Tangier, Morocco - The arrest and pending trial of two kissing teenagers has thrust a debate about personal freedoms into the public spotlight in Morocco.
In early October, a 15-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl were detained in the northeastern city of Nador and jailed. Their 16-year-old friend, who took the picture of them kissing on the street and posted it on Facebook, was also arrested. Afterwards, a local organisation alerted a prosecutor, who then charged the trio with indecency. They were released on bail October 7, and are currently awaiting trial.
The case ignited outrage on social media websites, and human rights groups such as Amnesty International condemned the arrests and asked for the charges to be immediately dropped.
"It is simply absurd that these teenagers could face a prison term just for kissing and posting a photo on Facebook," Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
"These young people should never have been detained in the first place - there is no imaginable reason why expression of this type ought to result in prosecution. Launching a judicial investigation into a complaint about an act as benign as teenagers kissing is ridiculous - it should be dismissed out of hand."
People posted dozens of pictures kissing in support of the teenagers, captioning them: "Now you can arrest me." The hashtag #FreeBoussa ("free kiss" in Arabic) trended on Twitter. A group of about 30 people even organised a "kiss-in" in front of the parliament on October 12 in the capital, Rabat, exchanging a short kiss and chanting, "Long live love!"
The gathering was disrupted by protesters who yelled, "Go do that in America, or Europe. Here, we will not let it happen!" Still, the "pro-kiss" activists vowed to fight on.
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Twenty-eight-year-old Nizar Bennamate, who was at the kiss-in, said he "believe[s] that laws should help manage conflicts among society. It also should protect Moroccans. But this law used to go after the kids in Nador is very vague."
He was referring to Article 484 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which sets a jail term of two to five years for any indecent act with a minor; and Article 483, which mandates a prison sentence of one month to two years for any act of public obscenity.
"This arrest could only be justified if the minors were a real danger to society," said Soukaina Benchekroun, a trainee lawyer in Casablanca. "A simple kiss, even repeated, cannot justify the placement of a juvenile in a correctional facility."
The arrest and resulting furore also underscores the fact that Morocco, a country often regarded as one of the most liberal in the Muslim world, is still deeply conservative at its core.
"The modernist ideas maintained by the ruling elite are not necessarily in accordance with the people," said Abdellah Tourabi, editor of the monthly magazine Zamane.
For instance, Batoul Sidaoui, a 56-year-old in Tangier, said: "If it was my daughter, I would have killed her. We are not in France here. It's not our culture to do these things."
Tourabi said in Moroccan society, kissing is best done behind closed doors.
"In Morocco, the separation between private and public space is very strong - a private choice is tolerated as long as it's not thrown in the public space," said Tourabi. "This argument is often used for the issue of eating in public during the month of Ramadan. This is how 'the kiss of Nador' must be read to understand the different reactions."
In 2010, some Moroccans illegally attempted to organise a picnic during the fasting month of Ramadan - leading to their arrest and a fierce public debate. More recently, some Moroccans demanded amendments to a law allowing child rapists to be set free if they marry their victim.
In 2011, when people took to the streets calling for more democracy, they also demanded more religious freedom. In response, King Mohammed VI initially proposed constitutional reforms reflecting these demands. But the Islamic Justice and Development Party objected to the freedom of conscience clause in the draft constitution and it was changed to refer only to freedom of faith.
Nevertheless, Tourabi said he "think[s] Morocco is advancing on these issues. There are of course cases that can be considered as signs of regression - but when you see the fierce reaction they generate, you can bet that Morocco is on a good path."