things, do yard work, start a fire, chop wood, drive! And you can pick up women.
They know this; and most of them give you a wide berth when you shoot them your suspicious, intolerant daggers.
In light of your independence from men, and your shock at being treated like a lady by your Moroccan hosts, your mom wrote to you:
Have you ever been treated like a girl by an American? Such as opening your door, paying for your date, refraining from bad language, and treating you with respect? We pay a high price for our independence. I have not adapted to our change in culture. Men expect a lot more from women now since I was a child, and they give a lot less. When I was a child, men were expected to support their families. You are used to independence, so it must be hard for you to adapt to the [Arab] culture.
Yes. It was.
Your rule is to always have a backup plan—to never be totally reliant on someone else or their hospitality. You like to know what is going on, where you’re headed, how to get there, and even better, how to get out.
Very often, while in Morocco, you traveled in direct violation of this rule, allowing your sweet and hospitable, but fairly traditional male hosts lead you and Katie around like helpless little girls. You were told nothing. You were simply placed into the backs of cars, buses, and taxis. You were seated at cafes and restaurants. You were fed at unpredictable hours, for unpredictable reasons. The boys spoke for you, bartered for you, organized for you, and everything else. Every problem or concern you had was addressed. Responsibility was taken out of your hands.
“Let me have your host’s phone number. I will call him and tell him to meet you at five o’clock. And then I will call ten minutes after five to ensure that he arrived and that you are safe,” said one host—12 hours away by bus—in an email. You don’t have any complaints about this. Things went so smoothly in Morocco, you were shocked.
For the first time in a very long time, you became passive. You’d begun to understand that—in the context of this very foreign culture—asserting your independence as a woman and trying to pay your own way as someone else’s guest was difficult for your hosts to understand. You caught them lying to you on many occasions about the prices of things and itineraries, just so you wouldn’t make a stink about not being able to afford things. When your hosts wanted to give you an experience, they made sure you got it—no matter what you wanted.
It was a novel mix of polite and traditional male-female dynamics, with the added benefit of being a guest. You joked about Morocco being stuck in the 1950s, and after you put a few of your control issues on hold, you didn’t mind one bit being treated like a girl for a change; you began to enjoy it.
But you had to remind yourself that the treatment stemmed not from culturally innate “gentlemanly behavior,” in which women must be treated like princesses. Far from it. It came from the mindset that women are second-class citizens; a dog without an owner is going to get kicked.
It was only toward the tail-end of your trip, when you and Katie realized the truth of this. When you finally ventured out on your own to amble down the busy streets of Fes, dodging traffic and side-stepping kittens covered in garbage, you began to feel the rub from your independence from male hosts.
“How many camels?”
“Oh my god. Whoah!”
“Why are you angry?”
Why are you angry?!
Because you missed the freedom to walk down a street without being sexually harassed every three minutes. You missed the freedom to go running in spandex. You missed the freedom to stand outside an apartment building without every guy in down boring holes with their eyes and shouting things at your back. You missed being anonymous in a crowd.
This is the reason to wear hijab; that, and sun/“God” protection.
Modesty in public? Modesty before god? Or because a society hasn’t learned how to regard a woman as anything else but a helpless, pretty object and the semen service door of a baby factory. Religion is the sheet the covers the form of culture; a practice exists for practical reasons; religion makes up some B.S. “value reason” for it.
Okay, okay. You’re being a little unfair. In Morocco, you can find everything from conventional to modern, from Islam to atheism. The whole place isn’t without social progress. But it certainly has a long way to go.
Enter Aida, a 25-year-old female professional who lives alone and works as sales field manager for a large American company. She works like a dog, even by American standards, and manages a team of 45 men. Her parents are both teachers, and she, like her father, is not religious.
Bam. She broke the mold. She probably isn’t the best authentic Moroccan woman to provide insight into the gender dynamics of the country, but she and her American female Peace Corps friends described a side of Moroccan life that had eluded you while you were with your male hosts; they also confirmed many things you’d already suspected. You had only to step outside, unchaperoned, to experience it.