Opinion

Being queer in Morocco: we pretended to be sisters

I never forgot: This is what LGBT Moroccans face every day

Of all the things I could’ve been arrested for in my 26 years, the expression of my homosexuality has never been one of them. Yet that is the precise risk I ran going to Morocco with my partner this month.

My partner, Sian and I were aware that we would have to express ourselves differently and did so happily given the known dangers. The trip didn’t make me embittered about not being able to kiss in public, though that was slightly annoying. Rather it prompted me to look at the true experience for LGBT Moroccans.

We never faced confrontation, as such. We were either silently accepted as a couple or presumed straight.

When we arrived to our room there were two sets of slippers and two dressing gowns – nothing notable, except one was for a man. The quirk of having gender ambiguous names meant that our Riad didn’t know the booking was for two women ahead of time.  This is where our status as a couple was first silently acknowledged.

Later, I was perusing some rings at the market, where the shopkeeper tried to engage a disinterested Sian. In response to her disinterest, the man said ‘I understand – you like sports’. If ever there was a coded message for lesbianism, this was it. He smiled and I bought some rings. We found contentment in our relationship being accepted and understood in such simplistic terms but there was a darker truth behind the ignorance and double-speak.

In Morocco, committing a same-sex act is punishable by up to 3 years in jail, according to article 489 of the country’s penal code. Moroccan law penalises what it refers to as “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex”. Essentially any type of sexual contact with someone of the same sex can lead to arrest and imprisonment.

In 2016, 16-year-old Sanaa and 17-year-old Hajar went on trial in Morocco for the above offence. They were acquitted, which offers hope. Less hope-inspiring is the fact that the relationship was reported by the mother of one of the girls. This demonstrates the familial non-acceptance that is commonplace in Morocco.

In 2014, British tourist Ray Cole was arrested and served 4 months in jail before his early release.  The oft-cited argument is that few prosecutions actually happen, particularly with women, but that matters little when there shouldn’t be any for either sex.

We had an unsettling experience when trying to book a hotel. The requirement was that only married couples could book – we went elsewhere as neither of us felt comfortable with that degree of scrutiny into our sexual orientation. This archaic attempt to prioritise marriage demonstrated the enshrinement of the male/female relationship in Morocco.

We did adapt our behaviour, feeling an unspoken threat from the law and some of those around us. Rather than hold hands, I decided we should rub elbows sensually when we wanted to express affection. That resulted in me constantly trying to rub an exasperated Sian’s elbow.

Rather than admit we were a couple, we said we were sisters and laughed at being believed. At the time, it was funny – the altered dynamic amused us both. Yet we both agreed we could never live this way permanently, and that made me think about the Moroccans that do.

Kif kif (‘all the same’) is an LGBT group headed by Samir Bargachi but, tellingly, it operates out of Madrid.

Meanwhile, the Aswat Collectif (‘the voice’) does operate out of Morocco. The Collectif is a non-profit organisation which aims to tackle Morocco’s perception of LGBT people.

Other attempts to set up LGBT groups have resulted in activists having to flee. Since October 2016, gay Moroccan ‘Abderrahim’ has been fighting to stay in the UK after fleeing Morocco. He was forced to leave his home country after attempting to set up a pro-LGBT group called Akaliyat (‘minorities’). He says he faced beatings and feared for his life after the authorities expressed disgust at his plans.

Crucially, the people at the top are ensconced in their homophobic beliefs. In 2016, Mustapha Ramid, Minister of the State for Human Rights called LGBT people ‘awsakh’, which translates as ‘scum’ or ‘dirt’.

Mustapha Ramid, Morocco’s Minister of the State for Human Rights

The biggest Human Rights Group in Morocco have yet to intervene to the aid of LGBT people. This is despite the assertion that their recommendations can influence government policy. The National Human Rights Council does invite complaints from people of all protected characteristics, but complaints can’t be made anonymously. The requirement to attach a name means many LGBT people will never complain for fear of being publicly castigated.

So all in all, the landscape for LGBT Moroccan’s very much reflects the fact that it remains illegal to be gay. In the face of threatened persecution and non-acceptance, there is always a rebellious light, as the discreet movement shows us. Yet it is painfully clear that this movement alone doesn’t have the power to decriminalise homosexuality, and that only a radical shift at the highest level will change things.

Is this possible in my lifetime? I’m not sure. Should I make another visit to Morocco I would hope to be more open, but I’m not confident that I could be so. Yet as I write this article from the relative sanctuary of liberal England, I consider myself lucky to be free to be myself.

 

 

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