Moroccans will host a gay pride parade on Saturday — a call for gay rights in a kingdom where same-sex intercourse is punishable by up to three years in jail — not in the heart of major cities like Rabat or Casablanca, but on the sidelines of a larger pride event in Paris.
In a society where religious conservatives often dismiss homosexuality — as well as reproductive rights and secular government — as phenomena imported from the West, members of the gay community in Morocco are unable to freely go about their lives. This weekend, though, they will carve out a spot for themselves at the Parisian parade, in what many see as the center of France's former draconian colonial rule.
“Human rights are borderless. There’s no border, there’s no color to them,” said Ibtissame “Betty” Lachgar, founder of the Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles (MALI), a small but growing civil liberties movement advocating for reform in Moroccan society.
When Moroccans tell Lachgar that homosexuality and her movement’s broad fight for civil liberties — including for the rights of nonreligious people — are Western imports, she thinks “they are saying individual liberties are for Westerners, for white people, not for Arabs. That’s what’s terrible. They want to stay submissive.”
Lachgar arrived in Paris on Thursday, where she traveled both to attend the parade and to avoid the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when Moroccans are forbidden from eating, drinking or smoking in public. She said Moroccans who partake in the pride festivities this week will be taking a stand not only for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Moroccans but also for Moroccans who want separation between mosque and state.
Fellow Moroccan civil liberties advocate Soufyane Fares said, “The LGBT are part of a larger battle for individual liberties. We are fighting for democracy and freedom of choice for everyone.”
Morocco’s November 2011 parliamentary elections, held early in response to the Arab Spring popular demonstrations there, empowered the Islamist Justice and Development Party, known by the French acronym PJD. The party’s ministers have since introduced legislation and made public addresses on gay and women’s rights that have roiled advocates of civil liberties.
Not only is it difficult for Moroccans to advocate for LGBT rights, but it’s also challenging to show secular pride in Morocco.
On the streets of Rabat, after a night of drinking at a local club, a Moroccan artist, whose name is being withheld to prevent retribution by authorities and his employer, spoke of the movement for secularism in his country.
“The project of secularism in Morocco comes out at night,” he said, washing down the evening’s alcohol — legally available to expats but not local Muslims — with a rotisserie chicken, fries and traditional Moroccan home-cooked bread, khobz dar.
At a house party that ran late into the night in religiously conservative Marrakech suburb, a prominent artist who had been drinking, shouted to the neighbors from an open-air pavilion, “I’m an atheist!” He was quickly silenced by his fellow guests.
“Secularism exists but not formally, and the liberal minority might suffer from it, but there is always a way to have a secular life, especially in the cities,” said Rabat-based democracy activist, Bilal Jouhari, explaining that some circumvent laws on alcohol. Others eat during Ramadan, hidden from sight in the privacy of their homes.
Lachgar’s MALI has taken a relatively audacious stand for individual freedoms. In November 2011, she organized a kiss-in across the street from the Moroccan parliament building to protest the prosecution of three Moroccan teens who had posted a photo of themselves kissing in public to Facebook. They were charged with violating public decency. The teens have since been exonerated, but Lachgar now receives threats — via email, mail and phone — she says “on a daily basis.”