A fellow Fulbrighter’s girlfriend is coming to live in Fez at the end of December and he asked me to write a few of my thoughts on the differences between life as a woman in the US and life here in Fez’s medina. Here is what I wrote to her:
1. Sexual objectification
This was the aspect of life in the Fez medina that took the most getting used to: at home, I’m never really the subject of lewd comments and rarely do I ever feel like I am getting checked out. Though I dress conservatively here and don’t wear too much makeup, I get many comments directed at me every day, ranging from just annoying, to very disgusting. I’ve personally found that the best defense is to ignore it all: I pass a hanout, or neighborhood shop, on my way to the bus stop every morning, and every morning there is a group of young men out front, and every morning they always used to say something. I never responded or reacted, and eventually they got bored with their little game and now leave me alone.
2. Lack of Anonymity
Though this is probably less because I am a woman, but because I am not a Fassi. I can’t really go anywhere without being noticed, and commented on (and about). I can never just blend into the crowd, despite the fact that I am neither tall nor short, fat nor skinny, and not blonde. This being said, though, everyone watches everyone here. A particularly poetic Fassi woman told me that Fez is a mirror: she doesn’t have to worry about what her daughter and her fiancée do outside of the house, because it will always get back to her at some point.
3. Lack of Freedom
I can’t ever expect to be able to go wherever I want, when I want on my own. Though I feel completely comfortable exploring and running errands in the medina by myself during the day, I do not feel comfortable walking on my own outside the city. I have become used to the fact that any time I would like to go for a walk up to the towers overlooking the city or the Merenid tombs or even walk on the path passes outside the city from the new city to the medina, I have to go with at least one other person.
My personal experience with this: I walk home from ALIF to the medina with at least one other person every day. Usually we take the path that passes outside the city, which follows a main road rarely do we run into other pedestrians. We’ve been told that this path is dangerous, but after a month of walking it midday without a single incident, I decided to walk it alone without much thought. I had two separate unpleasant run-ins during that short, 30 minute walk that made me decide not to walk it alone again. What makes places like this dangerous is that they are empty. Without the constant neighborhood watch that is always present inside the medina, perhaps it is more likely to find yourself in a situation with people who will try to get away with something they wouldn’t dare to do with others watching.
4. Access to Both Men and Women’s Spaces
Its not all negative, though. Being an American woman in Fez allows you to access men’s spaces (to a certain extent) as well as women’s spaces. I sit at sidewalk tables at cafes, traditionally men’s space, and have never been hassled, for example. I think the key is to not feel intimidated. I can also approach women here in Fez much easier than any American man probably can, and as a result I’ve had some great conversations. The hamam is my favorite women’s space, which serves a practical purpose (to get clean) but also serves as a social meeting place where women can go to relax and catch up with their neighbors.