Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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…

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

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.

Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

 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! 

 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

, , , , ,

45 Responses to Women Only: Inside a Moroccan Hammam

  1. Gaelen April 2, 2015 at 10:09 am #

    I’d love to try! I don’t know if I can deal with the grumpiness though LOL
    Morocco is on my bucket list, but I didn’t know about hammams. Thanks for this!

    • Flora April 3, 2015 at 9:41 am #

      I hope you manage to try a hammam whenever you’re in Morocco, Gaelen – it’s a fantastic experience (and the grumpy women aren’t a prerequisite..!)

      • Gaelen April 7, 2015 at 9:29 am #

        I’m sure I’ll manage. I will definitely give it a go regardless!

  2. smasonnc April 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

    Wow! It would not have occurred to me to try this but now I’m totally up for it. Thanks!

    • Flora April 3, 2015 at 10:02 am #

      Great stuff – glad to hear it!

  3. kashacapetown April 2, 2015 at 5:07 pm #

    Great write-up of the experience, Flora!

    I went to a hammam for the first time in Istanbul (with Becki, for a matter of fact!) and I was outrageously embarrassed at first, keeping my arms crossed indignantly over my chest. But, after I started to relax, I tried to embrace the uniqueness of the situation. I think I would try it again in the future – maybe in Morocco this time :)

    Kasha xxx

    • Flora April 3, 2015 at 10:05 am #

      Haha I can totally imagine the indignant outrage! I think I would have had the same reaction except that there was such a clear lack of embarrassment on their end that it didn’t even seem worth it.. :p

  4. Caroline Eubanks April 2, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

    I got scrubbed down by a man at a hammam in Turkey, but kept on my swimsuit and was definitely glad I did!

    • Flora April 3, 2015 at 9:43 am #

      Woah, I definitely wouldn’t have been as comfortable with the nudity if it was a guy running the show..!

  5. Andrea April 3, 2015 at 3:12 am #

    Wonderful post. One of my biggest regrets is not trying a hammam while in Damascus back in 2009. I ran out of time and was never able to experience it there…

    • Flora April 3, 2015 at 9:44 am #

      I never tried it in Syria either, and I wish I had. I’m not sure how much they differ in different countries though – it would be interesting to find out.

  6. Michelle@ColoradoLuvHub April 4, 2015 at 3:17 am #

    I love this story! What you describe is a very universal experience across the world. I have bathed in Russian/Korean bathhouses-in Colorado. And a public bathhouse in Japan. All of those experiences really forced me to work through my American notions of “whoa, everyone is nekked!” To, I have just been scrubbed within an inch of my life and am about to have the best sleep of my life.

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:09 am #

      It’s SO true – you sleep incredibly well after one of these!

  7. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) April 4, 2015 at 7:26 am #

    I wrote an article on my own Moroccan Hammam experience a couple of months ago and I must admit, I did go to the “tourist” style one frankly because as much as I’d like to have experienced it the authentic way, there was absolutely no way my shyness and self – conscious streak would have allowed it – especially on my birthday. And yet even being just the two of us with the ladies at the hammam , I was still so aware of just how exposed I felt!

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:11 am #

      Ahh yep I read your piece on the hammam Shikha – although I think I’d have been more disconcerted with being given paper underwear! It’s definitely not for people who get shy about being naked (clearly I’m not one of them..!)

  8. inmyshoestravel April 4, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    I did visit a hammam while I was in Marrakech and the experience was quite similar to yours: I found a local one which was hard to get into; the swinging boobs, rough treatment and inability to communicate with words made the experience surreal, just as you found. By the end of the session I loved it though, and I would definitely return.
    The only negative part was having to walk back to where I was staying along a filthy, dusty road, which totally defeated the object of getting clean!

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:12 am #

      It took about ten minutes of walking through the medina to feel pretty grubby again :) All about the memory of those swinging boobs, though!

  9. Leigh April 4, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

    Really interesting, I’m glad you shared. It sounds like something not to be missed if traveling to Morocco, which I hope to do someday!

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:13 am #

      I’m definitely recommending it as a must-do experience for people travelling to Morocco from now on! Although I probably couldn’t direct them to this place in Fez…

  10. Alexis Kensey April 5, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

    I went to a hammam when I lived in Morocco. I remember I went in still wearing a swimsuit top (just trying to feel slightly more comfortable) and one of the women came up behind me, untied it without me realized and then whipped it off of me. She then looked extremely satisfied with herself. I was mortified at first and then decided it was hilarious. So I sat down and let her rub my whole body. Oh I miss Morocco.

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:16 am #

      Good lord that’s hilarious! Did she eventually give it back to you or just hold it hostage?! I can totally imagine that happening – they have total control over you in there!

  11. Pauline April 7, 2015 at 3:03 pm #

    I’d LOVE to try the Hammam when I eventually make my way to Morocco. I’m not sure how comfortable I’d be though considering the communal bathroom experience in Iceland made me feel INCREDIBLY awkward…

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:15 am #

      Ah yes, communal Icelandic naked showering was a wonderful confusion for so many people! They feel pretty different though – in the hammam you literally give up all control of your body to this granny-like masseuse woman so it’s actually quite therapeutic (or I thought so anyway!)

