Note: There is little data available on sexual violence among female travelers. Neither the United Nations nor the U.S. State Department keeps track of these incidents. However, the World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.
8 Women Share Their Stories of Sexual Assault While Traveling
Lola Méndez, from the USA
I WAS IN OUARZAZATE, Morocco by myself exploring the old Kasbah. A Kasbah is a labyrinth of narrow hallways and staircases and tiny rooms. It is a real maze, but I refused to pay extra for one of the local men to be my guide. I would rather be alone and generally don’t trust men; I regretted that later. I noticed a man in the room with me when I was taking a selfie and saw him behind me in the picture. When I turned around he had left the room. He came back a few seconds later and asked me in a broken mixture of French and English to take his photo. I said I would and took a few different shots to get the lighting right.
Then he grabbed me to take a selfie. I tried to object but his left hand was all the way around my waist and right under my breast. In that moment I actually thought he was trying to rob me so I grabbed hold tight to my purse and smiled for a picture. He wouldn’t let me go and pulled me closer and nuzzled my neck as he continued to snap photos. I shoved him off of me as he was showing me the blurry pictures saying they weren’t good and we needed to take another one. I started shouting at him “Get the fuck away from me“, “Do not fucking touch me again and stop bothering me“. I said “NO” over and over and tried to ignore him. My instinct in this moment was essentially to give him what he wanted so that he would go away. When I travel I often get asked to take a selfie. I don’t like this. I don’t want strangers having photos of me or posting them on social media saying whatever they want about me. But in the moment when this man was being aggressive I thought it was my best option to play along and then escape.
I ran up a few steps into the next room which turned out to be a dead end. There were some very tall stairs, I sprinted up the half-meter tall step, but they led to a locked door. When I came down he was at the bottom of the stairs with his penis and testicles completely out and he was staring right at me and masturbating. He pushed me back into the stairs as he continued to touch himself. Even though he had been aggressive towards me before I could have never imagined this was going to happen. I froze and was in complete shock. I started to kick him, somewhere near his head or chest, I am not exactly sure. As I did this he ejaculated everywhere, on my jeans and the floor. He scampered away and I stood there in shock. It took me a few seconds to even process what had just happened. I started screaming, I don’t know exactly what I said. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know where he had gone. I didn’t know if he was waiting in the next room for me. What if I went the wrong way? What if he was angry I kicked him and now he really wanted to hurt me?
A few moments later two young men ran into the room and I immediately lost control of myself and started shaking and hysterically crying. They did not speak Englsih. They were coming closer to me. I was screaming, “NO! Don’t touch me! Don’t come close to me. Get away from me!” In my mind in that moment they were friends with the pervert who had just assaulted me. I thought they were there for their turn, but they were just trying to help. I was being awful to them when they were only trying to find out what was wrong. The local men who are guides for the Kasbah that I had ignored and refused to hire before all ran up to see what all the fuss was about. One of them spoke enough English to get me to sit down and breathe. At this point I am surrounded by about 12 men and am certain that this is just the beginning of a really awful attack. I don’t know how to get out and am completely terrified. I finally calm down enough to explain to the man who spoke some English what had just happened. When he told the rest of the men they were immediately furious. I knew then that these men were here to help me, not hurt me. They wanted to call the police. They wanted me to go outside and get some air. I told them I was afraid to move and I didn’t know where my attacker was. They said they already had looked for him and that he was gone and walked me slowly downstairs.
At this point I remembered that I had taken a seflie and that the guy had been in the background. I had a picture of my attacker. I let the locals call the police. I wasn’t hopeful that anything would come of it, but the police were furious. They sent the photo around and sped off as quickly as they had arrived. The guides continued to surround me and brought me water and tissue. I didn’t really understand where the police had gone and the guides just told me they were going to go find my attacker. I thought this was impossible. At least 15 minutes had passed and while the city isn’t large it certainly isn’t tiny. They asked me to stay and wait for the police to return. I tried to sit there for a few minutes but couldn’t shake off what had just happened to me and couldn’t regain my strength and just kept crying. I needed a distraction, so the guide who spoke English offered to take me on a tour of the Kasbah and surrounding area. We had been walking around for about 20 minutes when the other guides ran towards us shouting. My guide, Moha, translated for me : the cops had caught the asshole. We went back to the front of the Kasbah and sure enough the police van was back. I couldn’t believe that they had really found him. The picture was zoomed in and blurry and you could hardly see his facial features. But they opened the van and sure enough there he was on his knees crying and begging for forgiveness. To everyone’s shock I screamed, “FUCK YOU!”
We went to the police station where it took about four hours of translating and retelling my story over and over again. The picture was all the proof I needed. He was arrested and put in jail. I was told he would be tried the next day in front of a judge and sentenced. I have no way of knowing what will happen to him but I was told that there is an official sex offender list in Morocco and he will be on it for the rest of his life regardless of how much jail time he is given. I realize I may have gotten a special treatment because I am a foreigner. The police never asked me why I was alone, never question what I was wearing, or suggested that I should cover my head and hair. They didn’t question my story or doubt what had happened to me. A few times they did ask me if I wanted to forgive him, and at one point they even suggested that I should have kicked him hard in the temple so he would have suffered an injury. They told me that back in the day they would have already executed him by gunpoint by now.
I want to point out that all of the men who helped were exceptionally kind to me. This did not just happen because I was in a Muslim country. What this man did is very much so against everything his religion believes in. He is a bad man before he is anything else that is defined by his citizenship, skin color, or religion. I have been followed by men who were masturbating in LA and NYC. I have been harassed around the world, assaulted in Spain, molested in Florida and raped in Kansas. I thought I was a strong independent woman and that my days of being belittled by nasty men were behind me. I take every chance I get to fight back to catcallers and harassers. I have opened up about my past and have found that every woman I know has been sexually harassed in some way. I am going to India next year to volunteer with an NGO that focuses on women’s empowerment. I need to reroute my story and do what I can to try to change the way women are treated globally. This assault feels ironic, I thought my days of being a victim/survivor were behind me. I don’t know if they ever will be.
When I tell these stories to male friends, family members, or lovers they find them hard to believe. Maybe because they themselves would never treat a woman this way. Maybe because globally there is a stigma that surrounds sexual harraasment as something aceptable. Recently, I’ve had to explain to a man I was dating why it upset me that someone walked past me and brushed their hand against my crotch. Most men have never been objectified or harassed like this. But all women have.
While physically I am okay, mentally I am very upset. This situation has me seriously considering the solo travel lifestyle I have created for myself. I usually am defensive when people go on about the dangers of being a woman travelling alone. The reality is it is dangerous to be a woman living alone, anywhere. My confidence is completely shattered. I feel so violated. I am trying to feel lucky that I wasn’t hurt. I keep having a nightmare that when I kicked him he actually grabbed my ankle and held me down with a knife to my neck while he raped me. I know that did not happen. That scenario is unfortunately very similar to what happened to me when I was raped at age 15. This is bringing up a lot of anxiety from back then that perhaps I never properly dealt with. I don’t know why this instance has effected me more than the others. Perhaps because I was in a foreign place and didn’t know where to go or who to trust. I am now at the beach in Morocco trying to heal and move forward by the sea. It is a lovely town but I am still scared. I retract from every man that approaches me. I feel vulnerable and I walk around with downward cast eyes. I have plans to go on to other cities here but I have no confidence or desire to navigate the medinas or deal with verbal harassment on my own right now. I don’t want to let this asshole change or defeat me. But he has crushed me. I am traumatized and feel completely shattered.