The cafe has been a common part of Moroccans’ everyday socialization for a long time, but the relationship young people, especially young women, have with cafes is not the same as their parents.
Rabat – A man wakes up and has a leisurely breakfast – he’s retired and does not need to rush out the door for work. Eventually, he says goodbye to his wife and children, leaves his home, and strolls down the street. He weaves through the rows of tables and chairs, facing the street not each other, that cover the sidewalks out of each cafe he passes until he arrives at his usual place.
He greets the waiter and the other regulars, sits down and orders a cafe noir. After a few hours, he might stop home for lunch, only to return to the cafe in the afternoon.
“I understood it’s basically part of every man’s routine – the man of the house routine,” Anas, a 23-year-old PhD student, said of his impression of cafes growing up. “You would notice when you go to these kinds of [traditional] cafes that they only have those kinds of archetypes.”
In the past, this was the norm, but the picture is changing.
“Basically my whole life has been around cafes,” said Hiba, a 25-year-old Rabati woman. “At this point in our lives you just go to the place where you feel the most comfortable and you make it your second home. And that’s what you do basically every day.”
Hiba took a puff of her cigarette and explained that she has been hanging around cafes since highschool. She said her parents understand the significance of cafes in her daily routine since they, like many other Moroccans, have the same habit.
The first time Anas went to a cafe was with his dad when he was 8 or 9 and it remains the main way they socialize.
“That’s how we spend quality time – me and him – we go to cafes together, like father-son time,” he said.
I met Anas at a casual cafe – with plenty of sunlight and comfortable couches – in Akdal, a younger and more modern neighborhood in Rabat. He gestured around us and said his dad would never go somewhere like this, as he refuses to go anywhere that isn’t a traditional cafe.
In comparison, if he were with his mom they’d find a more modern place similar to where we were sitting – somewhere without a lot of men.
While Hiba said she prefers to go to cafes with fewer men and more younger people, she also tries to sit in traditional cafes to make a statement.
“I try to change Morocco by provoking the men because – I don’t know how – but we’re in 2019 and there are some men – and older women – that are still shocked that a woman is smoking in a public place,” she said.
History of the Cafe: How they Came to be a Male Space
Throughout history, cafes have been a male space and it is only recently that women have really started sharing them, said Said Graiouid, a professor of communication and cultural studies at the University Mohammed V-Agdal, in Rabat. The professor has previously conducted extensive research on cafe culture within Morocco.
While cafes are not Moroccan in origin – they were introduced by the French through colonization – they gradually became a male space through social norms. Traditionally, public space was for men and there were numerous regulations around women’s presence in it.
“The appropriation of [cafes] followed the distribution of spatial production and consumption along gender lines,” Graiouid said. “They immediately became available to men, and women obviously were not expected to be in that space because they were not even supposed to be on the streets to begin with.”
In the recent past, the cafe landscape in Morocco has changed and now contains many more modern cafes that cater to different crowds.
The increase in different types, in addition to changes in gender dynamics within Morocco more broadly, have contributed to the appropriation of the cafe by Moroccan women, according to Graiouid.
While men still dominate neighborhood cafes, women often self select to go to newer cafes, he said.
“The more modern, the fewer ties to a particular neighborhood, the more inviting it might be for a woman to use,” he explained.
Davis-Taieb’s 1998 study of Moroccan womens’ use of modern cafes found that Moroccan women have a different relationship with “neutral” cafe spaces – like McDonalds or Starbucks – and concluded that there is not much of a difference in clientele based on gender in these types of cafes.
Since these spaces are newer, they don’t hold as strong of historical context and are not necessarily catered more towards men so it is easier for women to inhabit them, Graiouid explained.
More recently, women’s absence from cafes wasn’t because of set regulations but more a result of lasting historical context – women just grew up believing cafes were for men, said one of Graiouid’s past students, 21-year-old Samia.
Samia’s mom, Zaina, 49, has lived in Sale most of her life and explained that throughout her childhood, the culture of women sitting in a cafe did not really exist.
“In my generation cafes were not for girls,” Zaina said, through her daughter’s translation. “If a girl goes to a cafe it means she’s a bad girl. If she goes to a cafe someone might see her and people would spread rumors about her not being a good girl – it’s bad for her reputation and her family’s reputation so she wouldn’t go.”
Now things are different.
“It changed completely. Only a minority of people still think that way,” she said.
She laughed and added that she is a pioneer in this change because she allows her daughters to sit in cafes.
A Wave of Female Cafe Clients
A few decades ago, there would be hesitation and very few women saying they would go to cafes, Graiouid said when reflecting on his surveys of past students.
“Now, the question barely sounds interesting,” he recalled. “It sounds like – why are you asking this question? They don’t think about it.”
Samia said she couldn’t place when exactly the shift happened, but that she and her sisters have a very different relationship with cafes than her mother or grandmother.
