French app fighting violence against women brings ‘revolution’ to Morocco

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A year ago a French app called The Sorority was launched, aimed at preventing violence against women and recently debuted in Morocco. It has been a breath of fresh air for its pioneers in the North African country, who denounce what they see as a society plagued by sexual violence.

“If we can help women victims of violence in France, we can do it in all countries,” said Priscilla Routier Trillard, a 34-year-old Parisian, describing her decision to export The Sorority to the other side of the Mediterranean.

Released in France in September 2020, The Sorority was available in Morocco on October 16. The app relies on women protecting each other from violence, whether at home, at work or on the street, with an alarm system that sends an alert if someone close to them is in imminent danger using geolocation technology. Instant messaging allows the victim to contact other users and get help immediately. The messaging feature also allows users to get moral support from other women.

‘A real social problem’

Sarah *, 32, was one of the first Moroccan women to join The Sorority. From the age of 14, she faced regular bullying when walking to and from school. A boy physically assaulted his younger sister Amal *, who was 13 years old at the time.

The two sisters grew up in the exclusive Les Princesses area of ​​Casablanca. But in Morocco, Sarah said, “any kind of man can harass you anywhere.”

Asma El Ouerkhaoui was quick to join The Sorority at its launch in Morocco. She is a 39-year-old computer scientist who lives in Rabat and dresses like a tomboy. “It would be too risky to wear a skirt,” she said. “But traditional clothing doesn’t protect you either; veiled friends of mine are also attacked. ”

Sarah said that “the moment an abuser recognizes that you are a woman, you are screwed. It doesn’t matter what kind of fabric covers you. ”

She never felt so “threatened” when living in France, said Sarah, who studied law in Bordeaux. “There is a real social problem in Morocco; we have to stop hiding our faces with veils ”.

Like all members of the Moroccan brotherhood who spoke to FRANCE 24, Sarah said that the bullying started as soon as she went through puberty.

“As a Moroccan woman, it is clear that you are no longer a girl when certain men, men your father’s age, look at you lustfully.”

Blame the victim

The list of recent incidents of sexual assault in Morocco is staggering: perpetrators film and spread sexual abuse on the Internet; a series of incest cases silenced by families; rape of children; a 96-year-old woman sexually abused by a group of young men.

The figures are also surprising: a 2019 survey by the Moroccan Ministry of the Family showed that more than half of Moroccan women say they have been victims of sexual violence. But only 6 percent of them have dared to file an official complaint, and less than 10 percent of female victims of domestic violence leave their abusive spouses.

All the people contacted by Jowharsaid they know women who have been raped or beaten by their husbands. None of them felt they could speak officially, despite the promise of anonymity.

Zainab Aboulfaraj, a journalist from Casablanca, said this was not surprising. “The most conservative fringe of Moroccan society manages to spread the idea that many women who have been raped deserved what happened to them, either because of their behavior or because of what they were wearing.” Consequently, it is considered “extremely shameful” for women to talk about rape, he continued.

Working on a project in the spring of 2020, Aboulfaraj thought it would be impossible to talk to rape victims about what they went through. “The victim support associations I contacted thought I was crazy,” she said. After several months, four women finally agreed to speak to her. But they kept their names and details of where they lived a secret, even from her.

Thus was born the web series #TaAnaMeToo (“#I am MeToo too”). Four rape victims broke their silence thanks to the anonymity provided by the animated format.

Aboulfaraj had long concealed his own trauma as if it were a form of shame. Until now, she had never dared to tell anyone about the day a gang of boys surrounded, attacked and groped her in Rabat when she was 14 years old.

“I healed my own wounds by helping other women heal theirs,” she said.

A small audience for now

“If only I could have used an app like The Sorority in 2004,” said Loubna Rais, an international development consultant. One night that year, Rais miraculously survived an attempted rape and found herself alone in an unknown town.

Along with other activists from the Masaktach (“We won’t shut up”) association, Rais had long dreamed of an app like The Sorority.

She is now one of 117 Moroccan women who have downloaded the application. But only about 40 of them, mainly in the main cities of Rabat and Casablanca, have registered with The Sorority.

Morocco enjoys relatively good internet access and 75 percent of Moroccans own a smartphone. But there may be an intrinsic flaw in the application.

With the monthly minimum wage of 2,929 dirhams (€ 271) and Internet access at 10 dirhams (€ 1) per gigabyte, what percentage of the Moroccan population can afford to participate in The Sorority? Asked Raw, the creator of Sobisate.tv. an Instagram channel dedicated to feminist causes in North Africa.

“Let’s not forget either that this is an application in French, so it does not reach the majority of the Moroccan population, who either reads only in Arabic or is illiterate,” said Raw, who uses a pseudonym and has nevertheless signed up with The Sorority.

But blaming the victims is still a big problem. In January 2021, well-known Moroccan dancer Maya Dbaich mocked some rape victims saying they were “asking for it.”

In September, a 15-year-old boy shared online a video of the sexual assault of a young woman in Tangier, northern Morocco. That led to a widely watched interview on ChoufTV in which a neighbor of the attacker came to his defense and blamed the woman.

The Moroccan media have attached great importance to the fact that women also blame the victims. But Sarah said it is important not to fall into the simplistic trap of thinking that “women are other women’s worst enemy.”

“The society we live in instills in everyone the idea that women are to blame,” Sarah said. “And some women have internalized this way of thinking.”

Although the outlook looks bleak, “the winds of change are blowing in Morocco,” according to Aboulfaraj.

“Moroccan youth were once quite reserved, but now they have social networks,” he said. She also decided to join The Sorority after speaking with FRANCE 24.

Instagram accounts such as Sobiaste.tv and La vie d’une Marocaine (“The life of a Moroccan woman”) have transmitted hundreds of testimonies about the abuses suffered by women and girls in Morocco.

But these posts not only shed light on sexual violence, they also expose the Moroccan state and the cultural norms that help cover it up.

Patriarchal societies in general, and Morocco in particular, try to instill the belief that women should see other women first and foremost as rivals, Sarah said.

“But The Sorority is bringing a kind of revolution in Morocco, because it shows us that this is not true.”

The people behind the app have been conducting training sessions to prepare people for situations where they have to help attacked women. During one of the first tests, Sarah sent a false alarm. Several users of the app contacted her immediately, ready to take steps to get her out of harm’s way.

“I understood then that The Sorority could inspire women to travel miles to rescue a complete stranger,” she said. “That filled me with renewed strength.”

* Names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

This article was translated from the original in French.