Western women are often perplexed about their Morocco travel plans – more cautious than they would be for a trip to, let’s say, Europe or even Southeast Asia. Part of that comes from the lack of familiarity with Islamic countries, compounded by news cycles that equate Islam with danger and warn vaguely of terrorism "out there somewhere."
When it comes to Morocco that worry should be no more and no less than anywhere else.
A visit to Morocco will open your eyes, make you marvel, and possibly irrevocably ensnare you.
What it shouldn’t do is scare you. Yes, terrorism can rear its ugly head, but the truth is it can do that in Morocco - or anywhere else.
This is a Muslim country. Let’s get that out of the way.
All that means is that people have a religion that may be a bit different from yours. Depending on where you’re from, people are probably a bit more conservative too.
That conservatism means there is a certain distance to maintain when you are with men – and men might well try to take advantage of your openness or friendliness by getting a bit too close. Beware of someone grasping your hand for a 'prolonged' handshake or squeezing your shoulder or elbow. Where you’re from that might be the norm, but here, it’s out of line. And if a Moroccan man asks you to go somewhere alone, again, beware, because although not unknown, this level of familiarity isn’t usual.
If you’re young and blonde – well, you’ll be attracting a lot more attention than if you are not. Again, stereotypes about Western women abound, so keep that in mind.
Most well-traveled areas are pretty safe. You’ll find Moroccans are extremely hospitable and an invitation to a family home should be treasured. In fact if you meet people who do invite you over, run, don’t walk. I have memories of family meals that will stay with me forever.
That said, harassment and attacks do happen, as do sexually explicit comments and lewd hissing. You'll need a thick skin; ignore the comments and keep walking, and if you find avoiding eye contact difficult, slide on a pair of sunglasses, at least during the day.
A good measure of your welcome is the presence of other women. In Tangier I was starving one night and walked through the old crooked streets desperate for a meal – every restaurant had only men so I went on my way and eventually found a pastry shop – filled with women and children, as well as men, but perfectly comfortable. I wouldn’t normally walk around the medina solo at night, but in truth I have felt more threatened by wild mopeds in Marrakesh than from excessive male attention.
One thing Moroccan women don’t often do is drink alcohol in public so if you want a drink, best to grab it indoors, where you’re staying, or behind the walls of a restaurant. Downing a beer in street café on your own might get you more attention than you want.
Women in Morocco are making great social and economic strides but this is still a male-dominated society. Morocco is also a relatively poor country and there is high unemployment, which does affect attitudes. That said, don’t expect Morocco to be a rock-bottom budget destination – it’s not.
The good news is that in Morocco clothing is pretty much whatever you want it to be.
In the more urban or touristy cities or resorts, you can dress like you would at home. I’d warn against overly suggestive clothing because accustomed as Moroccans are to tourists, the conservative attitudes most grew up with are still close to the surface.
In the countryside or in small villages, especially isolated ones, mores are more traditional. You won’t go wrong anywhere if you cover your knees and shoulders, even in the most conservative areas.
I think the right word would be ‘appropriateness’: be comfortable but don’t push social boundaries too far. I’ve been to Morocco a number of times and I haven’t had to watch what I wore if I followed that rule, anywhere. If you want specifics, think loose skirts or pants and a top that isn’t skin-tight and not too revealing. That should get you by everywhere.
As for local fashion, you can’t generalize. Many young women are indistinguishable from their Western counterparts – this isn’t Saudi Arabia. Women who work look like women in Europe or elsewhere, wearing dresses or suits that reflect the jobs they do. Some women do wear the traditional headscarf or hijab as well as a flowing djellaba, but these tend to be the more traditional. Again, there is no rule, only tendencies.
So you’re armed with the right clothing and now it’s time to see the country. I have taken pretty much every mode of transport in Morocco, from buses to planes to camels, and it is an easy country in which to travel. In fact their trains put many North American ones to shame.
The transport network is excellent and the roads aren’t as bad as they were the first time I visited, when crossing the Atlas was an adventure along strips so narrow and winding that in some places you had to stop to let oncoming traffic pass. These days you can hop a bus or train in a world-class train station, sit in air-conditioned comfort and let someone else do the worrying.
Wherever you go, beware of touts at the station though – they’ll try to carry your luggage (don’t lose sight of it!) and sell you tickets you don’t need, since you can buy them legally and easily from the ticket counter. For trains, especially on popular routes, I’d go buy my ticket the day before because they fill up fast.
If you do drive, you’ll be able to go almost anywhere on your own, although I’d look at the map very carefully: some roads wind through mountains for many miles without crossing a village and getting stranded solo in the middle of nowhere is never a recipe for successful travel. Distances may look short on a map but once you’re driving, some roads feel as though they’ll never end.
There are plenty of cheap holidays to Morocco if you’d rather have things organized ahead of time. Or you hire a guide with a car – the equivalent of a group tour without the group – which allows you to get to places quickly if your time is limited (I traveled to the Sahara with Desert Majesty, which is reasonably priced. Our guide Mohammed was full of history and Felicity in their Ouarzazate office knows all about women’s travel in Morocco).