Houda, Samia’s older sister, seconded that there is an increase in the visibility of women in cafes and added that the atmosphere and variety of cafes has changed as well. They aren’t the smelly, loud, male-dominated spaces she remembers from when she was younger.
“Personally, I would be more shocked if I don’t see women in cafes,” she said. “This idea of women belonging in the house and that they should not go to cafes it’s something that you hear about it – like ages ago – but it’s not something you see now.”
While Zaina prefers to visit with her friends at their houses – versus in cafes – the stigma from when she was younger would no longer prevent her from sitting in one. If the cafe was clean and nice, she would be open to going.
In fact, Zaina and her daughters have a long-standing plan to visit a cafe together, but something always seems to come up, they explained.
Chaimae, a friend of Hiba’s who joined us at the quiet Rabat Ville cafe in which we met, said she didn’t sit in a cafe by herself until after she had graduated from high school and an organization she joined introduced her to “another world of cafes.”
Once she saw other people her own age hanging out in them, she started going all the time.
“At first I was awkward, I was like, ‘I can’t go to cafes because its weird for a girl to go there.’ And then I started going out to cafes and now I go wherever I want,” she happily shared.
“There has been a tremendous change in terms of how cafe space accommodates both males and females, but there is still some sort of ‘hyphenated borderlines,’” Graiouid said.
While most cafes have both inside and outside seating, it’s typically the outside terrace that is more populated – and more male-dominated, specifically in traditional cafes.
Amine, 21, and a recent graduate from the Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences in Rabat, recalled that his mom prefers to cross the street instead of walking in front of a cafe that has mostly male patrons.
“It happened many times and I was always asking myself, ‘why does she do that?’” he said. “After I grew up, I found out that when women pass a cafe, [the men] see her in a weird way and that’s why she prefers to pass on the other side of the street.”
Traditionally, cafe terraces consist of rows of tables that fill the sidewalk and chairs that face the street, not each other, to provide cafe goers the ability to watch passerbyers and action in front of the cafe.
“People would just sit there and watch – cat calling, peeking at people,” Anas said. “Those kind of cafes only serve that purpose, but the purpose of cafes is changing overtime.”
Now there are cafes for anyone to sit in – whether they’re relaxing, studying, or meeting friends.
Because the cafe can “send back to stereotyped practices” – like prostitution and seduction – some cafes remain an uncomfortable place for some women, Graiouid added.
The historical connotation surrounding women who go to cafes remains prevalent enough to sometimes make the space more difficult for women to inhabit even if the actual use of cafes in this way is not necessarily still present, he explained.
“The stigma for girls who sit in cafes as known for getting more sexually harassed is still here, the fact that just because I’m smoking I’m more susceptible to getting sexually harassed is also still here,” Hiba said. “But it’s just not as often and not as much – it’s changing. It’s fading a little bit.”
It’s faded enough that more women feel comfortable being in a cafe, she added.
Chaimae, originally in agreement with Hiba, started to reconsider how far things have really come, about halfway through our time together.
“Actually, I think it is still uncomfortable to sit in cafes now if I think about it because if I’m sitting alone I always put headphones in so I don’t hear anyone talking to me,” she explained.
She added that things have even further to go outside of big cities.
When she goes to Meknes, where she grew up and where her father still lives, she doesn’t go to cafes – not due to a lack of friends to go with, but because it’s not as common to see girls sitting out in cafes.
“In big cities like Rabat and Casablanca and other areas it changed. The idea changed completely. Even if you find a group of girls and boys – it’s fine. But in rural areas or small cities the idea still exists,” said Majda, 22, who is originally from a small town in Southern Morocco but has moved into the bigger cities for school and work.
Not Just About Gender: the Expansion of the Cafe Industry Overall
Anas, who has family living in a small town outside of Meknes, agreed that rural cafes have a longer way to go with reference to becoming a comfortable space for all people.
While traditional cafes are easy to find anywhere – rural or urban – it’s mostly in big cities, with larger populations of young people, where there is an abundance of more modern cafes.
“I think cafe culture is kind of changing, for the better for sure, but it’s really slowly and if it wasn’t for the kind of capitalistic purpose, I guess, it wouldn’t be,” Anas said.
If there wasn’t an opportunity to make money, these modern cafes wouldn’t exist, he claimed. Though he couldn’t say if modern cafes saw a market that wasn’t being catered to – in women and young people – and targeted them, or if demand by these groups, who traditional cafes might not appeal to, encouraged modern cafes to form.
Graiouid agreed that the marketing strategy of a cafe matters – sports cafes traditionally draw a male-dominated crowd while more modern cafes attract more young people and women – but so does the number of cafes.
As the number of cafes increases, they become more integrated into society as a whole and accessible to more people.
Young people are drawn to cafes for a variety of reasons, but cafes’ easy accessibility makes them a convenient place to go for groups of mixed company. It’s only “special cases” where boys and girls are able to be together at someone’s house, Hiba said.
