Panic in Morocco is Not (Only) Coronavirus Related

Panic in Morocco is Not (Only) Coronavirus Related

Photo from DW.

The lives of thousands of men in Morocco have been turned upside down. Vulnerability, exposure and fear are some of the words that express how the LGBTQ community there feels right now. It is already dangerous enough to be a member of the LGBTQ community in Morocco, a country where homosexuality is forbidden. On April 13, a Moroccan expat transgender named Noufal Moussa, also known as Sofia Talouri, went live on Instagram and encouraged women in the country to create fake accounts on gay dating apps, such as Grindr, in order to expose homosexual men. Organizations in the country have been mobilizing in order to help those outed on the dating apps in a strictly conservative society.

“We are a Muslim country, so here we can’t be gay. There are people who actually think we should go to jail,” LGBTQ activist Mohamed Rhlib, 18, told JPI. The country is 99 percent Muslim, and its constitution prohibits “lewd or unnatural acts” between individuals of the same sex. Violation of Article 489 carries a penalty of up to three years imprisonment and a fine. Moroccan law, on the other hand, does not mention transgender or gender non-conforming individuals.

“I know several people who have been kicked out of their homes,” said Rhlib. “This way, my organization is working on finding these people provisory homes so that they can quarantine and not be threatened. With the current situation, that’s an obstacle, but we are doing our best,” he added.

Rhlib founded the organization “Stop Homophobia in Morocco” (SHIM) in December 2019 with an aim to help LGBTQ community members who struggle to come out or who suffer any kind of prejudice in Moroccan society. The NGO assists 1,000 people not only in Morocco, but also in other countries where being homosexual is a struggle, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. “It is important that people know that they are not alone,” Rhlib explained. “As a member of the community myself, I struggled a lot with my coming out process. My parents know about it and so does everyone else, however, not everyone has parents who just decided to ignore it. People actually fear for their lives.”

Photo courtesy of Mohamed Rhlib.

A young teenager who asked not to be identified for safety concerns, told JPI that she has been hiding her sexuality for up to three years.  “My family doesn’t know anything about me being bisexual and I’m still questioning if I’m Muslim or not. When I told my friends, some stopped talking to me and even threatened to expose me. I was really scared, I even stopped eating, thought about ending my life multiple times, but then I met people like me. People from the organization really helped me to learn to love myself the way I am again.” When asked what her parents’ reaction would be, she answered, “kill me, kick me out, marry me.”

These, however, are just some examples that show how hard life was even before Sofia Talouri’s live statement on Instagram to her 627,000 followers. The influencer, who now lives in Istanbul, criticized the hypocrisy present in Moroccan society after being publicly attacked and exposed on Facebook groups. This was her apparent justification for outing Grindr users.

“I was really scared, I even stopped eating, thought about ending my life multiple times, but then I met people like me. People from the organization really helped me to learn to love myself the way I am again.”

Talouri explained to the Moroccan Times that she did it as a revenge act after several people reported her on Facebook and exposed her to more conservative groups. Article 447-1 in the country’s constitution, however, prohibits the interception and distribution of conversations or information used in private contexts without consent of the authors. Punishment can range between six months to three years in prison. It remains to be seen whether those responsible for outing and publishing screenshots of conversations with Grindr users will be touched by the law.

“This story has a particular kind of frame; I try to think that this was an attempt to show the presence of queer people in Morocco,” Tavia Nyong’o, American Studies, African-American Studies, and Theatre and Performance Studies professor at Yale University and author of the book “Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life” explained to JPI. “Sofia is basically playing with people’s lives to generate entertainment content. Many people are not out because they are not allowed to.” Nyong’o said. 

This way, what began as just an attack, turned out to increase the seriousness of the social and legal hurdles faced by thousands of Moroccans. This also gave members of the Moroccan LGBTQ community another reason to worry aside from the Coronavirus pandemic. “Psychological risks are already high at any time, but now are even more severe in times of pandemic, where most people are under quarantine and cultural anxieties could be intensified,” Nyong’o added.

On April 14, a young man from Casablanca woke up with a surprise. “The morning after Sofia’s live video on Instagram went viral, I woke up with several messages from my friends saying that my picture was everywhere,” he told me. His picture and Grindr profile were posted on several Moroccan Facebook groups, including “Ladies Talk Officiel” and “Kizlar.” Among the several homophobic comments under the pictures on Grindr, there was, “I’m not going to marry you, now we know why men are not as good as they were before, because they are gay.”  Moreover, several women responsible for outing men were also encouraging others to participate and out others.

Photo courtesy of Mohamed Rhlib.

“I panicked. I didn’t know what to do. My face was everywhere and, just like my friends saw, my family could see it too, and they did,” the young man who asked me not to be identified told me over the phone.  “My aunt saw it, so she just stopped talking to me. I tried to deny it and said it wasn’t me, but she knows. I just keep thinking about my parents, who are very conservative Muslims. They say that gay people are ‘a species’ that commits sins. I think they would kill me if they knew,” he added. 

On April 24, the Moroccan National Security told Agence France Presse that it opened a preliminary investigation to analyze and study the discrimination cases against the LGBTQ community in the country. Moreover, Human Rights Watch told LGBTQ Nation that it is looking into an instance of suicide of a man in the community who was outed by Talouri.

In response, Grindr released a statement saying that the company is sad and disturbed that people are being harmed because of whom they choose to love.

Grindr said that: “will never rest until the rights of LGTBQ+ people are universally accepted. The safety and security of our users is a core value and as such we are deeply committed to creating a safe online environment for all of our users. As we learned of the troubling reports in Morocco, we responded quickly with warning messages in both the Moroccan dialect of Arabic and French to let our users know to take extra caution at this time. We are listening and engaging with our community through many channels, encouraging them to report suspicious activities, and investigating and addressing issues that are brought to our attention.”

“In periods of isolation, people are also using dating apps to promote contact with others who experience any kind of suffering or they just want to be in touch with fellow people from the community. Social contact is important.” Nyong’o said. “Grindr should be held accountable. People’s privacies have been exposed, and in conservative countries, this can be dangerous.”

When asked about his interest in using dating apps again, the young man who wished to remain unidentified sighed and explained that he is never planning on exposing himself that way ever again. “I was a pretty active user, but after this happened and my face was everywhere, I deactivated my account. I’m not planning on using it again anytime soon. It’s a very high risk and I was really exposed.” In a country ensnared by pandemic, for many members of the Moroccan LGBTQ community, the fear of exposure and homophobia has now become the main threat to their livelihood.

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