The very mention of Marrakech often conjures up images of colourful spice markets, exotic snake charmers, and beautifully crafted, hand-dyed leather goods. This French speaking economic metropolis of North Africa is a strange and exotic place. For women tourists who visit Marrakech, perhaps a fully chaperoned tour of the city might protect its image. But your experience will be different if you travel there alone, especially if you’re a woman. Let me begin by saying you will be safe, so that’s not the problem.
Most merchants, cab drivers, and clerks in Marrakech are men, and most customers are men too. Walk down any street in Marrakech, and besides the tourists, you’ll see that 90% of the people conducting business and sitting in coffee shops are men. So where are all the women? they’re at home. Morocco is an Islamic country, and it’s not my intent to comment on their social and religious mores in that regard. We should all be respectful of this when we visit a foreign place. My beef is with the disrespect shown to female tourists who visit Marrakech. We are in your country, spending our money, and service workers in Marrakech don’t seem to want any of it.
Stray out of the popular tourist areas, and walk into a café. You’ll be the only female. If the cold stares don’t intimidate you, buy yourself a coffee and look for a seat. The once lively and animated conversations will die down, because you’ve put an obvious damper on the ambiance. No one will talk to you. The air feels almost hostile. You’ll feel so out of place, it will likely be the fastest coffee you’ve never enjoyed.
Take a walk through the Jemaa el-Fnaa (the world famous market in Marrakech). Wind your way through the dusty and noisy labyrinth to shop for a leather bag. This is where you’ll find a lot of younger men; teenagers minding the shop. You’ll think by their western attire that you’ve come into a more modern attitude toward women. You’ll be wrong. The attitude is different than that of the older men in the coffee shop, but still rude and made to make you uncomfortable. These condescending young men will insult your intelligence by offering you fake knock offs and telling you with all the sincerity they can muster that it is the genuine article. When you let them know that Dolce & Banana is not a designer name, they will laugh at you. Not with you. There’s a difference, and you can feel it.
Getting lost when you visit Marrakech is no fun either. You’ll have a hard time asking a local for directions, even if you wait for the occasional female that passes by. The women in Marrakech will ignore you. Perhaps they can’t speak English. Try in French, but they won’t even hang around long enough to wait while you search for the correct word for ATM. I’m not sure it’s rudeness on their part. It feels more like extreme shyness. If they are with their children, they will grasp their hand a bit tighter, and force them to walk a bit quicker until they are clear of you.
Travel to Marrakech as a lone female tourist is emotionally draining. You’ll feel like an unlikable, unwelcome intruder. You’ll crave a friendly smile or a helpful offer of advice. That said, I think everyone needs to visit Marrakech. The city is alive with the pungent aroma of tobacco, blended with the unique spices simmering in a nearby tagine. Listen as the call to prayer echoes a haunting chant throughout the city. In the evening, the Jemaa el-Fnaa comes alive when the food stalls open. Music blasts from everywhere while merchants are selling everything from hand-woven carpets to orange juice. The snake charmers, monkey tamers, henna painters, and fortune tellers are at every turn.
So the conundrum is this: How does a lone female tourist visit Marrakech without feeling exhausted and disheartened from the harsh treatment by the local men?
First, be aware that Morocco is a safe country for women travellers. Yes, there is crime everywhere in this world, but Morocco is relatively safe. You won’t feel threatened there.
Second, approach your visit with a sense of humour and interest. Instead of being insulted by the store clerk who takes the male customer ahead of you, find it interesting. Observe with a curiosity about how Marrakech is very different from the commercial experiences in your own city. Be aware of the cultural conventions in this Islamic country. Knowing what to expect will help you prepare.
Third, find a Women’s Co-operative through Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet, and shop there. Many unmarried and widowed women in Morocco are learning entrepreneurial skills by working together, selling their crafts. They are finding their own way out of poverty. They will appreciate your patronage, with a warm smile.