She added that cafes offer a safe place for young people to smoke for those who want to keep their habits hidden from their parents.
She laughed when she shared that, even though her parents “know” she smokes and she “knows they know” and they “know she knows they know,” she still must go to cafes to have a cigarette.
Over time, everything about the cafe – from the menu and the atmosphere to the clientele and the ideas they discuss – has developed, said Amine.
A traditional cafe most likely will only serve coffee, tea, and orange juice, have limited decorations, and be mostly populated by retired men who sit in the same cafe each day. In comparison, a modern cafe serves a larger variety of food and drink; often has more decorations, music, or comfortable seating; and a mix of clientele.
In Anas’ opinion, the types of cafes present in a community reflect the perspectives of community members. In rural areas, where traditional values may be stronger, there isn’t a market for modern cafes that rely more heavily on young people and women being out and about.
“I hope for cafes to be opened up more to women other than limiting it only to men, especially in small towns,” Majda said. “That really matters for me.”
Finding a Comfortable Cafe
One’s preference in cafes depends on the person and whether they’re comfortable there, Houda and Samia agreed.
When she was younger, Samia would never have imagined going to cafes alone – it was somewhere she’d always have to be with her dad. But as she got older and discovered different kinds of cafes, this changed.
Houda shared that although she believes the stigma surrounding women going to cafes is gone, she has never sat in a cafe alone.
“I have this irrational fear that if I’m sitting alone somebody will come talk to me and I don’t like that. So I just don’t go,” she said. “But it’s because of me and my personality – it’s really not because of the culture.”
Though she admitted that once she did sit alone on accident – after her sister brought her along only to leave soon after with another friend – and she was fine.
Samia mentioned that her friend, Hiba, could go to any cafe and be comfortable.
“She would be very confident and she would sit and be herself. I wouldn’t dare to do that. I think maybe it’s lack of confidence from my side? And not based on gender,” she said.
Your experience in a cafe depends on how you respond to the environment, according to Hiba.
“I think I’ve learned to block out everything else. That’s why I’m comfortable in cafes. I don’t give a sh*t,” she said. “I think people sense that. I always tell them, I don’t get harassed. I think it’s just my attitude.”
Both Samia and Houda avoid cafes populated by mostly men and instead prefer to head somewhere more modern, comfy, and cute, but clarified this is more personal preference than anything else.
Hiba and Chaimae explained that even in male-dominated neighborhood cafes, where they might feel more uncomfortable, there are signs that things are changing.
Hiba described her experience in one such cafe, saying that when she first lit her cigarette and started smoking everyone stared at her, but she pretended she did not see them.
“And that was the only time that they stared at me. After that I became familiar and the people were nice to me,” she said.
They called this cafe, located in Sale’s old medina, a “mystery” because, despite its traditional atmosphere, it ended up being a fine place for them to go. While Chaimae went there once and didn’t go back, Hiba said her experience made her like Sale’s old medina a little more.
“I had a very different assumption about place. It’s the old medina and the stereotype is that they’re the more closed-minded people of the city,” she said. “And then you find them totally fine and very polite to a girl that is smoking in a public place and that is not as covered.”
Reflecting a Changing Society
To some degree, the dynamic found in cafes, specifically regarding gender, can reflect on Moroccan society more broadly – while Moroccan women are more and more visible in society, it is to an extent, said Graiouid.
“I would say the presence of women in a space like a cafe would probably be equal to the presence or visibility of women in the public sphere,” he said, but clarified that there is not a way to gage this with data and one needs to be careful with the correlation.
Moroccan women have significantly increased their presence in Moroccan political public sphere since 2000, when they held only 0.6 % of national parliament seats, to 2016 in which they held 20.5 % of seats, according to a report by the World Bank.
Years ago the Moroccan woman couldn’t go out of her house and was prevented from doing things she wanted, Amine said.
“I think those things [having more women in cafes and in public] are mainly the consequences that people are beginning to be more accepting,” he said.
Even though individuals don’t go to cafes with the intention of learning how to interact with others, because cafes are a key space in which socialization occurs, they still can educate people on how to relate to others – whether in a good or bad way.
In traditional cafes, it’s often the same people, with the same ideas, hanging out there everyday, Amine said, and he believes this is partly contributing to the continuation of the harassment of women in cafes.
“I think it’s a toxic thing to keep doing the same thing everyday,” Amine said of the stereotypical older men spending day after day in the same cafe. “I think that’s why they act like that and you find them really weird.”
Zaina emphasized it is important not to generalize the population because there are some men who never sit in cafes.
“People are beginning to bring in new things or bring in new ideas to the concept of the cafe.” Amine added, “I hope in the near future I will find all the cafes are the same as I imagine – I don’t want to see the cafes full of men. I want to see them mixed and with all generations.”