The Illegal Kiss

teenage-moroccan-couple-arrested-for-kissing-in-facebook-photoDuring the beginning of October 2013, two teenagers from the northern city of Nador were arrested for uploading an image of them kissing one another. The two teenagers and a male friend who took the picture, faced charges of “public indecency.” After they were held in a juvenile detention center, the teenagers’ trial was postponed from 12 October 2013 to 22 November. The defense attorney cited the pursuit of “an inquiry into the social circumstances of the teenagers” as the reason for the trial’s delay. In reaction to the arrest of these teenagers, netizens launched a solidarity campaign entitled #FreeBoussa on social media. The campaign included images of couples kissing one another and calls for a sit-in, which ended up taking place in Rabat on 12 October 2013. Following the widespread media coverage of the case, the judge acquitted the teenagers, who would have otherwise faced jail sentences of up to five years.

The multiple layers of political authority, morality, and gendered norms of public decency embedded within this case and the reaction that followed merit a deeper reading. Firstly, the arrest of these teenagers was, first and foremost, a grave violation of their right of expression. With the public prosecution citing laws relating to “public indecency,” the case demonstrates the role of the state in policing social norms and defining morals along conservative lines. Secondly, the state’s moral arm in its role as the “social” police is bolstered by its socioeconomic policies that have marginalized the northern Rif region, where the arrest of these teenagers took place (specifically the city of Nador). Moreover, the selective enforcement of rigid moral codes fits into a broader pattern of the Moroccan regime’s ongoing repression and marginalization of politically contentious actors. While the teenagers targeted in this case did not explicitly engage in political expression, the fact that they come from a region that has been the site of broader dissent directed at the palace raises questions about the political implications of this case.

Thirdly, the solidarity campaign that grew in response to the arrest of these teenagers has succeeded in gaining wider media attention and drawing more scrutiny to the case. To the extent that the #FreeBoussa campaign acted as a societal disruption, such as the public kiss-in that took place in Rabat, aspects of the campaign uncritically embrace liberal views on individual freedoms. Such an approach, which fails to address the fact that the arrest of these teenagers is beyond the simple act of kissing, opens the window for more state oppression.

Several years ago, another kiss sparked reactions in Morocco. The 2005 hit film, Marock, directed by Laila Marrakechi, begins with a scene of a young upper-class Moroccan couple kissing each other in a car outside a nightclub. In the scene, a police officer interrupts their make-out session, asking the couple if they “think they are in Sweden.” Unlike the teenagers who faced charges for uploading an image of them kissing, the kiss in the film Marock was screened in multiple cinemas throughout Morocco. Yet while one kiss led to a court case, the other was state-sanctioned. Morocco inherited a legal system from its decades as a French protectorate—a system that weaved in patriarchal and religious values that strengthened an increasingly authoritarian state. In cementing its authority, the state took upon measures that entrenched its presence in the lives of ordinary Moroccans, such as through the personal status code laws. The state also took upon more informal roles of determining the boundaries of social norms, such as determining what is or is not appropriate for mediatized entertainment on state media platforms, regulating advertisements for public consumption, among other methods. As a result, class, gender, and sexuality become inoculated within the state’s process of shaping accepted norms and molding codes of morality. Thus, what might be acceptable for an upper class heterosexual male to do on his own will differ greatly the moment his act is on public display and involves a female, for example. These norms are not applied flatly or indiscriminately. We can discern that these teenagers arrested for uploading that image of their kiss triggered the state’s moral policing arm on multiple levels: firstly, they were young; secondly, they come from one of the most economically marginalized regions in the country; and thirdly, both the male and female subjects appear to be equally and voluntarily engaged in this act. The state-led fury through the arrest and prosecution of these teenagers would like to put forth an image that this is simply about it wanting to correct the “indecent” behavior of young adolescents. However, considering the above factors, it is evident that this is more about the state’s enforcement of a set of social norms for a specific class and region.

Nador, one of the major cities in the Rif region, has been a host to an ongoing repressive history. For a brief period in the 1930s, the Rif region declared independence and established itself as a republic, only to face a fierce bombardment from the Spanish. The historical memory of this massacre that took place under the blessing of Mohammed V has soured ties between inhabitants of the Rif region and the centralized state authority in Rabat. When Hassan II spearheaded a series of power and capital consolidation measures during his reign, the Rif region was structurally poor and hosted the least amount of public and private investments. Protests against these policies always faced a violent police repression. This was especially evident during the 1980s bread riots, when Hassan II infamously referred to the Riffian population as “savages.” Such a mix of policy and representation toward the dissenting Riffian population remained in practice under Mohammed VI. At the beginning of the 20 February Movement protests, many of reports of violent police repression some of which resulted in deaths emerged from the Rif region. The regime uniquely and almost consistently deployed brutal force in this region. This sort of contextualization is important to consider in light of the arrest of these teenagers from Nador. The legal response to the teenagers’ act injected a level of politicization that revives the relationship between the state and the inhabitants of this region—a relationship that is tainted with the state’s (sometimes violent) invasion into quotidian practices.

In response to the arrest of these teenagers, a kiss-in was organized to express solidarity and raise awareness of their case. The first kiss-in was organized in Paris, and the next one was planned for Rabat. Despite a relatively minimal turnout, the kiss-in that took place in Rabat succeeded in disrupting the public scene and media. On the one hand, the scene of kissing couples in Morocco’s capital city certainly served the shock and awe that media seek for headlines and soundbites. The kiss-in also drew a violent response from a notorious pro-regime thug usually present at 20 February Movement protests in front of Parliament. Footage from the kiss-in showed this violent individual hurling objects at participants, while also pushing and shoving others. In the midst of his violent rage, he can be heard yelling, “This is an Islamic country, you sons of whores!” He carried on without any police intervention. On the other hand, in interviews and articles citing the participants and organizers of this kiss-in, the reaction seemed to drive a desire to simply respond to the regime’s narrative: that this is just about a kiss. This response takes the regime’s narrative at face value and embraces the fact that the arrest of these teenagers was simply a “violation of their freedoms.” The kiss-in also failed to arouse a general sympathy toward the victims, but instead, polarized reactions that focused on the kiss-in rather than the structural factors that led to the arrest of the teenagers.

While the teenagers await their trial in November, media scrutiny of the case has added another level of external morality from the general public that ironically adheres to the regime’s own narrative: either kissing in public is indecent, or it is not. Such a response upholds the regime’s own methodological approach centered on determining what kinds of public behavior are or are not appropriate, a framework that the kiss-in traps itself in. Disregarding the nuances that shape the relationship between the regime and the uneven manner in which it imposes certain policies and views upon its subjects legitimizes the regime’s position as a “moralizing” force.

[An earlier  version of this post was published on Bil3afya.]

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