RABAT: A video showing a group of men hounding a young woman walking alone in a Moroccan street has been shared widely on social media, sparking a heated debate in the North African country.
The video, lasting just 10 seconds, shows a clearly panicking woman in jeans and a t-shirt being chased by a large group of young men.
The mob tries to surround her on a well-known avenue in the northern town of Tangiers. The video triggered contrasting reactions on social media. Some condemned the young men, but others blamed the woman for wearing "indecent" clothes and suggested she was promiscuous.
"She can strip off if she wants, but not in our conservative town," wrote one. Another wrote that the woman "got what she deserved." Moroccan media and human rights activists condemned the harassment. "I am as scandalised by this violent and collective aggression as by the reactions blaming the victim for her supposedly provocative dress, although she wore only simple jeans and a t-shirt," Nouzha Skalli, a gender rights activist and former women's minister, told AFP.
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Mustapha Ramid, minister of state for human rights, said Moroccan law "condemns harassment of women at work, but not in public spaces". But he said parliament was examining a "comprehensive" bill that would for the first time criminalise harassment in public places.
Media outlets said the incident reflected a wider problem in society. "The group chase of a young Moroccan woman brings to the forefront the issue of sexual harassment", said Hespress.ma, the kingdom's most popular news website.
Another popular site, Ladepeche.ma, suggested harassment had become "a national sport". Morocco has been ruled since 2011 by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD), which came to power following Arab Spring-inspired protests. The PJD was the first Islamist party to win an election in Morocco and lead a government, raising concerns in a country traditionally among the more liberal Arab nations.
Official discourse plays up the kingdom's long tradition of religious moderation and women are not required to wear the veil. But official figures show that nearly two out of three Moroccan women are victims of violence. That violence is most visible in public places. Many women say walking alone in the street has become uncomfortable. Many have been subjected to derogatory remarks, insults and sexual assault.
"It's a real crisis of values in our society," said Khadija Ryadi, former president of the Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH) and 2013 winner of a United Nations award for human rights work. "Women are assaulted in the street, humiliated, insulted. At a certain moment of the night, they start to feel under siege," she told AFP.
In the heart of the capital Rabat, few women sit on the terrace in the countless cafes that line the famous Boulevard Mohammed V. "We're in an upscale neighbourhood! Go and look in the poorer parts of town. Women are excluded from the public space," said Sara, a resident of the district in her 30s. "Not to mention conservative cities or remote villages. This gives you an image of the male hegemony."
Skalli said the issue reflects a "traditional culture" which regards public space as reserved for men and "the presence of women as an undue intrusion". She said there had been an upsurge in public harassment of women, revealing the contradictions of a society torn between modernity and conservatism. That pits the "liberalisation of morals, which legitimises sexual attraction towards women and trying to seduce them" against "a misogynistic and aggressive ideology which accuses women of dressing provocatively and considers them responsible" for being harassed.
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Recent years have seen several high-profile cases of sexual assault, especially on beaches, where women are increasingly reluctant to wear swimsuits. Harassment is often collective and carried out by young people who consider themselves "defenders of virtue", Skalli said, calling it a "medieval and dangerous ideology." In 2016, a Facebook page encouraged people to take photos of women in bikinis to single them out for public condemnation. Ryadi said that "retrograde ideas carried via satellite channels from the Middle East, along with religious discourse, have poisoned our society."