Are women travellers safe in Morocco?

After two young women, Maren Ueland and Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, were murdered a couple of weeks ago, one could patently say, “No, women travellers are not safe in Morocco.”  But earlier in December Grace Millane was murdered while travelling alone in New Zealand.  None of us would conclude on that basis that New Zealand is unsafe for women travellers.  There are predators in the world and some unlucky people encounter them.

Because I recently visited Morocco, I have some thoughts about the safety of women travellers there.

Maren and Louisa were murdered while camping near the route that ascends Mount Toubkal.  There are aspects to the newspaper reports about the murders that are puzzling.  The area is described as “remote,” which implies that the women had put themselves in danger by venturing into a place that is far from civilization.  That characterization isn’t accurate.  They were 10 km from Imlil.  That’s a two-hour walk for the fit.  As I described in an earlier post, Imlil is like Banff.  It’s a hub for tourists who want to climb Mount Toubkal or do any of the day walks in the area. It’s a busy place.

The route to Mount Toubkal also is a busy place.  Most tourists don’t climb the mountain, but they do walk around the base.  Maren and Louisa’s bodies were found the following day by trekkers on their way up the mountain.  A place that people pass through every day can’t be described as “remote.”

Then there’s the closed-caption TV footage that identified the killers.  CCTV on a remote and deserted mountain?

The Moroccan government seems to be blaming the victims and suggesting that if women stay out of “remote” places, they’ll be safe.

Some photographs of the site show a concrete block building in the background.  This building is most likely the refuge, which tourists use regularly.  They stay overnight before beginning their ascent the following morning.  However, like many refuges, it may be bug-infested, dark and dirty.  Lots of people choose to sleep outside in tents instead of staying in refuges.

By international hiking standards, the area in which Maren and Louisa were murdered was not remote and deserted, and there is nothing unusual about them camping.

The reports describe the murders as an act of “terrorism.”  Nineteen people were subsequently arrested, including four men said to be the perpetrators.  The other 15 men were arrested for being part of an alleged terrorist cell.

Morocco is a police state.  I have direct experience.  A young guy on a bicycle hit me while I was walking in the souk or market.  He knocked me down, it hurt and I cried out.  In less than a minute, two plainclothes officers arrived on the scene.  One put his hand on the young man so he didn’t leave; the other radioed for assistance which, again, came within minutes.  The first thing they wanted from me was my passport.  There is a reason there are so many police officers milling in the crowds and checking passports at roadblocks on the highways: Morocco is on a route between Mali and Algeria that funnels would-be terrorists from Africa into the Middle East.

Morocco’s economy also depends heavily on tourism.  After agriculture, tourism is its biggest industry and accounts for 10% of the economy.

Those two facts make it hard to take at face value the version of events that the state released.

Murdering tourists in their tents is a strange form of terrorism.  Driving a truck into the crowded Marrakesh souk would seem more efficient.  However, let’s grant the idea that the murders were politically motivated.

In our experience, the Moroccan people are ambivalent about tourists.  The ones with whom tourists deal directly – the innkeepers, drivers, guides and restaurant servers – are generally friendly and pleasant.  But even among that group, there are holdouts: drivers who signal that they are driving you because the economy sucks and they can’t get better work, but don’t try talking to them.

People who are not directly involved with tourists are less equivocal.  On the rare occasions when we weren’t with a guide or at a hotel, street sellers harassed us constantly and aggressively to purchase their crap.  When we declined (politely) they yelled at us and told us to fuck off.  Even small children expressed this sentiment (the terrorists of tomorrow).  We weren’t physically harassed.  But then my travel companion is 6 foot 3 and wears a very sinister-looking cowboy hat.

Women are especially likely to be harassed, even when accompanied by a man and a guide.  Blog followers will know that I agonized over how to dress in Morocco.  For the most part, I succeeded in dressing modestly.  But it was really hot – close to 40 degrees in some places.  One of my tops is a boxy Royal Robbins thing that I bought in the 90s before women’s fashion became form-fitting.  But it’s sleeveless.  I wore the top without a scarf twice, both times on a guided walk when I didn’t expect to meet people.  Once I got a stare down from an older man in a village.  If looks could kill, I wouldn’t be writing this.  The second time a girl dressed in traditional clothing knocked me off the curb.  On an empty side street with no one else around.  That’s for showing my arms.

Morocco is a Muslim country.  Muslims have very little respect for women.  They have even less respect for non-Muslim women.  Their disrespect goes far beyond the way we dress.  Much of what we take for granted in Western countries – the right to have an opinion, to walk side by side with men, to look them in the eyes, to ask them questions, to be smart, to express irritation when they annoy us, to travel alone, to say ‘no’ – can be deeply offensive to a Muslim man.

Moroccan Muslims also don’t like Western tourists much.  To the devout, we are blasphemers and infidels.  We are ciphers for all that is decadent and immoral in the Western world.  To the less devout, we symbolize Western exploitation of their country.  We are the French who occupied them and the Americans who destabilized the region.  But they need us, so they put up with us.

Are women travellers safe in Morocco?  Interestingly, Morocco does not provide statistics to the UN Global Database on Violence against Women.  So we don’t have any data to guide us.  But here’s a hint.  Earlier this year, the Moroccan government introduced a new law to address the rampant problem of violence toward women.  Penalties now range from one month to 5 years in prison or a fine of $200 to $1000.

In my experience, if you hire guides, and you dress modestly, and you stay in a group, and you don’t do or say anything to offend Moroccans, many of whom are devout Muslims, you’re probably okay.

But is that how you want to travel?

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