The Day I Wasn’t Taken at a Moroccan Bazaar
My once-white Converse shuffled through the sandy streets of Fez. Merchants yelled on either side of me, desperately trying to draw attention to their silk scarves and gold trinkets. The smell of cumin and lamb roast drew attention to my hunger after hours of walking through a maze of souk stalls. The busyness of the marketplace was becoming mundane, the pushing and shoving almost rhythmic – so much so that the brush of a hand in the wrong place nearly went unnoticed.
I smelt him before I saw him – the potent fragrance of smoke and mint leaves breathing down my neck. It wasn’t enough to make me turn around until I felt the intrusion of a strong clench from behind. I knew it wasn’t my friend Josie. Yet I asked anyway, perhaps out of pure hope.
“Did you just grab my ass?”
She laughed and kept walking. In the distance I could see a familiar corner, the one we took each day to lead us back to our riad. Josie stopped to look in another stall.
I waited awkwardly outside the shopfront. Locals passed after a long day’s work while tourists scrounged through racks of coin purses and fridge magnets. Then I smelt him again. More potent than last time.
I felt someone pull aggressively at my hair, only when they reached the tips, they didn’t let go. They used it as an anchor to draw me closer.
“Ahh pretty lady. How much for one night? I do the anal, yessssss?”
It sent shivers down my spine, the long hiss of the ‘s’ like a snake waiting for its prey. For a moment, I was frozen stiff.
Like many women, I’ve been catcalled before. But this was more than that. There was something sinister in his voice, an aggression in his grasp I’d never experienced.
I pulled away and grabbed Josie almost as strongly as he’d grabbed me, the need to flee an urgent instinct. As we passed him again, heading for our riad, the same shiver went through me.
He blew a kiss in my direction, thrust his hips back and forward and called to me. “Pretty prostitute. I give good money.”
This experience continues to haunt me. It doesn’t rouse me from my sleep, cold sweat dripping down my face as if it were a long reoccurring nightmare. But when I do think about it, I shudder. Not a lot, but just enough to know that this experience still causes distress.
We’ve all heard the warnings: “Women should never travel alone!”, “That’s a dangerous country,” and, “Don’t go there – it’s unsafe.” However, sitting in my small room that night — the safety of a locked door between me and the outside world — I realised something: the extent of my western privilege, and how desperately the conversation around sex trafficking needs to change.
Though the fear of Western tourists being blindfolded, gagged and auctioned off doesn’t come from nowhere – it can and does happen – the chances are so minute, with the disproportionate level of fear attached perhaps stemming from Liam Neeson’s films. It is far more likely for a woman from a low socioeconomic background to be groomed and taken whilst going about her daily routine in her own country.
The illegal sex trade in North Africa is in a period of evolution. Commentators hold that following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami in Asia, many sex tourists searching for cheap exploits shifted their attention to Morocco. Located at the front door of Europe, it presented a unique opportunity for not only the tourists, but many trafficking groups that had been operating out of Thailand. The industry grew and in turn, so did the number of sex tourists, creating a vicious cycle that can be seen across Morocco today.
The same year the tsunami struck, female unemployment in women across Morocco hit an all-time low. In the wake of 9/11, Islamic extremism was on the rise throughout North Africa, and conservative religious ideals were being imposed on Moroccan women. Those who had no male guardian, or who acted out against extremism, were left unemployed, homeless or abandoned. This left a door wide open for traffickers to take advantage of a shift in the industry while many of the country’s women were at their most vulnerable.
Nora was 24 when she first left her hometown in Cote d’Ivoire. Stories of work in Morocco had been echoing through her village, and the money prospects were too great to pass up. Trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, she was easy prey for money-hungry pimps.
Upon arrival in Morocco, expecting to be greeted with a job as a housemaid in the city of Kenitra, Nora was faced with a much darker reality. She had been scammed by traffickers. Her passport was seized along with any shred of the life she had left behind. Forced to work 18 hours a day without pay and regularly abused by her captor, Nora’s hopes for a bright new life quickly faded.
