By Diana Sharkey
In the days leading up to Ramadan, you could still see people occupying the cafés of Rabat, biding away the mornings, afternoons, and evenings, sipping mint tea and exchanging thoughts. It is apparent, however, that this pasttime is beloved by strictly men— or is at least reserved for their pleasure only. They sit together not facing each other, but side-by-side, watching. From the vantage point of the café, the entirety of outdoor city life is on display to hungry eyes. Me— I really can’t say anything— people-watching is one of my favorite things to do. As a matter of fact, I am one-hundred percent guilty of looking passersby up and down. I don’t avert my gaze when maybe I should. But I like people, and watching them is part of the fascination. I wonder what they’re doing, where they’re going, what the imperfections in their face tell me about who they are, if they love their mother.
So regarding the men sipping tea…their behavior I understand. If I lived in a male body, I’d be sitting with my back to the café too. Likewise I’d want to take respite after an early morning’s work and entertain myself with the interesting people who walk past me. Strangely enough I sit here finishing this blog post in Marrakech, sitting beside Meghana in a café being run by some young women. We’ve found ourselves nestled in a blissfully safe corner of Jmaa el-Fnaa, almost giddy to be sitting with our backs to the café like the men we’ve taken not-so-discreet selfies with. I know exactly what she and I are doing: writing, thinking, conversing, admiring the beauty of the chaos and the color and the movement, and making new friends as they play Bollywood music and introduce us to Algerian hiphop artist Soolking.
What I remain curious about is what my older male counterparts are thinking about as they sit in this position. What are they discussing as they grace women with their less-than-innocuous gaze? I only wish I knew— part of me truly does. As a traveller, I know my own eyes and ears are purposefully shielded from those darker goings-on they don’t want me to know. But these are the things I want to know. I think about this phenomenon in the context not of witnessing, but being somewhat aware of the pervasive practices of sex work that go on in the country’s major cities. The other, smaller part of me doesn’t want a peek into their headspace, for fear it might scare me at worst, further dishearten me at best. I watch the men as they watch women and they watch me, a young woman, a small part of the day’s entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong— I am not just blatantly pointing out the fact that the outdoor café in Morocco is generally a male-dominated space, no. Nor am I contesting that it exists as a manifestation of toxic masculinity that needs to be dismantled and destroyed (maybe a version of this contention, yes). I especially do not want to play victim, as I am merely a visitor to this beautiful country, completely safeguarded from the hardships faced by Moroccan women. I’d really just like to point out how this phenomenon takes shape here on the streets of Rabat, a phenomenon that is not cultural, but universal. Men in Cafés is a remix of the classic power position: the watcher and the watched. And no one can argue that this practice, anywhere or anyhow, is harmless. It is not harmless in the context where sexual and domestic violence exists, pervades, and continues, the context where women have to sell themselves to support their children, who (sensitive) might also be for sale. As a species, we have our sixth sense for a reason. Being watched triggers the survival instinct, within the classic predator-and-prey situation. It’s the taste of fear, growing from either this instinct or, sadly, from experience, that makes the woman walk just a little bit faster, and makes her turn her head down when she isn’t the one who should be doing so. In the café context, men bear the power in a space where women are not only not welcome, but are reduced to entertainment. For this reason, Men in Cafés is not a parody, it’s not a black and white French film, it’s a mini-glimpse into, and simultaneously a reflection of a more insidious aspect of society.
Diana Sharkey is a rising senior in Pierson College. You can contact her at email@example.com.