Women’s rights: Moroccan politicians take a stand on law against extramarital sex

By Nina Kozlowski

Posted on Friday, 5 March 2021 18:43
The Moroccan House of Representatives (illustrative image). © All right's reserved

In Morocco, a case of revenge porn has revived the debate around article 490, which criminalises sexual relations outside marriage. A few months before the legislative elections, the Moroccan Outlaws movement is calling on political parties to repeal it.

What if individual freedoms were at the heart of the legislative elections in Morocco? This is what the social and citizen movement Moroccan Outlaws, led by author Leïla Slimani and director Sonia Terrab, is calling for.

On 22 February, the Outlaws launched a direct appeal to political parties to take a stand – at last – for or against repealing Article 490 of the penal code, which criminalises sexual relations outside marriage.

Since October 2019, Moroccan Outlaws has been campaigning to repeal this article. This struggle began with the case of Hajar Raïssouni, a journalist who was sentenced to prison for having an “illegal abortion” and “sexual relations outside marriage”, before being pardoned by King Mohammed VI.

This year, according to figures from the public prosecutor’s office, 15,192 people were charged under this article. On 3 February, a case pushed the Moroccan Outlaws back into action: a single mother from Tetouan was sentenced to a month in prison after a pornographic video of her had been published on the internet without her knowledge. The perpetrator, who lives in the Netherlands, has not been charged.

In this context, Moroccan Outlaws has launched a digital campaign called “Stop 490” and sent a letter to each political party, which contains two very simple questions: “Is your party for or against repealing Article 490 of the penal code” and “If you answered ‘for’ to the previous question, do you intend to include this issue in your electoral platform?”

The answers, or lack of answers, will be published on the movement’s social media platforms in one month’s time. Terrab says that she has already “received some off-the-record reactions”.

A tough choice, for some

This apparently simple question centred around repealing Section 490, is in fact hard for some politicians. As an unnamed parliamentarian puts it: “It is difficult to answer this question with a yes or no because on the one hand there is religion, and on the other there are individual freedoms.”

Such a law does not exist in many Muslim-majority countries, including Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey and Jordan. But in Morocco, the question of repealing it is highly divisive and leads to many fights on social media.

The consequence? In recent days, few politicians have dared to come out of the woodwork. The most daring are to be found within the ranks of parliamentarians. Abdelmajid Fassi-Fihri, a member of the Istiqlal party, is one of the few to have responded favourably to repealing Article 490, although he says it is “a personal opinion”.

Istiqlal is known for its conservative positions and “the current context makes the party more concerned about the pandemic and its negative effects on society,” says Ibtissame Azzaoui, a member of the centre-left Parti Authenticité et Modernité.

She says that “the laws that regulate society should not be out of step with the values of society. However, society is changing and often people refuse to accept this change,” without first inviting “political parties to open the debate on the current values of Moroccan society.”

So far, no one has categorically spoken out against repealing Article 490. However, even when it comes down to members of the same political party, the overall message can become muddled.

Separating the public from the private

Within 48 hours, the Parti du Progrès et du Socialisme (PPS) communicated three different messages. On 23 February, Nouzha Skalli, former minister of social development, family and solidarity – known for her progressive positions – spoke out in favour of repealing Article 490 on Le Site Info.

At the same time, deputy Fatima-Zahra Barassat explained to another media outlet that work needed to be done on the notion of private life and public space: the state should not have the right to regulate intimate relations in the private sphere but can punish what represents a threat to public decency, as already stipulated in Article 483.

Fassi-Fihri shares this position. On 24 February, Nabil Benabdallah, secretary-general of the PPS, said on the radio that while his party was in favour of decriminalising sexual relations outside marriage, that it is not a part of the PPS platform “because you don’t base a campaign around repealing an article.”

Still within the framework of left-leaning political parties, the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires parliamentarians are also in favour of decriminalising extramarital relations. They in fact have called for a global reform of the penal code, as they feel that Article 490 is not the only article that fails to guarantee individual freedoms or protect victims of sexual violence.

The same goes for the Parti Socialiste Unifié et Fédération de la Gauche Démocratique (PSU/FGP), which notably denounces “an article that is unfair to the most disadvantaged classes of Moroccan society”, and questions the value of making every member of Moroccan society a morality police officer.

Hamza Elmeray, a member of the PSU national council and of the FGP goes further: “Where are we with the reform of the penal code initiated in 2015? The government and its majority refuse to talk about the changes to be made to this reform due to a political calculation. The upcoming elections will push many parties to avoid taking a position, to make sure that they do not lose their base. Repealing or amending these draconian articles is not something that the popular classes are calling for.”

The youth issue

Some young people, at any rate, are very interested in individual freedoms. Moroccan Outlaws, followed by more than 46,000 people on Instagram and 41,000 on Facebook, has decided to challenge political parties.

“It is also an opportunity to reconcile young people with commitment, to push them to take an interest in politics. And it’s a way for the parties to communicate with a fringe of society from which they have completely cut themselves off from,” says director Terrab.

The Parti de la Justice et du Développement (PJD) – led by Saâdeddine El Othmani, the current head of government – and the Rassemblement National des Indépendants (RNI), led by Aziz Akhannouch – businessman and agricultural minister – are considered favourites in the next elections.

For the moment, they have not expressed an opinion on the issue. As for the Islamists, only one deputy, Amina Maelainine, had called on her political party to “review the legal arsenal” concerning individual freedoms, at the time of the Raïssouni case.

Maelainine herself has been a victim of vindictiveness. This rising figure of the party, who once embodied the hard wing of the PJD, became the victim of controversy when private photos of her posing in front of the Moulin Rouge – unveiled – in Paris in January 2019 were leaked.

Since then, she has been calling for the opening of a “public debate on several provisions of the Moroccan penal code, which can be used to infringe privacy and reduce the spaces of freedom”, all in the name of “dignity and democracy”. However, she did not respond to our requests for comment, following the example of her RNI counterparts.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options