More than half of young women worldwide have already been victims of cyberbullying. Sexual blackmail, revenge porn, threats or even defamation, the forms of digital violence against women are multiple. In Morocco, seven out of ten victims prefer to remain silent out of shame or fear of the reactions of family and friends. Feminists and non-profit organisations are now raising awareness of this virtual, yet very real, violence.
Online work and schooling during lockdown have also led to an increase in time spent online, combined with an increase in digital violence against women. As revealed by several studies conducted around the world, such as the e-enfance association in France, the UK Safer Internet Center in the United Kingdom, Mobilising for Rights Associates in Morocco and the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, this trend has been global. It was in the face of this observation that the Diha F’rassek movement was born on Instagram in May 2020, a little less than two months after the lockdown started in Morocco. Created in an emergency, the page that denounces the accounts of the aggressors quickly gained in popularity and became a real link between victims and authorities.
The Hanaa case, an emblematic case
At the end of December 2020, a pornographic video went viral on Moroccan social networks. The video shows a young woman, Hanaa, wearing a niqab and filmed having sex with an unidentifiable man. Interviewed by the newspaper Le Monde, the young woman’s lawyer, Mohamed Hamidi, explains that these images filmed in 2016 were taken and distributed without her knowledge. This type of video has a name, they are called “revenge porn”. This practice consists of publishing on the web pornographic content of a person without their consent, in order to exert pressure or blackmail.
A few weeks later, the single mother of two was arrested in Tetouan and sentenced to one month in prison for “public indecency” and “sexual relations outside marriage“, under Article 490 of the Moroccan Penal Code. As for the man who shared the video, he was not arrested as he now resides in the Netherlands. On the day of her release from prison, February 3rd 2021, Hanaa declared her intention to file a complaint against the pornographic websites that broadcasted her video and against the man who filmed and shared the images without her knowledge.
But the Hanaa case is not an isolated one. Although since 2018, Morocco has adopted a law against violence against women, sanctioning sexual harassment in the public sphere and digital violence, the legislation still too often turns against the victims, encouraging women to remain silent. According to the new article 447.1, the dissemination of photos or recordings “issued in a private or confidential setting, without the consent of their authors” is punishable by “imprisonment of six months to three years and a fine of 2,000 to 20,000 dirhams.” While it has the merit of defining violence against women, whether physical, psychological, sexual or economic, “this law does not sufficiently protect women and, above all, does not adequately define the work of the police,” deplores Bouchra Abdou, president of the Tahadi Association for Equality and Citizenship (ATEC), which created an anti-digital violence application.
The Diha F’rassek movement that denounces the aggressors
The Diha F’rassek movement was born in reaction to this wave of cyber harassment, which targeted several young women on the web during the lockdown. “From the beginning of March, I started to receive, on my personal page, many messages from young girls, high school and university students, who were harassed” explains Houda, co-founder of the Diha F’rassek page. Once created by Houda and her friends Sophia and Mohamed, the #DihaFrassek movement gained momentum in Morocco and the hashtag quickly spread on Instagram. Houda receives many calls for help from young girls, most of them minors. Indeed, according to a report issued by ATEC on digital violence in Morocco in 2020, the overwhelming majority of female victims of cyber harassment are schoolgirls and students. “The page has served as a bridge between the teenagers and ATEC, which has been able to provide the victims with psychological and legal support,” she continues.
Originally, the movement was formed to support victims of cyberbullying and to report pages that were spreading offending content. Thanks to the group’s massive reporting, many pages were removed. But Diha F’rassek (literally “Mind your own business”) quickly took on an activist dimension. The main reason for its wrath: the controversial article 490 of the Moroccan penal code.
Article 490 of the Penal Code in question
Last January, the new law 103-13 on violence against women was supposed to protect young Hanaa. But the opposite has happened. As sexual relations outside marriage are condemned by article 490 of the Penal Code, the law was turned against her, and these images were used as evidence of her guilt, as the stalker was not her husband. Since 2019, many have been raising their voices to demand the repeal of this article of law. In September 2019, nearly 500 Moroccan personalities signed a manifesto to demand its removal from the Penal Code. A few days before Hanaa’s release, the hashtag #Stop490 was taken up massively by internet users on social networks.
In addition to being archaic, Article 490 is a huge obstacle to victims’ freedom of speech. For Stephanie Willman Bordat, co-founder of Mobilising for Rights Associates (MRA), this article represents “the biggest obstacle for victims“. “They are right not to prosecute in these circumstances, because there are real risks of prosecution for these victims in return,” she said. According to a study conducted by MRA in October 2019 on 1,794 women, 70% of women victims of technology-facilitated violence in Morocco remained silent. As for the women who reported such violence to the authorities, 8 out of 10 said they were dissatisfied with the response given by public actors, stating that they were not taken seriously, or even worse, that they were accused of being at fault themselves. In addition to the fear of being prosecuted themselves, there is also the fear of the reactions of the family circle and the weight of traditional mentalities. “The fear of the Fahicha (“scandal”) prevents many victims from filing a complaint,” explains Houda, who continues: “The notion of Hchouma (‘shame’), this idea that this kind of case could damage the reputation of one’s family, is very toxic in Morocco.”
Changing mindsets, institutions and public services
For feminists and associations that follow the victims, it is necessary not only to change mentalities but also to improve institutions and public services. “In Moroccan society, girls are too often perceived as guilty and not considered enough as victims,” points out Bouchra Abdou. To further protect victims, she advocates for an organised and cross-cutting battle, including prevention and awareness-raising campaigns against cyber-violence, the creation of a national authority responsible for ensuring the online safety of citizens, the creation of specialised units within the police to deal with cases of cyber-violence, the simplification of judicial procedures and the creation of a new law, “more protective of victims“.
For Abdou, it is also essential that digital violence be recognised as real violence. Indeed, the repercussions of this so-called “virtual” violence on women’s lives are very real. In its study, ATEC showed that the suicide rate is high among victims of digital violence. Suicide attempts account for 19% of victims of cyberbullying. For its president, the impunity of aggressors must be broken by “strengthening the legal means of defence for victims“. Willman-Bordat shares this opinion and regrets the absence of a protection order in Morocco, which allows victims of violence to be protected in an emergency. “As long as there is no protection order, the withdrawal of article 490, no precise instructions to the police through laws and identified procedures, the situation will not change,” she said. She also calls for greater involvement of digital actors – telephone operators, pornographic and prostitution sites – so that they have contracts reminding them that cyberbullying is a crime punishable by law.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
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