Fez, MOROCCO – Having a sexual orientation other than straight in Morocco is complicated at best, but seems to be slowly getting better.
Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community here have difficulties speaking out and freely expressing themselves as individuals with different sexual orientations in Moroccan society.
They can face social, religious and economic problems.
Under Moroccan law, female and male same-sex sexual activity is considered illegal, and the person who commits it might get detained from six months to three years and fined between 111 to 1,105 Moroccan dirham – or about $12 to $120 U.S. dollars.
But in recent years, it’s become rare to hear about people getting arrested in Morocco for these acts.
“I feel like Morocco, year after another, is getting exposed more to the LGBTQ+,” activist Adam Muhammad of Marrakesh said in an interview translated from Arabic. “Some of them are getting used to the term and accepting the fact that queer people are members of the Moroccan society. Others still respond to this movement with hatred and antipathy.”
Several organizations, including one founded by Muhammad, have opened their doors to defend the LGBTQ+ community here in Morocco and are working legally, with no threat on their lives or safety. Some even have a strong presence on social media.
Even in real life, when they give presentations about the community, these advocates simplify the topic for the public. They also help the LGBTQ+ Moroccans who have been affected negatively by their own family or by society.
Marwan El Hajjami, an activist and visual artist in the Moroccan capital of Rabat, started advocating on these issues in Morocco in 2011 through the establishment of the queer online Arabic publication Aswat Magazine.
In the past, El Hajjami said, there wasn’t the momentum there is today or the number of groups working towards queer issues.
Any discussion about the matter was still very sensitive, El Hajjami said, and most of their work was limited to the internet.
In 2013, El Hajjami said, he met other “queer comrades” by chance in Rabat. From there, he said, they established the Aswat Collective against gender and sexual discrimination. Aswat means “voices” in Arabic.
Establishing the collective, El Hajjami said, moved their work from the digital space and put their feet on physical ground. After the group’s activity stopped a few years ago due to pressure, El Hajjami said, they decided to create a new group.
But he said the situation today is different from before.
According to El Hajjami, they asked themselves, “What is the void that still needs to be filled?”
The answer, El Hajjami said, was that there was a lack of dedicated queer research and queer media content, so they decided to make that the focus in creating the new platform, which was named Taanit.
According to El Hajjami, the name taanit has two meanings, both symbolizing feminism and coming from Tifinagh, an ancient Moroccan language. One comes from the name of an ancient Amazigh goddess, who embodies the philosophy of the Amazighs through the ages and their view of women as the one who gives life and existence.
The second meaning, he said, is simply “femininity.”
Mohamed founded the Atyaf Collective, which works to support LGBTQ+ people in Morocco, creating a safe space for them to express themselves. He said his organization does not face danger or threats from officials.
Though Morocco is a conservative society, Muhammad said he has not had interference from the government. Over the years, the LGBTQ+ issues weren’t really openly talked about, Muhammad said, but supportive organizations and individuals tried to raise awareness.
Organizations and individuals are relying more on social media to raise their voices, express themselves and clarify misconceptions.
Through their work, they offer knowledgeable support to LGBTQ+ Moroccans suffering from certain problems or having a difficult time expressing themselves.
Muhammad said social media plays an important role.
With Taanit, El Hajjami said the organization’s aim is to highlight the most imminent issues pertaining to the persecution and discrimination facing the queer community in Morocco.
“We are working hard to make our queer community more visible, and most recently we created Daba Podcast, the first podcast about queer experiences in Morocco,” said El Hajjami. “Through this we discuss important issues by sharing our stories – stories of discrimination experienced as queer people and also stories of resistance, love, and hope.”
“In the second episode of the podcast, we gave voice to mothers of queer people who accept and support their children. This was the first time in Morocco that we would hear mothers talking positively in any kind of media about their queer children,” El Hajjami said. “So often are we presented as demons in popular media, but through this podcast, we are trying to create an alternative to that.”
Muhammad and the Atyaf Collective have other ways of helping LGBTQ+ individuals.
The Atyaf Collective, based in Marrakesh, tries to support people as they decide to come out, offering financial help for those who suffer economically because of their sexual orientation and shelter to those who cannot safely stay with their families.
The organization also works with human rights organizations to hold conferences and meetings about issues faced by the LGBTQ+ community to erase misconceptions and educate people who want to learn more.
Morocco has witnessed a change in how its society and government is reacts to the LGBTQ+ community, the process Muhammad views as slow yet significant.
Not many years ago, Moroccan queers were not even able to express themselves online and support was hard to find. Just the topic was considered so prohibited and illicit that the people were even afraid to talk about it with each other for fear they would be detained.
Both Muhammad and Hajjami still want to see more progress, including an end to Article 489, the national law that criminalizes same-sex sexual relations in Morocco.
They said this would be a substantial step in turning Morocco a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to live and coexist in peace in their own country without the need to flee to other nations for acceptance and freedom.
“We want justice and equality for the queer community, which is a long-term goal,” said Muhammad. “Our current focus is on demanding our protection from violence and the deletion of Article 489, which criminalizes queer identities with a penalty of up to three years in prison. At the very least we believe there is no place for this kind of law in Morocco today.”
Manar Lezaar is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.