October 29, 2013

The Politics of Kissing

[Image that landed the teenagers from Nador in jail.]
During the beginning of this month, 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, presumably the one who took the picture, face charges of “public indecency.” After they were held in a juvenile detention center, the teenagers’ trial was postponed on 12 October 2013 until 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, a solidarity campaign entitled #FreeBoussa was launched 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.

Multiple layers embedded in this case and the reaction that followed merits 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,” it demonstrates the role of the state in policing social norms and defining morals along conservative lines. Secondly, the state’s role as the “social” police is bolstered by its socioeconomic policies that have marginalized the Rif region, where the arrest of these teenagers took place (specifically the city of Nador). The relationship between the state and the inhabitants of the Rif region, more so than the rest of Morocco, has been rife with a history of violence, oppression, and deprivation—policies that emerged from under the reign of Mohammed V, were strengthened under Hassan II, and solidified under Mohammed VI. 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 it has it has 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.

There is a familiar scene from the movie, Marock, directed by Laila Marrakechi. The movie opens up with a scene of a young Moroccan couple kissing each other in a car outside a nightclub. They are then interrupted by a police officer asking the couple if they “think they are in Sweden.” In an authoritarian state such as Morocco’s, which inherited a legal system from its decades as a French protectorate, patriarchal and religious values are embedded into its legal system. As such, moral policing is gratuitous. The norms of public decency tend to include variables of class, gender, and sexuality. What might be acceptable for an upper class heterosexual male to do shifts when this act involves a female and is on public display. These norms are not applied flatly or indiscriminately. We can discern that these teenagers arrested for uploading that image of them kissing triggered the state’s moral policing arm on multiple levels: 1) they were young, 2) they come from one of the most economically marginalized regions in the country, and 3) both the male and female subjects appear to be equally and voluntarily engaged in this act. The state 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 during his reign, the Rif region was not only economically marginalized with a poor infrastructure and the least amount of public and private investments, but protests against these policies always faced a violent police repression. This was especially evident during the 1980s bread riots, in which Hassan II infamously referred to the Riffian population as “savages.” Such treatment toward the dissenting Riffian population remained in practice under Mohammed VI. During the beginning of the 20 February Movement protests, many of the violent reports of police repression emerged from the Rif region, including a number of deaths. This brutal force was uniquely and almost consistently deployed in this region for the first year of protests that took place in Morocco starting February 2011. This sort of contextualization is important to consider in light of the arrest of these teenagers from Nador. The state’s 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!” His actions 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 be driven by 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 on 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.

By Samia

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