On the afternoon of International Women’s Day, I sat on a tiled Moroccan floor in a thick cloud of steam, my bare limbs slippery and wet. An aged woman with an expression of intent concentration sat with her legs outstretched; my body placed firmly in between them, her practiced fingertips vigorously massaging black soap into my skin.
Occasionally her large bare breasts knocked into my shoulder, and I tried valiantly to remember that this level of naked intimacy with a stranger was all part of the hammam experience.
However awkward I might feel.
A few days earlier, my friend Emi and I had been discussing hammams with the owner of our guesthouse – a bubbly English woman named Sonhilde who first visited Fez years ago, fell immediately in love with the city and found herself a house buried deep in the medina which she could turn into somewhere for tourists to stay. Now she visits every few months for a week or two, and visiting the nearby hammam is top of her list each time.
“It’s not the one the tourists visit,” she assured us, as we sat on the rooftop terrace in the cool night air, looking out across the yellowing bricks and windows filled with lamplight. The breeze from the Atlas mountains blew more strongly, prompting goosebumps to rise on my bare shoulders. I’d over-anticipated the temperature of Fez in early March.
“I always go to the local place,” Sonhilde continued, unconcerned with my occasional involuntary shivers. I took another sip of fresh mint tea to warm myself.
So what exactly is a hammam – and why is it women-only?
The culture of the hammam, or bathing house, is an integral part of life in Morocco. Men, women and children will usually visit a hammam at least once a week and spend a few hours in the hot steam and fresh water, cleaning their bodies and catching up on gossip with their friends.
But there are certain rules that must be remembered and followed when visiting a hammam – the most important of which is that mixed public hammams simply do not exist in Morocco. Much like the practice of separating the two genders during prayer time at the mosque, any public hammam you visit will operate under a strict separation policy. Some places will have separate bathing rooms for men and women, while others devote different days of the week to men or women. There are also hammams that only cater for one gender or the other – and this final kind is the one I visited.
Before my hammam experience, however, I was able to walk through the streets of Fez imagining what it would be like to creep into the sequestered world of female-only Moroccan culture.
I’ve dealt with the disparity of the gender gap in countries all over the world, and when I first saw the averted eyes, the patterned scarves covering long dark hair, the long sleeves and skirts of the women in Morocco, I immediately knew that women both behaved and were treated differently to men.
Yet it’s not a sure thing. Here and there, attitudes are definitely changing.
The more women I passed, the more I realised that many of the younger generation wore what I would deem ‘normal’ (aka more Westernised) clothes; long sleeved blouses and t-shirts, loose trousers and jeans, sunglasses balanced on their bare heads.
The female side of a Moroccan medina
The level of female-centric produce in the medina is surprisingly plentiful, too. In amongst the leather and the meat, the pottery and the tagines, the carpets and the sweets, there are a huge number of stalls inviting women to shop for fashionable djellabas, clothes and scarves.
At every turn men shout about the benefits of argan oil for shiny hair, extoll their scented soaps and perfumes, and try to sell you pumice stones for dry feet and elbows.
Of course, a lot of it is geared explicitly towards female tourists from other countries, and it’s hard not to get swept up into the buying frenzy.
Just bear in mind that I never saw a Moroccan woman wearing ‘hand of Fatima’ jewellery, nor a woven straw basket on any local female shoulder…
So once you’ve successfully avoided buying out the entire medina, exactly what do you need for experiencing a Moroccan hammam?
Step #1: Getting ourselves hammam-ready
We weren’t entirely sure of the protocols – but luckily we had both Sonhilde and her guesthouse manager, Ahmed, to pump for advice. He said the level of security at the hammam might not be too high, so we decided to take only the bare essentials: entrance money, a towel, shampoo, and a spare pair of dry underwear, packed after Sonhilde had informed us that while all the women in the hammam were topless, most of them still wore underwear or small shorts.
We’d also been informed by Ahmed that taking our own soap and scratchy exfoliating gloves was an essential part of the hammam experience. We’d noticed these things for sale around the medina – and had also been immediately accosted by various enterprising men eager to explain the virtue of differently scented soaps.
Everything from rosewater and eucalyptus to jasmine, lavender and mint.
Unfortunately, we were pretty sure we’d get ripped off for the price – and weren’t exactly in need of a giant handful of black soap goo to take back on the plane with us. When we asked Ahmed what kind of price was reasonable, he waved his hands at us and said he’d ask a friend to pick some up for us.
Later that afternoon, he reappeared with two exfoliating loofah gloves each, plus a plastic bag filled with two handful-sized scoops of the gooey black soap. I looked at it somewhat warily.
“We don’t need to take all of that, do we?”
Visions of a woman covering me head to toe in black gunk then forcibly scraping it off with some kind of blunt instrument were already filling my mind – but thankfully Ahmed took just a few pinches of the stuff, weighed it in his palm and placed it into a second plastic bag which he knotted and handed over to me.
