Trigger warning: This discusses surviving sexual assault while traveling.
A year ago, I was shattered — a complete ghost of the confident independent woman I had grown to be.
I had just spent an amazing few weeks exploring Morocco, which is one of my favorite countries. I felt welcomed everywhere I went. Yes, there were inappropriate stares, comments, and sometimes very quick touches that I wished hadn't happened, but nothing beyond the usual harassment I receive as a female traveler.
I was in Ouarzazate exploring the kasbah when I was attacked by a sexual predator. A kasbah is essentially a labyrinth of narrow hallways, staircases, and tiny rooms. A man approached me and asked me to take his photo, and I obliged. Then he grabbed me to take a selfie. I tried to object, but his hand was all the way around my waist. He pulled me closer and nuzzled my neck and reached his hand under my shirt. I shoved him off of me and started shouting at him not to touch me again.
I ran into the next room — a dead end — and he followed me and was masturbating. He pushed me back against the wall as he continued to touch himself. I froze for what felt like an eternity then started to kick him. He ejaculated everywhere, on my jeans and the floor, and then ran.
It took me a few seconds to process what had just happened. Then I started screaming. I couldn't move. I didn't know where he had gone. I didn't know if he was waiting for me. What if he was angry that I had kicked him and now he really wanted to physically hurt me? Two young men ran into the room, coming closer to me as I cried, shaking hysterically. I screamed at them, assuming they were friends with my assailant. I thought they were there for their turn.
About 10 men gathered around me, one of whom spoke enough English to get me to sit down and breathe.
I finally calmed down enough to explain what had just happened. When he told the rest of the men, they were immediately furious. These men were here to help me, not hurt me.
They wanted to call the police, and I let them, with little hope that anything would come of it. At least 15 minutes had passed, and while the city isn’t large, it certainly isn’t tiny. I thought my attacker would be impossible to find.
But the police were furious. I gave them a picture of the perpetrator — he'd been in the background of a selfie I had taken before the attack — and they sent the photo around to other officers and sped off as quickly as they had arrived.
Still shaken, I needed a distraction while we waited for the police to return, so the guide who spoke English offered to take me on a tour of the kasbah. We had been walking around for about 20 minutes when the other men ran towards us, shouting. My guide, Moha, translated for me: "The cops caught the asshole."
We went to the police station, where I was surprised by the treatment that I received.
Though I did have to sit through about four hours of telling and translating my story, over and over, the Moroccan police treated me with dignity and respect. The picture was all the proof I needed. The police never asked me why I was alone, never questioned what I was wearing, and never suggested that I should cover my head and hair. They didn’t doubt what had happened to me. I realize I may have be given special treatment because I am a foreigner, but I was still surprised at the care and respect I received in that situation.
The man who attacked me was arrested and put in jail. I was told he would be tried the next day in front of a judge and sentenced. I don't know what the ruling was, but I had been told that there is an official sex offender list in Morocco and that he would be on it for the rest of his life. This was the first time in my life I've swiftly received justice when reporting sexual harassment.
I have been attacked in other places, but I've never received respect and dignity in the aftermath like I did in Morocco.
I have been followed by men who were masturbating in Los Angeles and New York City. I have been harassed around the world, assaulted in Spain, molested in Florida, and raped in Kansas. In the last few years, I have opened up about the times I've been sexually abused and have found that nearly every woman I know has been sexually harassed in some way.
But in the United States and in Spain, friends and authorities alike shrugged off the things I endured. In Morocco, all of the men who helped me were exceptionally kind. The police believed me, and they made it a priority to track down my assailant. They didn't shrug me off or brush me aside.
Now, I overcome sexual abuse by sharing my experiences with other travelers.
After Morocco, I was physically OK but mentally broken. The attack had me seriously reconsidering the solo travel lifestyle I created for myself. My confidence was completely shattered. I felt so violated. I was traumatized and incredibly vulnerable. I tried to feel lucky that I wasn’t hurt.
What got me through the pain and helped me heal was talking to strangers online — other female travelers who understood the fear, pain, frustration, and violation that solo female travel can entail. I prevailed. I regained my power. I refused to continue to feel defeated. I hadn't come this far to only go this far.
Now, I've begun trying to reroute my story, using my pain as fuel to be a part of a global movement for women's rights. I speak with men so they can learn how difficult travel is for women and start to speak up. I speak with women so we feel less alone in the vicious violations that so many of us have been through.
I don't know if a day will ever come where I and women like me will be able to stop wondering if our whole lives will be plagued by the threat of men sexually harassing and abusing us. What I do know is that I will keep speaking up, connecting with others, and working to bring about a better and safer world. I will continue to send love to each and every person who relates to my story. We're in this together.
This piece originally appeared on Miss Filatelista and is reprinted here with permission.