I get stares and catcalls. I have also been followed. Sometimes, these stares and catcalls can become physical, with people trying to grab or touch me. In my site, the majority of the harassment comes from strangers who don’t know me. Fortunately, since being in my site for more than year, I’ve noticed a significant decrease in the amount of harassment I experience than when I first got there in April of last year. However, not all volunteers are as fortunate.
Below, I’ve decided to loosely categorize some of the different forms of harassment volunteers experience on a daily basis:
Drive-By Catcaller: The guy who walks past you and says something just under his breath so that only you can hear or the guy who decides to yell something at you while he rides quickly past on his bike or car. Or even, the guy who makes a lewd gesture at you as you walk by.
The Follower: The guy you noticed from across the street or casually sitting at a café who decides to follow you around.
The Wannabe Boyfriend : The guy who you’ve met for only 2 seconds but still wants to know your life story, whether you’re married and have children, or are looking for a future husband.
The Creeper: This is a guy who may be an acquaintance or a stranger. This character will usually saunter up
next you in the street while you’re minding your own business or invite you somewhere. What starts out to be a normal conversation all the sudden becomes weird – as said stranger begins to inquire about your relationship status or other inappropriate things.
The Large Group: This is a usually a group younger guys. When alone, sometimes members of the group will take the opportunity to yell and even grab at you to get your attention. Dealing with one harasser is intimidating enough.
The Groper: This is may be a guy you share a seat with on the grand taxi or the bus. You couldn’t find another woman to sit next to so you’re stuck finding a random seat. This is a guy who, when he thinks you’re not paying attention, will try and get touchy. I consider any form of harassment that crosses the line into physical contact to be assault.
These categorizations are not meant to trivialize or mitigate what volunteers’ experience. They are meant to demonstrate the wide range of harassment we experience on an almost daily basis, whether it happens in our sites or when travelling out of our sites. (Disturbingly, these categories would probably be fitting for types of harassers around the world)
It angers me that this is a problem women have to deal with on daily basis when they are out in public space. It angers me that whenever I step out into a public space – some men feel it necessary to objectify me and reduce me to a mesh of body parts to comment at, leer at, or intimidate.
The daily wear of experiencing sexual harassment is tiring. It’s like a deep fatigue that never goes away. Whether it is in Morocco or in the United States, the effects of harassment on the mental and emotional psyche cannot be understated. I for one, experienced anxiety many times when taking the DC metro back in the U.S, because of the harassment I dealt with while travelling. Here in Morocco, one the really bad days, I find myself wondering whether or not to leave my house. In order to stay healthy, I’ve had to develop coping mechanisms.
I find that for the most part, female volunteers are left to develop their own coping methods when dealing with harassment based on the level of harassment in their specific sites. When I first got to site and the harassment was particularly bad, I would plug my headphones in while I was out walking and tune everything out. I would also ignore strangers who catcalled me.
When those strategies weren’t working for me anymore, I decided to switch it up. I now try and talk back my harassers when they engage with me. If I’m walking somewhere, and someone says something I might respond with a “Stop doing that!” or “Shame on you!” or if someone is following me I ask them if they would like to follow me to the gendarmes. If I’m dealing with a drive-by catcaller, I say something to address it under my breath, even if it’s just for myself. Responding and releasing that energy right then and there, works better for me now.
Another coping strategy that I’ve developed somewhat unintentionally is having two different personas. My normal one – which I use with friends, my host family, and other people I know around town. And my outside persona-I use that one to deal with strangers in public and other people that I don’t know. When I’m out in public alone (in or out of site), I am much more alert. I avoid eye contact with most male strangers. My defenses are up at all times. I’m always scanning one or two blocks ahead of me for situations I need to avoid or alleys I need to bypass. I also switch up my routes to and from work every so often.
My best coping strategy has been to make allies along the streets and in the places I frequent the most. I’m friends with the mul hanut (store owner) along my street, the business owners that are on the street on my way to work, I know my neighbors and the people in my host family’s neighborhood know who I am. Through this network, I hopefully have people who will look out for me. But for the most part, me and other volunteers deal with harassment in the best ways we can, on our own.
Room for Improvement
When I look at the problem of sexual harassment, I have to be realistic about my expectations. As mentioned in Tiffany’s last post, there is a long way to go in terms of creating awareness about harassment and the unequal gender-based power dynamics that fuel it. It is unrealistic to expect the environment to change, but I do hope the Peace Corps community improves the way it supports female volunteers.
I categorically reject victim blaming that puts the onus on the individual who is being harmed rather than calling out the person doing the harming. It is alarming to me, that there are people who are more comfortable trying to find fault in victims rather than perpetuators. What you wear or the way you act should never be used as justification for harassment or assault. Period. And this is a frame of thinking we need to move away from in the Peace Corps community.
Because of our unique and shared experiences, there is no one else who can better understand and provide support in the way that other volunteers can provide for each other. As volunteers’ we need to be empathetic to each other’s experiences. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Destructive comments like:
“Oh, well I get harassed more than you.”
“We all go through this why don’t you just deal with it!”
“I’ve been there before and I handled it this or that way – why aren’t you?”
“Why are you making this such a big deal?”
“Maybe you should try being more friendly.”
“Maybe you should change your hairstyle.”
“Maybe you should try wearing something different.”
“Oh! That’s actually pretty funny!”
Are not helpful. They are trivializing and invalidating.
We really need to do better in supporting each other and acknowledging everybody’s different ways of coping. An incident that may be irrelevant to one person may be hurtful to someone else. It is not our job to determine how someone else should deal with his or her own feelings or emotions.
Indeed, the volunteer network is one of the best support systems we have here in country – because in reality, harassment is a constant that female volunteers have to deal with. So when fellow volunteers approach each other for support, it’s important to have an empathetic ear because in a all likelihood, the same thing may happen again tomorrow. And in order to combat the wear of daily harassment – that support is paramount.
There has a very deliberate volunteer led effort to promote more empathy within the Peace Corps Morocco community. Volunteers have led sessions on empathy during regular Peace Corps trainings, and there are also volunteer led wellness retreats that take place every year. All of these initiatives are ways to re-emphasize the importance of the volunteer support system.
I as a volunteer do what I can to create spaces for constructive dialogue whenever I can. I’m part of the Peace and Morocco Gender and Development Committee (GAD). We do a lot of work to try and create awareness about gender issues and provide tools for volunteers and their counterparts to do gender work in their sites. Through GAD, volunteers have been able to facilitate discussions about street harassment; counterparts have been able to learn about how to become gender advocates in their communities, and encourage dialogue about gender and development. One of the aspects I enjoy most about GAD is that we work both with Peace Corps Volunteers and Moroccans to do our community-based work.
There is really no one solution to resolving this issue. I even struggled on how to approach talking about this on my blog because there are so many different facets to how volunteers deal with sexual harassment here. But I know one aspect that has been paramount for me is having volunteers that I can count on for support. The Peace Corps staff also does its part, but with the constant need to be your own self advocate – fellow volunteers sometimes turn out to be your best allies. As the problem continues to persist I hope that at the very least, volunteers who need a support system can continue to find a safe space within the volunteer community.