Studying Abroad as a Woman of Color: Racialized challenges and conflicting gender norms
microaggressions; gender identity; cultural norms; study abroad; race
This case takes place in Morocco. Most of the interactions take place on the streets of the city of Rabat. Foluwa is an African American undergraduate student who is compeleting an international exchange progam for an intensive Arabic study program. This case includes race-based sexual harrassment and violence. While the harrassment of women abroad can take many forms, this case elaborates on specific racialized sexual harassment women of color can face domesitically and internationally.
Gagnwa is traditonal Moroccan Folk music.
Foluwa stepped off the Air France aircraft, dizzy from her first flight. She felt the Moroccan soil warm under the soles of her ballerina flats. The strong aroma of Moroccan mint arrested her sense of smell. Foluwa was excited about how much Arabic she would learn, the friends she would make, and the experiences she would have. She was the only black girl in her all white cohort. Her mother was African American and her father first-generation Nigerian American, which is why she was given the Nigerian Yoruba name “Foluwa,” which means ‘originating from.’ Little did she know her understanding of her “origins” would be challenged in new ways during this study abroad experience.
During her time in Morocco, Foluwa realized her interactions with the Moroccan people were much different than her cohort friend Penelope’s. Foluwa noticed that when she was catcalled, she was called Beyoncé or sometimes Michelle Obama. However, when Penelope was called there wasn’t a particular external identity attached to her, she was simply “Bella” or “Pretty”. Foluwa was asked if her box-braids were her “real hair” and felt mocked when Moroccans called her “Rasta.” Some people assumed she was a West African migrant or refugee and, on several occasions, men offered her money after requesting she follow them to an alley way or into their houses. These interactions with native Moroccans made her feel self-conscious and unsafe. Matters got worse when she went on a group excursion one night. Foluwa was aggressively harassed by groups of men throughout the evening and one man even grabbed her and said “You’re coming with me!” The male member of her group decided this incident was the final straw and insisted that Foluwa return to the hotel because being out was too “troublesome.” She felt disheartened as she’d done everything in her power not to go home earlier than the rest of her group members.
Foluwa loved her host family, but there were certain relationships that troubled her. Her host sister Fatimazahra had a relationship with a local Gagnawa singer named Hachem. She was often concerned for her host sister’s safety as well as her own because she witnessed Hachem verbally threaten Fatimazhara as well as physically assault her on multiple occasions. Foluwa felt her host sister should leave Hachem but she kept her thoughts to herself because she noticed that when Hachem was abusive, people acted as if the verbal and physical assaults were normal. Foluwa set aside her discomfort and tried to make the best of her homestay. That changed quickly after Souleyman invited her to go clubbing at a club in downtown Rabat. Knowing it was culturally unacceptable for wholesome Moroccan women to visit such a scene, Foluwa refused the invitation. Thereafter, Souleyman began treating her differently and she no longer felt safe around him. They often communicated via Messenger and while trying to pursue Foluwa, Souleyman told her that he has never “tried “a black girl.* Offended, Foluwa refused to speak to him via Messenger again and tried to avoid him in the house, which only made her host family environment feel as unsafe as the streets.
Foluwa didn’t know what to do, so she spent time with a male friend in her cohort named Jason. He was her only peer in the cohort who pronounced her name correctly and never told her that her name was too difficult to pronounce. They would explore the city together from morning to night, but she noticed that the local men would whisper when she came around and heard from a local friend that people were under the perception that she was a prostitute.
Foluwa was in love with Morocco, the Arabic language, and many aspects of Moroccan culture, but all the harassment was changing her perception of the people. She became skeptical of every Moroccan man she met and began speaking of Moroccan men negatively when describing her experiences to friends back home in the U.S. Once the program was over, Foluwa decided she would never visit Morocco again and she would avoid Moroccans at all cost.
* “Tried” is a phrase commonly reported by women of color within the context of larger, commonly stated minority experiences.
As you consider this case, discuss:
Which key aspects of identity impact Foluwa’s experience in Morocco and how?
What aspects of the situation with her host brother Souleymane stands out most to you? Why?
In what way could the exchange program administrators help to prepare all students in the program for a variety of interpersonal interactions and differing cultural norms in Morocco?
What is the responsibility of her program and her cohort members in this situation?
Are there microaggressions evident in this case? If so, how might they be addressed?
What could Foluwa have done to help process the misperceptions and microaggressions she was experiencing in this cross-cultural setting?
How do you feel about Foluwa’s choice to remain silent regarding Fatimazahra’s relationship?
Additional recommended resources to explore the central themes in this case are available.