Debate on individual freedom reopened in Morocco

The case of journalist Hajar Raissouni reopened the debate on individual freedoms in Morocco, and revived calls to annul the law chapters that criminalize them.

al-monitor Moroccan activists hold a poster of Hajar Raissouni, a journalist charged with fornication and abortion, during a protest outside the tribunal, Rabat, Morocco, Sept. 9, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal.

Topics covered

abortion, sharia, hajar raissouni, sex in the muslim world, homosexuality, freedom of expression

Nov 12, 2019

RABAT, Morocco — Morocco's King Mohammed VI pardoned Hajar Raissouni, a journalist convicted on charges of having an abortion and nonmarital sex, on Oct. 16. Raissouni denied the charges against her and considered them to be “false accusations.” She affirmed that there was no abortion and never met the doctor who accused her.

Commenting on the second charge, Raissouni’s lawyer Saad Sahli said, “She got married by reciting the Fatiha, while waiting for the completion of the marriage legal process.” He added that the formalization procedures were delayed given that her fiance Rifaat al-Amin, a human rights activist, is Sudanese.

On Sept. 30, the Court of Appeal of Rabat sentenced Raissouni and her fiance to a year in prison and issued other sentences against the gynecologist who was convicted of performing the abortion, the anesthetist and assistant of the gynecologist.

Those advocating for Raissouni perceive that the charges against her seek to take revenge on her because of the articles she wrote for Akhbar al-Youm newspaper, in which she shed light on the protest movement in the Rif region and other corruption dossiers. 

Raissouni’s case has cast a shadow on Morocco and renewed a heated debate on the laws criminalizing personal freedoms, with many calling to abolish the relevant articles from the criminal code.

Chapters 489, 480, 491, 222 and 220 of the Criminal and Penal Code of Morocco criminalize homosexuality, extramarital sex, infidelity, breaking the fast in public during the month of Ramadan, freedom of belief and religion, and subject offenders to prison sentences and fines. 

Several groups on social media highlighted this case, including Moroccan Outlaws, which calls for the promotion of personal freedoms in Morocco and abolition of the legislation that criminalizes them.

The page’s administrators created a petition demanding that decision-makers “have the courage to open a national debate on personal freedoms, considering it to be a necessity today, not an intellectual luxury.”

In this vein, Omar Balafrej, a member of parliament for the opposition Federation of the Democratic Left, announced in a podcast Sept. 27 submitting to parliament a proposal to abolish Chapters 489, 490 and 491 that criminalize sex outside marriage, homosexuality and infidelity.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Balafrej said that he is “in favor of guaranteed personal freedoms, which the world recognizes, for adults, considering them as citizens. However, this does not mean that we are against an ethical society as some affiliates with other currents believe. For instance, we support a punishable violation of public decency. Our call to approve these freedoms is not to make sex out of control, but rather to place it in a consensual frame that is protected by the law and recognized by the community. The problem in Morocco is the lack of respect for the law that is supposed to be in line with the sociological changes.”

Commenting on his call to decriminalize infidelity, Balafrej noted, “In principle I'm against infidelity. My proposal to parliament demands to decriminalize infidelity under the criminal law. This is because the stipulated prison sentence in this regard could tear apart an entire family. This is why I believe that such matters should be resolved within the family — a reconciliation of the spouses, a divorce or even by requiring a compensation.”

Nevertheless, Balafrej’s proposal was rejected and widely condemned among conservatives and radicals, particularly a Muslim preacher who said in a video segment, “If Omar, Allah be pleased with him, was still alive, he would have punished you.” Balafrej and his supporters perceived such remarks as a “solicitation for murder” and “a form of terrorism and apostasy.” The Islamic preacher denied any intention to consider Balafrej as an infidel or to threaten him.

Ahmed Raissouni, president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, defended personal freedoms on the condition of “subjecting them to the necessary amount of controls, restrictions and rationalization.”

He sparked a wave of condemnation for describing women advocating for personal freedoms as losers. He wrote on his personal blog Oct. 19, “Lately we have seen some female losers raising banners that they are having sinful sex and sinful abortion. This is what they were taught. … Yet their poor state shows that they cannot find a way to neither sinful nor righteous sex.”

Hanane Rihab, member of parliament for the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, wrote in a Facebook post Oct. 20 that Raissouni’s remarks point at a puritanical logic and violates the dignity of those taking part in the campaign in solidarity with his niece Hajar Raissouni.

Raissouni disavowed her uncle’s opinion and described his remarks as fundamentalist. She stressed that “his positions on freedoms are a part of his theoretical and ideological frameworks, whether I am in or out of prison.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, M’hamed el-Hilali, a top official of the Movement for Unity and Reform Movement, which is affiliated with the Islamist Justice and Development Party, said, “Unfortunately, fabrication and selectivity have prevailed today over the topic of personal freedoms.” He added that such controversy takes advantage of the victim’s suffering, in reference to Raissouni.

Hilali said that such a controversy is a desperate attempt to divide the community into one group that considers public freedoms and major matters, such as fighting corruption and the just distribution of wealth, as a priority, and another group that focuses on personal freedoms, which he described as ideological and that it calls for obscenity.

He hopes that at the same time the community elites reach a common ground, and stressed the importance of guaranteeing greater practices of individual and public freedoms, in a way that does not contradict Sharia and Moroccan identity. 

Expressing a view that was seen as moderate, head of Morocco's Unity and Reform Movement Abderrahim Cheikhi called for a review of the legislations criminalizing individual freedoms. He pointed out that sexual intercourse outside marriage is what is condemned in Islam, and that shaking hands, kissing and touching are not criminalized. He added that the problem with these freedoms is that they are used to settle political scores.

Amina Maelainine, member of parliament for the Justice and Development Party, said that the chapters criminalizing individual freedoms in Morocco "are not about religion," and demanded that the state refrains from meddling in people's private lives by spying or trailing them." She called on her party "to start a pacific internal debate on individual freedoms, away from the accusations that are based on prejudices.”

Those chapters of the criminal code criminalizing individual freedoms are likely to be discussed in early December, according to Balafrej.

In 2016, the government approved a bill to legalize abortion. Yet it continues to be on hold in the parliamentary justice and legislative committee, unresolved socially and politically.

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