Connect to share and comment

From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Morocco stopsign
In Morocco, coming out is a choice that could destroy lives. Typical social behavior for women includes close physical contact, as pictured above, but gay women often must leave to start again elsewhere or stay and live in silence. (Marie von Hafften/GlobalPost)

Lesbians in Morocco: Should we stay or should we go?

Being gay is a cultural and social taboo that these young Moroccans keep hidden.

RABAT, Morocco – In Morocco, often considered one of the most liberal Muslim countries, affection between women is common. Girls loop arms, stroll hand-in-hand and sit cuddled together. But when this affection becomes romantic and women want to live openly as lesbians, Morocco’s acceptance abruptly stops. 

“Lesbianism is not a good thing. Our God does not allow us to do something like this. It is haram,” said Hasnae Krimi, 22, a linguistics student at Rabat’s Mohammed V University, who believes that sickness and natural disasters are increasing as a warning to reject homosexuality. Most people in this Islamic country respond in similar fashion: Homosexuality is haram, prohibited by God.

Even after the Arab Spring, as demands for democracy and human rights ripple through North Africa, homosexuality is still an island unchanged, officially illegal and too taboo to be discussed openly. Moroccan author Abdellah Taïa, who has written a new book about growing up gay in the Arab world, lives in Paris for fear of reprisal in the country of his birth.

Under Moroccan law, committing “lewd or unnatural acts with an individual of the same sex” is punishable by six months to three years in prison and a fine ranging from 120 to 1,000 dirhams (about 14 to 117 USD). Algeria and Tunisia have similar bans. There have been no reports of women arrested in violation of these laws in Morocco, perhaps because experts say it’s rare for a lesbian to be open about her sexual orientation.

Moroccans Sarah and Maria, both 20, have been a couple for more than a year. Both asked that their last names not be used because of the stigma and legal implications attached to being a lesbian in Morocco. Though Sarah now attends a university in France and Maria is studying fine arts in Casablanca, they spend time together whenever they can.

“I want to live here, but I have no security. I have to live in another country, not my country. I am Moroccan, but I cannot live in Morocco.”
~Sarah [last name withheld]

More from GlobalPost: LGBT rights window closing in Egypt

Maria says she’s known she was a lesbian since she was 12 years old, but Sarah struggled when she began having feelings for Maria. “I wasn’t ready to understand how you can love someone that has the same gender,” she said. Now Sarah confidently pronounces, “I am lesbian.”

Sarah and Maria met online. A mutual friend teased Sarah about not knowing Maria because Maria lives in Casablanca where Sarah has many friends. Sarah added Maria on Facebook, planning to delete her later. Instead the women began messaging each other. To meet in person, Sarah flew secretly to Tunisia where Maria was studying abroad, telling her parents she spent the weekend studying with friends.

Neither woman’s family knows of her sexual orientation, but Sarah and Maria did tell some friends and colleagues they are lesbians — and lost friends as a result. Sarah said her ex-boyfriend physically attacked her in the street three times in one week because he was ashamed that she dated a woman after him. “We cannot rely on the police,” Sarah said, adding that if she reported the attacks, her former boyfriend “could tell the police that we are lesbians.”

Behind the law against homosexuality is religion, said Dr. Abdessamad Dialmy, a professor of gender studies at the Rabat’s Mohammed V University and one of the leading researchers of sexuality in Morocco. “For the majority of Moroccans, homosexuality is a sin because it is rejected by Islam,” he said. “If you have sex outside marriage, it is less condemnable than sex among the same sex. The first one is only a sin, not abnormal. Homosexuality is seen as a sin and abnormal.”

Moroccans grow up with strong attitudes about gender roles. “Like we say in Arabic, I need a back to stand on. [As a woman], I’m weak,” Krimi said seriously. “I need someone to support me, not someone who is just like me. If I am with a girl, I don’t think it will work.”

The societal pressure to get married, Dialmy said, is extreme. Marriage is often the central life event for men and women. “It is not a choice,” he said, adding that homosexual women often end up marrying men, sometimes gay men, and keep their true feelings suppressed or secret.

More from GlobalPost: 'Honor killing' targets Turkey's LGBTs

Sarah said she has come across women on the online forum

Additional Special Reports