Step #2: Entering the hammam (or attempting to…)
Once all our supplies were readied, the next step was actually finding the place. Sonhilde had vaguely told us the hammam’s location, but as we walked through the medina we remembered just how disorientating the Fez medina can be, and just how little time we’d actually spent in it.
Luckily, a likely looking doorway soon appeared on our left, two women in headscarves preparing to enter. As Emi and I walked up to join them, another woman suddenly stood at my elbow. She looked confused, and tried to motion me away.
“This is hammam?” I said, hopefully. Her eyes widened and she nodded, moving quickly backwards down the darkened corridor and beckoning for us to follow.
Something in Arabic was said as we walked around a corner to a small changing area filled with women in various states of undress. Immediately my skin started to sweat; the humidity in the little space was a stark difference to the street outside.
Blocking our path to the changing area were two women; one wearing a pale outfit and holding an exfoliating glove, the other leaning forward against a white ceramic shelf, naked except for a pair of small black shorts and a faded scarf knotted tightly around her head. Her breasts swung in front of her, keeping time with the scrubbing of her back.
Neither woman looked impressed to see us.
What followed was one of those occasions where travelling in a foreign country without any grasp of the local language really hits home. There was sign language, raised voices expressing simplistic words, and a lot of pointing at bank notes – and all the while, I grew increasingly aware of how much I was sweating.
Like everything else in Morocco, the price of the hammam was negotiable – although both Emi and I knew there was a chance we’d pay too much – but eventually we agreed on a price. After paying an entrance fee of 25 dirhams each, followed by a further 25 for the privilege of being scrubbed down with our exfoliating gloves, we moved to the benches running around the side of the room and began to strip our clothes off.
Memories of communal showering in Iceland came to mind, and I tried to keep my eyes respectfully averted as much as possible.
Step #3: It’s hammam time!
When only knickers remained, we were led by the elderly head-scarfed woman through a misty corridor into an open space: a room with high arches and a small open circle in the centre of the main dome. Shaky lines of plastic buckets filled with water of varying temperatures demarcated two arenas in either corner. The woman jabbed her finger towards one, and we obediently shuffled our bare feet along the white tiles. She grabbed my arm above the elbow to ensure I didn’t slip, and the three of us edged between the buckets to sit cross-legged on the stone floor.
In case you hadn’t already realised, being washed by a stranger when you’re both basically naked and neither of you speak the same language is a surreal situation to be in. With limbs made pliable and slippery from the steam and sweat, I was hopelessly vulnerable to whatever she decided to do to me – which was to scoop globs of black soap from our little plastic bag, smear them across my body, don the loofah mitt and simply start scrubbing.
I felt like a helpless child.
After she had dug her thumbs into every muscle she could find, pouring a succession of water buckets over me to rinse away the soap residue, she appeared satisfied with her handiwork and motioned me to shuffle awkwardly away from in between her legs so she could move onto Emi.
When the woman was done with washing us both, we were directed through a second open doorway where groups of women sat on the floor amongst the mist and more buckets. A small patch of space was indicated and we obediently moved towards it, clutching our slightly greasy-feeling loofahs and the bag of soap.
Inside a female hammam, and out again
At first, entering the hammam was like stepping inside some kind of ethereal painting, bare female bodies moving slowly through the billowing mist – although just when I was overcome by the romance of it all, I saw a small boy start wailing miserably because his sister had poured water directly into his eyes while trying to rinse out the soap.
When my own eyes had cleared, I realised it actually felt very normal: like a community of women from every walk of life were in the room together, all soaking up the soporific effects of hot steam and warm water.
From my floor-based vantage point I could see all the little stories unfolding in the hammam. Nearby, a woman in her mid twenties sat with her mother, eyes closed as hot water was poured over her body. Occasionally she murmured appreciatively. At the end of the room, little children stood up to be vigorously washed by their mothers in a shallow stone pool. Two teenage girls munched on segments of oranges with their eyes closed. An old woman busily shaved her legs beside me, clumps of hair slid past my knee as she rinsed herself with water.
Occasionally our old woman would move past slowly, taking care not to slip on the floor as she refilled our buckets. We soon lost ourselves in the repetitive motions; rubbing soap into our skin, scrubbing with the gloves, scooping water from the buckets, sluicing ourselves, then starting over again.
It took a long time before we could muster up the energy to leave, but after more than an hour we emerged, blinking and rejuvenated, into the warm air of the medina. Our skin was pink and smooth, our hair dripping wet: the men who passed by pointed to our expressions of dazed happiness and said, “hammam?!” with wide smiles on their faces.
But the thought that remained in my mind, long after the redness of my skin had subsided, was that any semblance of shyness I might have encountered with these women outside on the medina streets was stripped away, left in the changing room with the hanging towels.
Inside the hammam, Moroccan women can be themselves – which, as it turns out, means being just like everybody else.
Have you ever visited a Moroccan hammam? Would you like to try one, or does it sound a bit too embarrassing? Let me know in the comments!