Luxury accommodations are easy to find and can be affordable. I love staying in riads, traditional Moroccan houses with inner courtyards and even fountains, many of which are being renovated and converted into hotels (in Fez I stayed at the wonderful Riad Laaroussa, where the welcome was warm and the rooms lovely). For a wonderful account of what it takes to renovate a riad - trendy among foreigners these days - you must read Suzanna Clarke’s A House in Fez, although she lives in her house and it’s NOT a hotel.
One more thing: Moroccan food is extraordinary, from Moroccan olives to chicken with preserved lemons to Moroccan tajine, that wonderful stew braised for hours in a cone-shaped pot. This recipe explains it all.
Walking through a city souk or market may be a feast for the eyes but it will also be a tug on the wallet. Colors, colors everywhere, scents that will walk you back centuries – from superb (street kebabs) to disgusting (leather tanneries) – and sights that you’ll cherish or detest, like the fine mosaic or monkeys on a leash.
Morocco is made for shopping: handmade Berber carpets and cloths, leather bags and jackets, foods and spices, metalwork and woodwork. You'll only be saved by sheer size, many of your ideal purchases too large to carry home, although if you visit a reputable shop you’ll be able to get things shipped home and trust that it might actually get there. When you’re in a market know that quoted prices will be far higher than you need to pay and a Moroccan souk is one place where you must actively engage in the art of haggling. Do not accept the first price – merchants are just fishing, and they've learned their skills from generations before them. Don’t expect to get off lightly.
Many goods will be made by hand, and made right there, something you can’t often say anymore when you shop. Even so, just know that the Chinese have set up huge manufacturing plants in Morocco and many of the counterfeit items you’ll find in the market – like those nice $5 ICE watches – are made not in China but certainly by China.
Several travelers mentioned to me that they had been shooed away when trying to take photos in some of the souks. It happens. I found that engaging people before sticking my camera into their face made a world of difference. Even if you don’t speak Arabic or French, most businesses in tourist areas will have someone who speaks a few words of English, at least enough to say hello and wave vaguely about the weather. A bit of conversation upped my photographic rate by about 500% and in some cases enriched me far more than a picture or two would have. Sensitivity and courtesy. Works every time.
You’ll get the sightseeing rundown in any good travel guidebook and that isn't my role. I did want to share a few places I found special. If you’re near Fez (and you should try to be at some point) take a side trip to Moulay Idriss el Zeitoun. From Moulay Idriss it’s a half-hour walk downhill to Volubilis, a collection of dreamy Roman ruins around which you can build an entire day. (You can easily do this on a day-trip from Fez.)
Another area that nibbled at my heart was the Erg Chagaga area of the Sahara Desert, far enough to avoid the busloads but close enough to the rest of the country to be, well, close. I spent several nights in the desert, one of them even more memorable than the rest.
My one regret is Chefchaouen, a town all painted in blue. I haven't been, but you must. I promise I'll go.
Take your pick: visit a Berber rug-making family factory; stop by a women’s argan oil cooperative (beware – not all coops are legit) ; get steamed and pounded in a hammam or Turkish bath; take a food tour or a fusion cooking class from my friends at the Cafe Clock; drive across the Atlas Mountains; visit nomadic cave dwellers. You’ve heard of the immense Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakesh and however overwhelming you might think it is, it is still a must-see. But Fez is where my heart lies, an older, less touristy town where you can lose yourself in the labyrinth of alleys, strutting along like others have done for centuries before you. It is unlikely that you'll be bothered, and if you peer into the dark recessed openings that dot the medina you may glimpse a bread maker or a bowl carver or a cloth dyer or many other traditional crafts that Fez doesn't seem to have forgotten.
There are reports of women being physically harassed and attacked in Morocco. Women are also harassed and attacked in Paris, Rome and Montreal, depending on when or where they go. So yes, there are rapes and murders, but let me put that statement into perspective. According to UNODC, the UN agency that tracks crime, Morocco ranks at #64 out of 218 countries and territories for homicide. The USA ranks at #108. Just saying. The murder rate is at 2.2 per 100,000 inhabitants. The same as Norway. Morocco is basically safe for women, despite – or perhaps because of – its conservative traditions.
Where there are tourists, there are police, especially since terrorists blew up a cafe in Marrakesh in 2011. Many are in plainclothes and even if you don’t see them, they are watching you.
Sales people can be quite aggressive – speaking a bit of French would definitely help. If you buy something in a tourist market, keep it within your sight. I bought a sheepskin which was taken to the back for wrapping, and when I got home it definitely wasn’t the lovely white one I’d bought. Just say you’ll wrap it yourself later. Where there are tourists, there will be conmen, not only in Morocco but the world over, from pickpockets to deft artists who grab your hand and apply some henna – and then insist on payment. Keeping your normal wits about you should help you avoid most of these situations.
A few more observations, in no particular order:
On a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest, I’d give Morocco a 3.25 as a destination for women. It loses a point for the inferior social status of women, and another bit for the low-level harassment that that often follows foreign women and safety more generally.
I was there a few months ago. And I can’t wait to go again.
(With contributions by Amanda Mouttaki of MarocMama in Marrakech.)
Have you visited Morocco? We’d love to hear your tips for women’s travel in the comments below!