I’m in a dusty desert town, somewhere in the Kasbah Valleys of Morocco. I am being scrubbed raw by a woman our guide calls ‘Mama Africa’. She’s big and bold and confident. Her bosoms sway above me as she sits with her legs open, ensuring that every piece of dead skin is rubbed from my body. It’s not the usual experience that you expect when visiting Morocco. A country known for its conservatism, one in which many women wear headscarves and floor-length clothing. Yet here in the private safety of a Women’s Hammam, local women sit bare, washing, shaving and socialising with friends and family. It’s a place they can be completely safe and free. Away from the men’s world which exists outside.
For me and my seven other Intrepid travel companions, it’s a strange yet endlessly rewarding experience. Interacting with women in Morocco can be hard, particularly in the countryside. So we relish in the chance to see them in their element; fun, free and beautiful Moroccan women. Many greet us excitedly, others explain to us in broken French how to use the buckets or the soft fleshy blobs of Olive Soap we have been given on entrance. Mama Africa pays us no forgiveness though, and we are scrubbed as thoroughly as a local woman. She’s wild and fierce and really encompasses her nickname. After we rinse and dress again, we are back in the outside world. Where women are fully clothed and public life is largely a man’s world.
A few weeks earlier I had touched down in Casablanca. It was almost midnight and the whitewashed city spun past my window. I see Parisian style buildings and gatherings of locals outside tea shops. It’s my second time in Morocco, yet that doubt still sets in my mind. What will it be like being a woman here? Will I be harassed? Will I have to cover my blonde hair with a headscarf? These are questions which occupy many women’s minds when considering visiting Morocco, particularly those who come solo.
What didn’t stop me was the colours, the vibrancy and the culture which I was so keen to get to the bottom of. I wanted to walk through the rainbow streets of the country’s medinas, ride camels through the Sahara desert and feel the Atlantic breeze on my face.
There’s no doubt that Morocco is one of the world’s most exciting and unique destinations, and I don’t believe any woman should be put off visiting because of their gender. I have now visited Morocco twice, both as a solo traveller and as part of Intrepid’s Best of Morocco tour, where I travelled with a male guide and 9 other travellers from around the world (7 of them female). I believe that the key to enjoying Morocco as a woman is through an understanding of the culture, and respect for the customs.
On my second day in Casablanca, I meet a vibrant, rounded woman in an apron on the streets of the pink medina. She’s thrilled to see me photographing her beautiful neighbourhood, and quickly invites me into her house to have lunch with her family. ‘I have just cooked lentil soup,’ she tells me proudly, and under the door we go. Here she places a bowl of steaming soup in front of me, as I attempt to converse in broken French with her family. It’s a common example of a quick bond between women in Morocco. While you may receive some street harassment as a white woman alone, it seems like there is always someone looking out for you. Indeed, my experience travelling in Islamic countries has often been one where woman look out for each other, no matter whether you wear the hijab or not.
As the Intrepid tour begins, we visit a range of Moroccan cities, towns and countryside locations. It quickly becomes clear that travelling in a group with a Moroccan guide is a great way to find ease in the country. When within the group, I never feel the gender gap, and I recommend to women who are nervous about travelling in the country solo to consider joining a group tour. As we visit Imperial cities, the Sahara, the Kasbah Valleys and the Atlas Mountains, I rarely feel my gender. Even when I leave the group to explore alone, it’s the culture and beauty of the country which shines through above any small bits of street harassment I may receive.
Morocco is a country which receives a lot of tourists, and most people are used to seeing Western women, and seeing women alone is becoming a more and more common sight. While I know many women do have bad experiences in the country, I really believe these women are in the minority, and overly Morocco is becoming a very safe and rewarding place to travel as a woman.
Of course, as with many destinations in the world, it is important to take some precautions. Walking alone at night on backstreets is obviously not recommended. But I wouldn’t recommend that in New York, Rome or Paris either. Pickpocketing in Marrakech is common, so keeping your valuables in hidden, hard to reach places can help. The safety steps you should take in Morocco are not dissimilar to those you should take anywhere else in the world.
One of my favourite experiences is when we get to Essaouira, a hippie seaside town which is probably the place in the country I felt most comfortable as a woman alone. Here, we have our first female guide. Rachida is a strong and very well educated Muslim woman. She’s deeply proud of her faith and her city and shows off Essaouira to its full potential. She sports jeans, yet also a headscarf. She’s university educated and speaks fluent French, English as well as Moroccan dialect Arabic. For me, she’s a true example of a modern Moroccan woman, and speaking and debating with her is one of my favourite experiences in the country.
While Morocco is a Muslim country, and it’s important to respect local dress and customs, it’s also one where women can travel safely and have an incredible experience. Being a woman in Morocco gives you unique access to women’s private lives, whether that be in a female Hammam, being invited into a family home or having long debates with a fascinating female guide.
Dress with respect, stay strong and find comfort in local women and I guarantee you’ll have the most wonderful time in this country. And if you do want to let it all loose and hang free with a bunch of other Moroccan women, there’s always the Hammam. Mama Africa is waiting.