  12. rebecca April 8, 2015 at 3:45 am #

    amazing photos! what a great place to be for womans day

    • Flora April 9, 2015 at 11:13 am #

      I didn’t even realise it was Women’s Day until afterward but I definitely felt a strong sense of kinship while we were in there :)

  13. Hannah @GettingStamped April 10, 2015 at 7:51 am #

    I didn’t do the hammam in Morocco I did it in Turkey, but a bunch of my friends did it in Marrakech and loved it. I thought it was a strange experience in Turkey…

    • Flora April 23, 2015 at 2:02 pm #

      I think after this experience I”m going to keep my eyes out for hammams in every country I visit!

  14. theworldonmynecklace April 13, 2015 at 11:51 pm #

    I haven’t been to Morocco but I went to a Mixed Turkish Bath in Turkey which was an almost painful experience (they REALLY scrub you hard!) but I loved it. I went to a Hammam in Granada, Spain but it was also a mixed one with lots of beautiful tile work inside and different pools to soak in while drinking tea. We didn’t splurge on massages but enjoyed just soaking in the beautiful pools

    • Flora April 23, 2015 at 2:03 pm #

      I remember once declining a trip to a hammam in Jordan because I was worried they’d scrub all my recently acquired tanned skin away…! The Spanish place sounds beautiful though :)

  15. Fabiana April 14, 2015 at 12:35 am #

    This sounds really strange and interesting at the same time. but I think I would try it if I ever find myseld in Morocco.

    • Flora April 23, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

      I’d say you should definitely give it a try, Fabiana – there are lots of places more suited to tourists as well if you’re not keen on trying to barter in Arabic like we had to..!

  16. Marissa - Tiny Pilgrim April 15, 2015 at 3:38 pm #

    This sounds so fascinating! I’m a bit apprehensive, but that’s part of the thrill I think. I do want to try it at some point.

    Thanks for all the information and the fantastic story telling.

    Cheers,
    Marissa

    • Flora April 23, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

      Thanks Marissa – glad you enjoyed it! A large part of the thrill definitely came from being so unsure of what we were supposed to do :p

  17. Sara May 5, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Flora, you always write so elegantly! For a moment there I thought I was in a hammam…but then I realised the reason why I’m pink is thanks to the Singaporean sun… 😛

    • Flora May 28, 2015 at 2:36 pm #

      Haha don’t forget the suncream then! Glad you enjoyed it Sara :) and I hope you’re having an amazing time!

  18. Donna January 2, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    Hi Flora, I’m about to head to Marrakech with my six yr old daughter. She doesn’t want to be naked. We’re the kids wearing shorts/undies too? Great post.

    • Flora March 12, 2016 at 1:29 pm #

      So sorry I missed your comment Donna! I can’t actually remember but I’m sure she’d be allowed to wear shorts if she wanted to :) Maybe find out the Arabic/French phrase, just in case?

  19. Kristine March 8, 2016 at 11:22 am #

    You described the experience so well, Flora! I have only tried public bathing the Japanese way – onsen! Would be curious to try the hammam experience come one day!

    • Flora March 12, 2016 at 1:37 pm #

      I’d absolutely love to try the Japanese onsens, Kristine! Yet another reason to head back to Japan in the near future :p

  20. Gordon October 3, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

    Great post, Flora. Hope you see this comment.

    The maximum price for entering a hammam is set by the government. It’s currently about 11 DH and all hammams keep to this unless they cater specifically for tourists. So, paying 50 DH wasn’t too bad because normally you pay the attendant afterwards. With newbies in tourist places like Marrakech or Fes, they sometimes ask for the money upfront.

    A Moroccan pays the masseur what he can afford but wouldn’t go lower than 15 DH. They would expect more from a tourist, say 30 or perhaps 40 DH. If a tourist has a regular person they like and who is good, an experienced bather is generous. (I give 50DH). This works in the bather’s favour because a masseur will make an appointment with you and will come on time or if you just turn up at the hammam, someone might let the masseur know you are there and he or she will arrive as if by magic! They are doing a job and are happy to fit in if you are generous.

    The service you get in hammams varies alot. From my experience, the best male masseurs are all in the far south – places like Taroudannt, Tiznit, Agdz – and I would guess it’s the same for women. It’s just more traditional down there. These masseurs are the best anywhere in north Africa and the Middle East and. if you are lucky, will use the ancient Roman routine – black goo in the hot room, massage in the warm room, washing in the coolest room, and out!

    • Flora November 27, 2016 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks so much for this info, Gordon! And it’s great to hear that we didn’t pay an extortionate amount :p

  21. Clara Sammam December 25, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

    Great article, I love it. If you want more details about how to use black soap you can check https://moroccan-hammam.com/pages/how-to-use-black-soap. Enjoy and cheers !!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. A Travel Update: My Plans This Summer - August 3, 2015

    […] let’s not forget my first ever experience inside a traditional Moroccan hammam – complete with swinging elderly-lady breasts against my equally naked […]

  2. 7 Unmissable Things To Do In Marrakech - Rug&Rock Community - October 16, 2016

    […] travel writer Flora Baker’s experience of using a women-only Moroccan hammam – complete with challenged English sensibilities and feelings about […]

  3. On Moroccan Bathhouses and Loving Myself – Mint Teas and Medinas - May 16, 2017

    […] Header image: floratheexplorer.com […]

Leave a Reply