Why public areas remain a place of torment for Moroccan women


In the summer of 2017 two videos showing sexual assaults on women in Morocco, one in Tangiers, the other in Casablanca, caused outrage in the North African country. Yet though the government has for years been promising a law to protect women, progress has been slow. Academic Safaa Monqid explains to Rachida El Azzouzi how women are still excluded from public areas in Morocco and the Arab world in general.

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A video published on social media in August 2017 caused a sensation and showed the prevalence of sexual harassment in modern-day Morocco. In it one sees a young woman being attacked by four teenage boys in the back of a bus in Casablanca in broad daylight. No one tries to intervene, neither the driver nor fellow passengers. The bus carries on moving as the attackers touch and grope the victim and strip the clothes from the top half of her body while mocking and insulting her.

From the moment it went online the video reignited the issue of the harassment of women in Moroccan society. A few days earlier another video, this one just a few seconds long, had also sparked outrage in Morocco. It showed a group of young men pursuing and encircling a young woman who was walking on her own in the city of Tangiers.

Though both videos shocked, neither should come as a huge surprise. Public areas are known to be places of torment for women and girls in Morocco. According to official figures, two-thirds of sexual assaults in the country take place in public spaces. And 90% of these assaults involve rape or attempted rape in which the victims are mostly women aged under 30.

In all of the attacks the victims are usually regarded by some as having been 'guilty' or culpable in some way. In the Tangiers case, for example, the young woman who was assaulted was judged to have been dressed provocatively as she was wearing only jeans and a tee-shirt.

The town of Chefchaouen in north-west Morocco in 2016. © Rachida El Azzouzi The town of Chefchaouen in north-west Morocco in 2016. © Rachida El Azzouzi
For years, various media outlets, associations and non-governmental organisations have warned about the level of violence committed against women in Morocco. But there has still been no concerted response from the authorities or from Moroccan society as a whole. This is despite the series of demonstrations that have taken place in several large Moroccan cities to denounce what protesters called a “culture of rape”. This is despite the fountains that symbolically ran blood red as part of a protest action to raise awareness on the issue by feminists from the country's Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms (Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles or MALI). And this is despite the shockwaves caused by the Harvey Weinstein affair, which has had an impact across North Africa as well as other parts of the world.

Violence towards women in Morocco is rooted in people's mentalities, and has been legitimised and accepted socially. This is true of public spaces but also behind closed doors too. An enduring memory in the country is of the November 2016 programme on Morocco's second largest public broadcast channel 2M in which, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the female presenter broadcast an item on make-up aimed at showing battered women how to disguise the bruises from the beatings they received. A report published on Friday December 15th, 2017, in the presence of the government's minister for families, Bassima Hakkaoui, pointed out that the most common form of violence used against women is physical and that more than 50% of these violent acts are committed by the woman's partner.

Until recently in Morocco rapists could escape jail by marrying their victim if they were a minor. It was only in January 2014 that Moroccan Members of Parliament voted to remove the article in the country's criminal code that allowed this. Given the massive gulf that exists between the law and ancient customs it was largely a symbolic advance. Since changes in 2004 to Morocco's family code or law on personal status, known as the Mudawana, the law has specifically targeted the harassment of women at work – but not in public areas. Meanwhile legislation aimed at tackling four types of violence – physical, sexual, psychological and economic – has been and remains in the pipeline since 2011. But even if new laws do get passed, the next step is to persuade police officers to take action and to overcome the influence of the family unit.

To fight violence against women you have to “start from childhood with a non-sexist education and ways of ensuring equality in social mixing between the two sexes, especially when it comes to access to public areas”, Safaa Monqid tells Mediapart. A lecturer at the New Sorbonne university in Paris, Safaa Monqid is an expert on the situation of women in the Arab world. In particular she has written on the status of women in public areas in the Moroccan capital in her book 'Femmes dans la Ville. Rabat: de la tradition à la modernité urbaine', ('Women in the City. Rabat: from tradition to urban modernity'), published by Presses universitaires de Rennes. Mediapart interviewed her about the current situation in Morocco.

Safaa Monqid. © dr Safaa Monqid. © dr
Mediapart: According to official figures nearly two in three Moroccan women have been victims of violence. And public areas are the places where physical violence against women manifests itself the most. How do you explain that?

Safaa Monqid: The different types of violence, whether they are remarks, out of place gestures, verbal and/or physical assaults, represent male resistance to women taking over public areas. It's not surprising when one considers that traditionally women have had no presence in male-dominated public spaces, even if their presence there is no longer marginal. In general men display sexualised behaviour: they behave in public places as if they have all the rights and consider women who are outside to be public property.

Some even claim the right to attack them. For these men women are only there because they are “looking for men” and so they claim the right to use difference forms of intimidation and violence which are quickly given a social justification. All this handicaps women when it comes to their relationship with public areas and is the reason why they feel uneasy in the street. It's one of the reasons that dissuades women from going out alone, because they feel vulnerable.

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