5 Cultural Pitfalls to Avoid During Study Abroad in Morocco

by Katy Rosenbaum

Morocco is an incredible place with a rich diversity of culture, a tradition of hospitality, and a stunning and vibrant combination of tradition and modernity. Though most students will commit a few cultural faux pas during their time abroad, the following cultural pitfalls are important to be aware of during your time studying in Morocco.

Moroccon Food Tasting
Flexible in trying new food, including goat. Photo credit by Katy Rosenbaum

5.  Missing out on the beauty of Moroccan food culture.

Morocco is known throughout the world for its gracious hospitality. If you’re lucky enough to enjoy a traditional family meal, watch what your hosts do, and follow their lead. If you eat from a communal dish, eat only what is directly in front of you, start from the edge of the plate, and work your way inwards. Wait to eat the meat in a communal dish until you have been invited to eat the meat specifically, as many often begin by eating vegetables. Try not to reach into communal plates with your left hand, which is the “unclean” hand. However, the most important thing is to watch your hosts, try something new, and be willing to laugh at yourself. Most people won’t hold a misstep against you if you’re enjoying the meal and willing to learn and follow their lead.

4. Not picking up on cues when interacting with the opposite gender.

It’s very important to understand how you are perceived when traveling or studying abroad, and in Morocco, working out appropriate ways of interacting across genders is tricky! Due to the diversity of the population, there’s no easy “one size fits all” guide of how to act appropriately. Some may take what may be a typical behavior to you as flirtatious or inappropriate, depending on the situation, whereas others may see gender interactions the same way you do. Even something as seemingly simple to categorize like a “catcall” can mean different things to different people. Be ready to ask people you trust (i.e. program staff, host families, classmates, friends) of the same gender what is appropriate. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. In any situation, taking the cues of those around you will probably be your best bet!

Marrakesh vendor

3. Taking photos without permission.

Almost everyone loves taking pictures while studying abroad, to remember important moments and share experiences with people back home. However, as with many places in the world, it’s crucial to be respectful of the culture you are in while taking photos. It’s inappropriate to take a photograph of people in Morocco without their permission, even if it’s done “secretly” or without the subject knowing the picture is being taken.

Though people in Morocco practice religion differently, the concept of modesty is a part of Islam. In the same way that someone might choose to cover their head or wear loose clothing as a sign of modesty, the idea of a stranger capturing and keeping an image of them can be perceived as a violation of the subject’s modesty and privacy. Distant crowd scenes that do not focus on an individual or specific group, landscapes, or pictures of objects are appropriate, but only take photos of people if you have their permission.

2. Not finding the balance between being respectful and remaining true to yourself when it comes to clothing choices.

Western culture has developed a near-obsession with how Muslims, and in particular, Muslim women dress. It can seem like a daunting task to figure out what to pack or what you’ll wear while studying abroad in Morocco, especially for women. However, the most important element of dressing appropriately is finding the balance between being respectful and remaining true to yourself, and understanding the impact of the choices that you make.

Generally speaking, it will be appropriate in most situations (and recommended) for women to cover their legs up to at least mid-calf, keep their shoulders covered, and avoid plunging necklines. Men have more flexibility. These guidelines are not hard and fast rules though. In cities, and even occasionally in more rural areas, you may find a Moroccan woman in a miniskirt or tight leggings, a tank top, club-style clothes at nightclubs, or a bathing suit at the beach. Club attire or bathing suits can be controversial in Morocco. It is important to know which attire is appropriate in what situations.

The important things to remember are: be true to yourself, understand the image you are reflecting through your attire, and respect how what you wear may affect your image, your program, and your host family (if you have one). Lastly, if you do not typically wear a headscarf at home, it is best not to wear one in Morocco.

Man in Moroccan desert

1. Making assumptions and missing out on the most beautiful part of Morocco: the nation’s rich diversity.

Morocco is an incredibly diverse nation linguistically, culturally (with respect to tradition and modernity), and really, in almost every way imaginable. Due to this diversity, it’s very difficult to understand the layers and levels of the Moroccan identity. It will be easy while studying abroad in Morocco to let a few experiences stand for all Moroccans, all Arabs or Berbers/Amazigh, or all Muslims. You will meet people who both fit and break every stereotype imaginable.

The most important pitfall to avoid is to make sweeping generalizations about Morocco or Islam based on the people you meet during your study abroad program.

If you spend most of your time studying in Rabat, your understanding of what it means to be Moroccan may be completely different than if you spent that time in the rural Ouarzazate province, Marrakech, or Casablanca. What one woman tells you about wearing hijab is certainly her truth, but is not necessarily the truth for every woman around the world who wears a headscarf.

By meeting and interacting with people from different backgrounds, generations, education level, linguistic identities, socio-economic level, and regions, a picture of a complicated and layered society with a real richness and multiple cultures will begin to emerge. And these multiple cultures and worldviews? These are part of what makes Morocco such a beautiful transformative place to study abroad.