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Moroccan sex 'outlaws' protest criminalization of sex outside marriage

Following a Moroccan journalist's arrest for an alleged abortion and extramarital sex, thousands have signed an online petition to end the state's criminalization of sex outside marriage.
Moroccan activists hold signs in solidarity with Hajar Raissouni, a journalist charged with fornication and abortion, during a protest outside the Rabat tribunal, Morocco September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal - RC18C4FF30F0

Thousands of Moroccans signed an online manifesto today to protest a law criminalizing extramarital sex and abortion — a law that is often used as cover to prosecute and jail political dissidents. 

By 4 p.m. in Rabat, over 2,000 people, describing themselves as outlaws, had signed the declaration, which begins, “We are violating unfair and obsolete laws. We are having sex outside of wedlock.”

The collective protest came as Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni appeared in court alongside her fiance. The couple were arrested Aug. 31, days before the pair planned to get married, on charges that Raissouni had undergone an abortion. Also arrested were the gynecologist and his two assistants, all accused of complicity in her supposed abortion.

Raissouni faces up to two years in prison for having an abortion — which she denies — and for having sex with her Sudanese fiance. Her fellow defendants face between two and 10 years in prison for unlawfully terminating a pregnancy as well as complicity in this case, which has attracted fresh scrutiny to Morocco’s spotty human rights record. The doctor said he did not perform an abortion, but had saved the 28-year-old reporter's life after she suffered a blood clot.

Sonia Terrab, a Moroccan film director, co-sponsored the manifesto. Her acclaimed documentary “Marrokiat” chronicled sexual harassment, homophobia and other abuses in a series of street interviews. “It's crazy, the signatures keep pouring in," she said. "The majority are women, but there are some men, too, who are supporting it because in case of adultery or extramarital sex they get imprisoned as well." She added, “Women suffer far more, however, because when a woman is condemned, no one will talk to her or touch her. Every day somebody is getting arrested for loving someone.”

A growing number of Moroccan women are speaking up. Many turn to social media, where their stories are shared on Instagram accounts like “La Vie D’une Marocaine” (Life of a Moroccan Woman) and "Je Suis Une Femme" (I Am a Woman).

But Raissouni’s prosecution is about more than so-called debauchery. Hundreds of Moroccan women reportedly have abortions every day, paying exorbitant sums for the illicit procedure and putting their lives at risk. The sex industry thrives in tourist resorts such as Marrakesh. 

Critics charge that heightened attention to moral issues allows the country’s monarch, Mohammed VI, to deflect from repression and corruption. This way, he can position himself as a secular modernizer in contrast to the conservative, pro-Islamic Justice and Development Party, which leads the government and is viewed by the palace as a threat.

Aida Alami, a prominent Moroccan journalist who has covered Raissouni’s case, told Al-Monitor, “Hajar isn’t just a victim of oppressive laws, she’s also the victim of an oppressive regime. These laws are used when convenient to silence dissenting voices.” Alami observed that Raissouni had focused on rights violations and political reporting.

Raissouni writes for the Arabic-language daily Akhbar al-Yaoum. The paper is among a clutch of independent publications in Morocco and has faced unremitting pressure from authorities.

Akhbar al-Yaoum’s founder and publisher, Taoufik Bouachrine, was detained in February 2018 and sentenced to 12 years in prison on thinly evidenced sexual assault charges. Before his arrest, he had published an article critical of the country’s prime minister and agriculture minister.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in a January 2019 report, observed multiple irregularities in Bouachrine's case, including claims that several of his alleged victims were coerced into testifying against him.

The Paris-based advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, said Morocco had slipped two places, to 135, in its annual press freedom report, noting that journalists faced intense pressure covering the Hirak Rif protest movement, which was triggered by the 2016 death of a local fishmonger, Mohcine Fikri. The Moroccan government called the accusations “baseless and and lacking credibility.”

The Moroccan king, meanwhile, has expressed support for a proposed bill to allow abortions in cases of incest, rape and fetal deformation. Article 449 of the Moroccan criminal code only permits termination of a pregnancy if the mother’s life is at risk. Parliament has yet to approve the above-mentioned measure, which was proposed in 2016.