Thursday, April 29, 2010

On the Unintended Consequences of Asserting My Feminist Agenda

We walked into the room and every head turned to stare at us: four 20-something American women, all sweaty from the aerobics class we had just finished, and all soaking wet from the sudden downpour we found ourselves in. We sought refuge in the nearest establishment – a famously de-facto all-male cafe on the edge of the medina. We all took a deep breath and walked into the shelter, already full of – well – Moroccan men. Some had come much earlier to watch the soccer game. Others, much like us, decided they wouldn’t mind some coffee or tea while they waited out the storm.

The difference with us, of course, is that we’re women. According to Moroccan cafe culture, the cafe is strictly male space, not to be trespassed by women. We were clearly unwelcome.

Our efforts to slip in without creating a fuss were far from successful. Finding four chairs in the already crowded cafe was a challenge in itself. To their credit, a couple guys offered us their chairs, but we refused, finally finding four empty ones and carrying them (with the help of the waiter) to our table in the back of the room. We sat down and immediately felt eyes burning into our skulls.

“What are these American girls doing in our manspace?”

But let’s be honest. I derive some sort of sick pleasure from shaking things up a bit in cafe culture. That evening my friend and colleague LAUREN PEATE wonderfully referred to our invasion of manspace as “asserting our feminist agenda.”

Yes, men. A woman stranded in a storm gets just as wet and cold as a man does. I’ll go into the cafe. Because I can.

I frequent several otherwise-all-men-cafes. But each one takes a lot of work to get to the point where I feel comfortable there. It’s day after day of the same thing...

YES, I want black coffee, without sugar.
NO, I don’t have a male escort.
YES, I know the price – I can read the sign (in Arabic) so don’t try to rip me off.
NO, I’m not a tourist.
YES, I will just sit here, drink my coffee, and watch people walk by.
NO, I didn’t come here to make conversation.
YES, I have a phone number.
NO, you can’t have it...

Really I don’t want much, except coffee. And respect.


My dad came to visit last month, and he’s a bit of a coffee addict. When he needs his coffee, he needs his coffee, so I ended up sitting in lots of these cafes, which are far more numerous than the female-friendly ones where I generally go to get work done. At one point we went to a cafe near my house in Fez Jdid. Until then I had specifically avoided that cafe and others like it in my neighborhood.

I think one of the reasons I avoided it until then was because I knew that the men in it sit there and watch me every day as I go about my business. Not to sound self-important, but I figured they must talk about me at least from time to know, “Here comes that white girl again...” and that kind of thing. The thought of actually sitting with them was terrifying. A major disadvantage of my improving darija is that I have the misfortune of hearing and understanding what people say about me when I’d much rather remain blissfully ignorant.

While my dad and I conspicuously sat there – the foreigner and the woman – I got a phone call and everyone in the cafe heard me speaking in darija. As I was leaving, one man commented...

“So, you speak darija?”
“Yeah,” I told him, “I live here.”
To which he responded, “Well we all know you live here. But it’s great that you speak darija. You’re welcome here anytime. You’re very respected in this cafe. Come here to take your breakfast.”

It was an awkward conversation. Welcoming, yes, but also strange. Several times since then I’ve sat at that cafe (without my father as an escort) and have felt incredibly awkward every time. But, of course I play it cool. I have my routine. I go to buy HARCHA or MALAWI – two Moroccan breads that are wonderful for breakfast – then go to the cafe. I always drink the same thing – black coffee, no sugar – and just...sit. I look straight ahead toward the street, but I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on there. Mostly I just think and process. I gather my thoughts and plan out my day. I spend a quiet 20 minutes, then go on with my life. I love it. I also try to pretend that there aren’t people staring at me and wondering what I’m doing in their manspace.


The other day I was approached on the street by the same man who had welcomed me to his cafe several weeks before – I call him HASSAN DIYAL QHWA. He was friendly enough. He welcomed me back to Fez after my 5-day absence and he said that next time I came to the cafe he wanted to talk to me about his daughter – an 18-year-old who loves music. He always sees me walking with my guitar, so he thought we should meet. I agreed to meet her. After all, that’s my job, right?

The next morning I met Hassan at the cafe, and he introduced me to his daughter, AFAF. I went home with her to drink tea, and Hassan went back to the cafe. Note, please, that Afaf isn't allowed to sit in the cafe. Afaf and I chatted about music, sports, school, and traveling. I like her. She's spunky. Her dad doesn’t like her to go running by herself, so I told her we can go running together. I have a new running buddy.

Later, after lunch (Moroccan visits generally last all afternoon), Afaf went back to school, but I got to hang out with her parents. Hassan and I had a lovely little chat about how everyone perceives me in the cafe. It was without a doubt one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had. He gave me a play-by-play of the commentary about me:

Look at that foreigner...wait, we’ve seen her before...wait, we see her everyday? Does she live here? She DOES live here! What’s she doing here? She must be a trouble-maker. No, I’m sure she’s a student. She likes music, she’s always carrying that guitar. And clearly she does sports, because sometimes she piles her hair on her head and is sweaty. Look how mean she is! Why is she so mean? No, she’s not mean. Look at how friendly she is to the banana man. She just doesn’t talk to people she doesn’t a Moroccan girl. Wait...what’s she doing in our cafe?!?! What’s she DOING?!?!?! Why is she here? Probably because she wants coffee. But doesn’t she know that women don’t come to men’s cafes? Well, she’s Western, she does what she wants, AFRITA! But look at how she sits when she’s here. She ignores us all. She doesn’t even stare at people on the street. She just thinks. She’s not looking at us, she’s just looking at herself. She sits in the cafe like a Moroccan man. Wait...WHO IS THIS??

In summary, Hassan told me that shwia bi shwia I have been shattering every perception anyone has about me.

This went on for a while, complete with Hassan’s imitation of my demeanor while I sit in the cafe. It was – I have to say – accurate and hilarious, yet a bit disturbing that the tiniest gesture can’t go unnoticed.

And so it seems that by “asserting my feminist agenda” (Peate, 2010) I have opened Pandora’s box. I now get the good, the bad, and the ugly of what the cafe people say about me. But I also have met a wonderful new family in Fez Jdid who treats me like I’m their own.

Well worth it.