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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 17, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsThe Jetsetters

Ending Moroccan myths and taboos

When I tell people that I’ll be spending four months in Morocco, I get a range of questions. The stock oh-you’re-going-abroad response: “Oh, how fun! Aren’t you excited?” The troubling, “That’s in Africa, right?” Then there’s the even more disturbing, “Is that safe?” Actually, that last question usually comes with a few others: “Isn’t that a Muslim country? Will you be safe? As a woman, will you have to wear, like, a burqa or a headscarf?”

For the sake of everyone’s understanding, I’ll answer those now. Yes, Morocco is a safe place for anyone — including Americans — to travel. Unlike some other North African and Arab countries, it’s uprising-free and lacking any kind of active terrorist cell. Morocco, with famous cities like Casablanca and Tangier, which were famously populated by expatriate writers, is still heavily reliant on tourism, and, from what I’ve read, the government seems eager to expel any kind of threat that may deter Western tourists. The most I’ll realistically have to worry about, it seems, are pickpockets.

Yes, it is a majority-Muslim country. This is probably my least-favorite question because of the tone it’s usually asked in and for all that tone implies: When it’s asked, it’s done in a sort of quiet, you-know-what-I’m-really-asking sort of voice. What I think they’re really asking is, aren’t Muslim countries violent? Aren’t they the types of places where women, especially blonde-haired, blue-eyed American women such as myself, are in constant danger and treated as second-class citizens? Which more or less brings me to the next question: “Will you be safe as a woman?”

Being a Muslim country does not mean it is filled with “death to America” chanting Islamic extremists who are offended by women’s rights. However, I’m not naive enough to think I’ll be able to act like it’s just another day at Ithaca College. No, I won’t have to wear a burqa or even a headscarf. Morocco is what many would call a “moderate Muslim” country: not quite as liberal as Turkey but certainly not as restrictive as a place like Saudi Arabia. The study abroad group I’m with carefully laid out what would be appropriate and inappropriate to wear. Despite the fact that some Moroccan women wear clothes we might consider normal in the West — your tank tops and shorts — for the group’s purposes, we are to dress “conservatively.” That means nothing too tight, nothing above the knee or elbow, and definitely no cleavage.

For a girl who practically only ever wears leggings as pants — tacky, I know, but so comfy — and has trouble avoiding the whole cleavage deal, finding clothes that fit this dress code has been a challenge. Most guidebooks and personal accounts of Moroccan travel I’ve read have said men harassing women on the street is a pretty big thing, so I don’t want to do anything that will exacerbate what I think will already be a problem. Most of my winter break had been spent trying to decide if tops show off too much of my upper arms, shoulders or boobs. As far as a dress code goes, it’s not that restrictive. Wearing loose tops and jeans is hardly a burqa. I think I’ll be fine.

Actually, there’s usually one more question: “Why Morocco?” It’s a harmless enough question, but I still struggle to answer it. Why Morocco? Why not Morocco? I leave Jan. 24. By the time this is published, I will have been in Morocco for nearly a week. It’s a country that’s filled with culture, a culture which is vastly different from my own, and I can’t wait to explore it.

Evin Billington can be reached at ebillin1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @EvinBillington