Caught in the Crosshairs
On August 31st, while exiting the office of a Rabati based Gynecologist, Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni and her Sudanese fiancé were arrested on the grounds that she had just received an illegal abortion. The pair were subsequently detained at a police station in Morocco’s capital city of Rabat before being brought before a prosecutor on September 2nd. Despite repeatedly denying any such procedure, the 28-year-old journalist was officially charged with “consenting to have an abortion”, as well as pre-marital sex on September 30th. Raissouni was not the only person to face legal punishment. Her fiancé was also charged with having sex out of wedlock, while the staff of the clinic all faced varying punishments for assisting and performing the procedure.
Hajar Raissouni is a journalist for the independent Arabic-language Moroccan daily Akhbar al-Youm. Akhbar al-Youm is one of the few remaining newspapers left in Morocco that is openly critical of the Moroccan government. According to Human Rights Watch, since its first publication in 2009, Akhbar al-Youm has had repeated run-ins with authorities and has faced restrictions on several occasions. This has led many, in the case of Hajar Raissouni, to accuse Moroccan authorities of creating false charges in order to silence the out-spoken journalist.
Morocco is one of many countries around the world in which abortion is illegal and remains a highly sensitive subject. The country’s penal code makes abortions illegal with few exceptions other than life threatening pregnancies. Additionally, Article 490 of the penal code punishes sex outside of wedlock. Morocco has often been criticized both by its citizens and international groups for maintaining outdated laws surrounding topics of sex and reproductive health. A Muslim nation, Morocco follows the Malaki school of Islamic law which is known for being conservative and makes the topic of legalization controversial. Interestingly enough, other schools of Islamic law, namely the Hanafi and Shafi schools, allow abortions up until the 120th day of pregnancy. Nonetheless, in an effort to relax stipulations against abortion following an investigation by the Moroccan Association for the Fight against Clandestine Abortion (AMLAC), the government updated Article 453 of the penal code to allow abortion for cases of incest, rape, and birth defects.
Moroccan women seeking abortions for reasons outside of medical exemptions are forced to undergo the procedure at clinics that often employ untrained staff. In addition to this, under-the-table abortions in Morocco can cost a woman up to 3,000 Moroccan dirhams, which translates to roughly 300 USD. With many making below 400 USD per month this is a steep cost to incur. While abortions may officially remain illegal, this has not stopped nearly 220,000 Moroccan women from undergoing the procedure per year. A research study conducted by Rabat and Salé estimates that at least 50 illegal abortions are performed every day. Another doctor from a hospital in Rabat’s Les Oranges neighborhood suggests that there are between 600-800 abortions carried out in Morocco each day.
The country’s strict laws around pre-marital sex in combination with the strict abortion protocols has left many women to become single mothers at the mercy of social ostracization. It is estimated that there are about 27,000 single mothers in the kingdom who were abandoned by their partners. Children born outside of wedlock can be denied an identity card, placing limitations on their access to a good future. Additionally, adoption is not a common or widely accepted practice, and often times these children end up in orphanages or forced into poverty.
Morocco’s stance on women’s reproductive health, more specifically abortion, is not unique for the region. Most countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) hold similar if not identical views on the topic. All countries in the MENA region permit the procedure if the mother’s life is in danger, while some allow it if the fetus puts the mother's mental health at risk, there are fetal impairments, or the pregnancy is a result of rape. Only Tunisia and Turkey allow women to have an abortion on demand during the first trimester. Nonetheless, this does not mean these laws are always put into practice or followed. Cuts to government health expenditures coupled with the resurgence of religiously-oriented political parties target family planning and women's health services first. In Turkey, it has become increasingly difficult to find public hospitals that will agree to perform abortions, while other hospitals simply refuse.
As mentioned before, Hajar Raissouni’s case has led many to believe her arrest over an alleged abortion is really a cover to silence her work. Human rights groups and Moroccan nationals have expressed their suspicions surrounding the sequence of events which led to her arrest and the evidence presented at her prosecution. Hajar’s uncle, who is the editor-and-chief of the controversial newspaper, has said that his niece has been wrongly convicted and rather she is a political prisoner. The young journalist even wrote a letter from prison which was recently published by Akhbar al-Youm which detailed her questioning during detention. Rather than discussing her alleged abortion, the undercover police who arrested Hajar interrogated her about the newspaper and the high-profile members of her family (her uncles Souliman and Ahmed). Ahmed was the former leader of Morocco’s largest Islamic group- the Party for Unity and Reform. In the letter, Hajar Raissouni says the chargers are fabricated and that she is being targeted for her work with the newspaper where she has repeatedly covered unrest in northern Morocco’s Rif region. A part of the country that has fought famously for many years for independence, sighting cultural and ideological differences from the rest of Morocco on the basis of its Amazigh (Berber) identity.
Rabatis on Mohammed V Avenue in Rabat holding Amazigh flags
The conflation of women’s bodily autonomy and reproductive health with politics is an age-old issue, unique neither to the past, nor the present. Abortion has also recently been used as a tool to curtail political opposition in Turkey. Most recently, Istanbul’s provincial directorate of security demanded names of all the women who had abortions between January 2017 and May 2019 as part of “Terror Investigations.” It was claimed that the information was necessary as part of an ongoing investigation into membership of armed terrorist organizations, bribery, and insulting the president and state elders. Luckily, Turkish Law surrounding information related to health and sexual life protected these women’s identities and prevented the information from being released.
Following Hajar Rassouni’s arrest, there was immediate local and international outcry about the journalist’s situation. Amnesty International Middle East called for her immediate release and for Moroccan authorities to repeal the laws. Throughout late September and early October, Moroccans, specifically young Moroccan women, flocked to facebook to share articles about the journalist’s situations in addition to their sympathies and personal experiences. On October 2nd, a sit-in was held in front of the Moroccan Parliament in Rabat by an association called ‘Collective Assiouar’ to demonstrate against government imposed censorship and the kingdom’s penal codes which curtail the rights of women. A letter of solidarity was also signed by many Moroccan women and individuals of the Moroccan diaspora which was published in the French Daily Le Monde and proclaimed: “We, Moroccan citizens, declare that we are outlaws. We are violating laws that are unfair, obsolete, no longer necessary. We had sex outside marriage. We have undergone, performed, or been accomplices in an abortion.”
As a country that is still reconciling its postcolonial, Muslim, and North African identity, Morocco is caught in the crosshairs of the fight between liberal and conservative ideologies. Although Morocco’s stance on topics related to sexual and reproductive health as well as women's health is not unique for the region- let alone the world-it seems Morocco is especially full of paradoxes surrounding sex and sexuality. One where Plan B is readily available in pharmacies around the capital city, especially when a foreigner or ex-pat is in search of it, but also one where a Moroccan couple cannot rent a hotel room without presenting a marriage certificate and where gay, trans, and gender-queer individuals are still persecuted and imprisoned. More generally, and possibly more disturbing, is the way in which women’s bodily autonomy and sexuality is used as a weapon to silence dissent and force conformity. While some say patience is key to seeing these changes in Morocco and the Middle East more broadly. It was just last year when new laws were implemented to protect women from domestic violence. However, for Morocco’s women and youth, time is a precious commodity.