What’s happening in Morocco is complicated. People like Nora aren’t just trafficked in, and tourists aren’t simply paying for sex. Morocco is both a place where people are trafficked out for work in other countries, as well as a sex tourism destination. Uniquely situated between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, there is no one route for traffickers to take. Women are trafficked in just as regularly as they are trafficked out. European pimps often seek what they consider the “exoticness” of the Moroccan women, whilst Moroccan elitists can create a demand for white Europeans. It is difficult to calculate the number of women working in or enslaved by the industry from Morocco, or even in Morocco.
This then raises the all-important question – what is being done to protect those trapped in this hellish world of transactional sex?
Anywhere between eight and 12 million tourists visit Morocco every year. Tourism is the country’s second largest foreign exchange earner, bringing in 10 billion euros annually. Many commentators and NGOs have suggested the government is downplaying the issue of sex trafficking in fear of economic loss, with Moroccan authorities turning a blind eye in fear that addressing the problem will scare away cashed-up tourists.
Moroccan society is full of contradictions. Although it is a majority Muslim country with strict socio-religious conventions, the nation is in a transition of embracing Western influence and is taking advantage of its location and closeness to Europe, its colonial past and the increase in interest in it as a tourist destination. It is a nation caught between two currents: moving forward in the modern world and clinging to its religious past. Caught somewhere in the middle are the young and vulnerable, as sex is still taboo, and Morocco’s legal system does not meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking (though its government is making progress in doing so).
In Moroccan law, a person convicted of raping a minor will face a scant two years’ jail time; the word ‘paedophile’ doesn’t exist and statistics surrounding sex criminals are none existent. In 2012, a young woman committed suicide after she was forced to marry the man who raped her. Why? Because according to Moroccan law at the time, if an offender married their victim, their charges and the 10-year prison sentence would be waived.
This law’s existence wasn’t a means of protecting the rapist, or even the victim (obviously); it was a way of protecting the victim’s family. Because in this deeply conservative and religious nation, many people believe that women who lose their virginity outside of marriage bring shame on their family – no matter what the circumstances.
While this law has thankfully since been amended, lawyer and founder of NGO Droit et Justice Reda Oulamine has said, “The penal code needs to be completely overhauled … victims often fear breaking the silence because the risk of being disowned is unfortunately high.” And for women who are disowned by their families, there aren’t a lot of places to go. They end up on the streets and become easy prey for hustling pimps.
Another complexity comes with the anti-slavery movement itself, and the discourse that surrounds it. No evidence exists to show that awareness-raising campaigns do anything to reduce human trafficking, and some have accused campaigns of deflecting from the need to develop actual solutions to combat exploitation. Furthermore, developed nations are among some of the biggest consumers of trafficking. As such, it has been suggested that funding should be used to develop options for people to migrate safely and create educational programs that advance the recognition of cultural imperialism and Western privilege.
That day in Morocco, I was reminded not all that glitters is gold. My once colourful and inviting riad room seemed dull, the smell of spices through the open window off-putting, and my sense of adventure and desire to embrace a new culture was gone. And though I knew I was safe, I also knew that so many other women aren’t. Young women who, much like me are just hoping to catch a break, are living in a world where they could be taken and trafficked into modern slavery. And Liam Neeson isn’t coming to save them.
The following morning, I woke to a familiar scene: my traditional breakfast was being prepared for me and, when I opened the windows to the warm Moroccan sunshine, I nearly forgot the events of the night before. When I remembered, I felt sudden self-pity and thought, Wasn’t that stressful!
I realise now that those caught in that reality probably don’t have the option of self-pity. Worse still, they don’t get to go to bed at night, pretend it never happened and wake up to reflect on their stress. Because it’s much more than just stress, and sadly, it’s their reality.
Cover by Dave Herring