On Aug. 31, six plainclothes policemen arrested a woman named Hajar Raissouni outside the office of her obstetrician-gynecologist in Morocco’s capital, Rabat. She was detained along with her fiancé, her doctor, his anesthesiologist and his secretary. Her doctor was compelled to hand over her medical records while Ms. Raissouni was forced to undergo a medical examination and to answer questions about her sex life.
Ms. Raissouni, a 28-year-old journalist from a politically active family, is now on trial for having an abortion and for having sex outside of marriage. Both are crimes under Morocco’s penal code, and she faces up to two years in jail; her doctor also faces jail time. Ms. Raissouni’s defense maintains that there was no abortion and that the medical reports presented by the prosecution are false.
What’s surprising about this arrest is that even though abortions are illegal in Morocco, they are quite common — and rarely prosecuted. A nongovernmental organization that wants to raise awareness about the risks of clandestine abortions in the country estimates that between 600 and 800 abortions take place every day. There were 73 prosecutions last year.
Ms. Raissouni’s unexpected arrest suggests she was targeted because of her profession and her relations. And it shows how vulnerable everyone is when morality is policed arbitrarily by an autocratic state, which can choose to expose the “indecency” of some people’s lives but not others. Those targeted will always tend to be the most powerless, or the most troublesome to the authorities.
The Moroccan state — like others in the region — presents itself as modern and enlightened, particularly with regards to women’s rights. But Moroccan law, drafted under French colonialism, still criminalizes a wide range of “immoral” and un-Islamic behavior, such as drinking, doing drugs, having sex outside of marriage, homosexuality and prostitution. (Similar laws exist in almost all Arab countries.)
We know from health surveys that many Moroccans increasingly engage in extramarital sex. The chasm between social practice and the law means millions of Moroccans are sexual criminals. The state mostly turns a blind eye to much of this only-human behavior.
Except when it suddenly doesn’t.
Ms. Raissouni works at the newspaper Akhbar al Youm, one of the few important media outlets in the country that is not under the direct or indirect control of the authorities; her uncle, Suleiman Raissouni, is its editor in chief. She has written sympathetically about the Hirak, a protest movement in Morocco’s north against corruption and lack of development, whose leaders are in prison today.
Ms. Raissouni’s other uncle, Ahmed Raissouni, is an influential religious scholar connected to the country’s leading Islamist party, the Party of Justice and Development — the only political force in Morocco capable of mobilizing opposition to the country’s all-powerful monarchy.
The police claim that the clinic Ms. Raissouni visited was being monitored; it seems much more likely, given the prevalent practice of wiretapping activists and journalists, that Ms. Raissouni herself was under surveillance.
Her arrest was leaked to the media, as were the intimate and contested details of the medical and police reports. Ever since, much of the press and public in Morocco have been discussing whether or not she had an abortion. But that is not the point. A woman’s body and privacy have been grossly violated — possibly to settle political scores.
Policing people’s morals encourages hypocrisy, abuses and double standards. Middle-aged Moroccan men drink in bars with their mistresses but teenagers are detained for kissing in a park. Women hesitate to report rapes lest they be accused of having sex outside marriage. When these laws are applied, women are disproportionately penalized, legally and socially.
The laws also give the state a tool to interfere in people’s intimate lives as a means of leverage and intimidation. That’s why the Moroccan authorities have been in no hurry to get rid of them.
In 2015, Hicham Mansouri, who worked for an organization supporting investigative journalism, was convicted of adultery after the police broke into his house while a woman was there and — he says — falsified evidence and forced him to undress. Such tactics have been used against journalists and activists before. And last year, an unmarried, middle-aged couple was arrested after being caught by the police in a compromising position in a car on a beach late at night. The two were Islamist leaders; the well-publicized arrest embarrassed a movement that often harps on public morality. Yet the episode actually reinforces the point of view of religious conservatives — that “sinners” should be publicly shamed and punished.
The Moroccan state presents itself as modernizing, and argues that it is forced to go slow with reforms to accommodate a conservative society and Islamists. But neither “society” nor “Islamists” compelled the police to arrest and the judiciary to prosecute Hajar Raissouni.
Local and international human rights and press freedom groups have expressed their consternation over Ms. Raissouni’s arrest. Editorialists have denounced a “moral dictatorship”; protesters have gathered outside her trial; Twitter commenters have joked about how many articles of the penal code they have broken themselves.
The case has incensed those who supported the February 20 movement — Morocco’s iteration of the Arab Spring — and who have since watched hopelessly as the country has slid discreetly back into the habits of steady repression.
Real power in Morocco lies almost entirely in the hands of the king, his entourage and the security apparatus, not elected officials. The palace has the political clout to reform retrograde laws. Instead, the authorities encourage social conservatism almost as much as Islamists do, because the cornerstone of that conservatism is deference to male authority.
In this, Morocco is like other autocracies in the region: However much they may claim to act as a bulwark against extremism, they rarely if ever work to expand personal freedoms. Instead, freedom becomes a bargaining chip. Elites can maintain certain “liberal” lifestyles relatively unmolested, if they support the system.
For those who run afoul of the system — especially women — the price is the sanctity of their private life and even, it seems, their freedom.
Ursula Lindsey writes about culture and politics in the Arab world.