“I cried a lot when I was a child.”
When you think of Morocco, you may imagine the mysterious markets of Marrakech, mule-drawn carts carrying stacked carpets, and sun-drenched squares where men coerce rattlesnakes out of baskets. The birthplace of Yves Saint Laurent’s rich Majorelle blue is also where Carrie Bradshaw rushed through the souk in a panicked search for her passport — that’s right, Sex and the City 2 may have been set in Abu Dhabi, but it was filmed outside of Marrakech.
But there is a lot more that happens beneath the colorfully decorated surface of this nearly-1,000-year-old city. Marrakech’s magic hides a much crueler situation for the LGBTQ community, which is not yet accepted or welcomed by a government strongly tied to its religion. The recent story of two teenage girls put on trial for kissing in Marrakech is proof of that reality.
The land of pointy-toed babouches and tajines is also one where same-sex acts may be punishable by up to three years in jail, according to article 489 of the country’s penal code. Moroccan law penalizes what it refers to as “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex.”
In the case of 16-year-old Sanaa and 17-year-old Hajar, the teens faced up to three years in prison for sharing a hug and a kiss, according to CNN. The girls were photographed snapped by a passer-by, family members reported Sanaa and Hajar to the police, and the girls were arrested that same day, according to a report in the Independent. And while the teens have since been acquitted, their defense lawyer, Rachid El Ghorfi, told the Independent that they “should have never been in front of the prosecutor or the judge” in the first place.
And Morocco is not the only country where the behavior of girls like Sanaa and Hajar can be considered criminal. According to the 2016 State-Sponsored Homophobia report from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA), 73 countries that are members of the United Nations have criminal laws against sexual activity between LGBTQ individuals, and of those, 45 apply the law in the same way for men and women. In some of these places, the penalty for same-sex activity goes beyond prison — it could be death, according to the ILGA.
While the story of the teenage girls’ kiss attracted international attention, women are rarely charged under the law prohibiting homosexual activity in Morocco. Beyond the law, many citizens don’t accept this way of life, but men are particularly at risk: Gay men are more commonly arrested as well as publicly shamed or stoned.
Abdellah Taïa is a Moroccan native who knows this reality all too well. The celebrated author and filmmaker is an openly gay Arab writer and one of the rare openly homosexual Moroccan writers or filmmakers. He moved to Paris in 1998, leaving his conservative family in Rabat and eventually coming out as gay in 2006. Taïa not only witnessed public stoning, but says himself was subjected to it.
“What was always unbearable for me was to feel rejected from a world that I always loved with all my heart, and to which I still feel strongly attached today,” Taïa says of his experience growing up in Morocco. “It was very difficult, feeling isolated, abandoned, and to have found, by myself, the necessary protection. I cried a lot when I was a child.”
Taïa says he understood that he needed to become smarter than the world that surrounded him, and he started to lie and to manipulate others in order to get by. Cinema always helped him, specifically Egyptian film.
According to Taïa, there is an underground gay community in Morocco, even one that is not so discreet. It is learning how to “play with society” that determines whether or not you can get away with bei. Youssef*, a 26-year-old man from Agadir, Morocco, who considers himself progressive after completing his education in Paris, shared his perception of the treatment of the gay community in his home country. He described a downtown scene in Marrakech, where gay men whom he says are prostitutes come out at night. But in his smaller, coastal town of Agadir, Youssef says, “You won’t see gay people in the streets…. For me, the worst part of that is that gay people can’t live safely in Morocco — definitely they can’t.”
And even though Youssef represents a younger, more open-minded generation of Morocco, Taïa still wouldn’t advise a young gay man to come out in a country where homosexuality is still considered a crime. He describes his own experience of coming out as dangerous, not only for him but for his family. In Morocco, Taïa explains, because his family is poor, he believed coming out publicly would put his family at risk. They were shocked, and out of fear they told him not to talk about it, Taïa recalls, adding that he understood where they were coming from.
“[A young gay person] must wait until the day where he is free, independent, so that he can at least say it to his parents, to his family, without suffering serious consequences,” he says. “Beyond the accepted homophobia that reigns in this country, it is possible for a young gay man, if he’s lucky, to have friends who could understand him and support him. Discreetly.”
Taïa moved to Paris and began to write freely about his sexuality, politics, hate, and discrimination in many forms. His books helped him to see the world and to dare to be critical about Morocco, France — anywhere. But Taïa’s fight continued, even in France. While he may have found a bit of freedom as a gay man, a new battle began: avoiding stereotypes and racism in a world where Islamophobia is seemingly at a peak.
As for the future of LBGTQ youths in Morocco, Taïa says journalists are now treating the gay community with respect, using less discriminatory and insulting language. “That’s already a big step,” he says. There are also some Arab associations, like Aswat Collective in Morocco and Shams in Tunisia, doing brave work to change the mentality and politics surrounding homosexuality in the Arab world. The Arab Spring also gave Moroccan people hope for a more progressive future.
“Although the political situations are catastrophic in some Arab countries, we should not forget about that hope, that light,” Taïa says. “We should make the change happen by ourselves. We should not expect the government to make the first move…. Although I am a very desperate person, I am sure that the change is coming and will be reality.”
*Name has been changed.
By Amanda Randone
Source – Teen Vogue