Morocco: an interview with Hirak activist Yassmin B

Yassmin B is an activist who has been actively involved in The Popular Movement (al-Hirak) in Morocco since October, in al-Hoceima and elsewhere.  A further interview with an al-Hirak militant can be read here. This interview was originally published at avalancheofdust.

Al-Hirak involves women at the leadership and base levels, who have organised with and, on occasions, ‘besides’ their male comrades. There was a substantial Hirak demonstration on International Women’s Day (March 8th), and a women-led protest on June 4th. As al-Jazeera reported:

“Police encircled hundreds of female protesters in a public park late on Saturday, impeding others from joining, as the women chanted ‘freedom, dignity and social justice'”

And, on June 19th, three girls were temporarily detained in al-Hoceima for having shared a video calling for another women’s protest: as with religion, the state must appear as the font of ‘proper’ feminism and so, as with religious dissent, must block – repress, neglect, or co-opt – any feminist effort independent of it.

A group of Casablanca-based activists, Moroccan Women Against Political Arrests, are working to build international, women-led solidarity with al-Hirak throughout July. You can read about them here (in French) and contact them here (in Arabic, French, and English).

How did you become involved in the Movement?

Our generation inherited a long history of pain, of damaged dignity, and pride. The massacre of 1958 and 1959, for example, which we cannot forget, even today.* Of course, they do not teach us these things in school, but we know it through our grandparents, who were victims and witnesses.

This common history in the Rif made us much closer to each other when it comes to facing the system, with all its injustices and oppressions. The killing of our brother Mohasin Fikri was not only ‘a tragedy’. The authority’s saying ‘grind his mother’ summarised the situation.

Nasser al-Zafzafi and his comrades took action that night. When I protested the following night, I immediately knew from peoples’ faces that it would be a long protest, and that it was my duty to be present at every protest march afterwards. It is all people talk about in schools, at work, at the dining table, in the streets, on Facebook, and so on.

There has been a lot of national and international media interest in al-Hirak since late March, when al-Zafzafi and many others were arrested. But, the first months of the al-Hirak are barely mentioned. Could you give your sense of them?

After Mohasin Fikri was martyred, we started the protests in al-Hoceima and Imzouren. For the first six weeks we did weekly marches. We mainly called for justice for the death of Mohasin Fikri, not only from those directly responsible, but from those who are responsible for this corrupted system.

We continued our peaceful protests. The authorities kept watching us, and began trying to close public squares. So, we invented something called ‘chen-ten‘; it’s Rifain Tamazight slang word for ‘sudden speed’. Al-Zafzafi used the term to describe gathering people quickly – in about half hour – through his live videos.

Chen-ten: I consider it as a contemporary development on the guerrilla tactics that our grandfathers excelled at against Spanish colonisation between 1921 to 1926. The method of surprise suits people in this region.

Al-Zafzafi succeeded. Everyone left whatever they were doing for the streets, to start the protest march: Men and women, including housewives and old people; the young; rich or poor; educated and illiterate, practicing Muslims and non-practicing Muslims, and people of different ideologies. It is a people’s voice, al-hirak, the Movement, or Anhezzi, as it’s called in our language.

Al-Zafzafi is widely understood as the most important of the leadership level of al-Hirak. Have there been any disagreements with him?

After al-Zafzafi appeared as a leader of al-Hirak, some of his comrades did not accept it. But, they were very few. To be honest Nasser’s rhetoric attracted and convinced ordinary people from different backgrounds. He is bold: he names things by their real names.

He can speak to people who didn’t go to university, like him, and even people who didn’t go to high-school, and people who are illiterate. He speaks with them in their native language, and helps them understand. The people chose him for his charisma, and call his name, and wait for his live videos. The continuation of the movement became directly related to Nasser al-Zafzafi.

Several leftwing Moroccan friends, all men, have told me that the Rif is one of the most conservative regions in Morocco in regards women’s roles and women’s rights. I don’t know if this is true.

We are not conservatives in terms of letting women study or work; actually, we are encouraged to finish our university studies, a lot. But, the Rif is a conservative region for things like smoking publicly; for local women it’s not normal. Nobody would say something to her, but it’s not normal. The same for the mini skirts, et cetera, but it’s changing now

Al-Zafzafi is in prison, like most of the ‘October generation’ of leaders, including Silya Ziani, one of the most prominent women leaders.

Could you speak a little about the importance of women at the ‘base’ of al-Hirak? What different roles have women played? Is there are a ‘women’s movement within al-Hirak‘, do you think?

Generally speaking, the women of the Rif are known in Morocco as conservatives, playing a secondary, supportive role for their men. Even my generation – we are educated and graduated from universities – still are overly protected by our families,

With the beginning of the Movement, we witnessed the descent of women to the street, just like men, and we called for the same popular demands. The singer and the activist Silya Ziani is only the most-known arrested woman from Hirak, But, there are other women who went through hours of questioning and investigations. Some of them are still being subjected to provocations and indeed prosecutions. Some of them are still minors!

On Eid, we heard about a girl who was sexually harassed by a policeman. But, she couldn’t complain, because she was afraid to lose her good reputation. Maybe this incident was intended by the police to spread fear among girls.

My sister was detained for an hour. They tried to convince her that Rifain girls should be gentle, shy and obedient, and that we must stay at home like our mothers used to, and that the demonstration does not suit them. Their aim was to weaken the presence of women in the protests.

Women are good for Hirak because they bring their brothers, men, and kids; we are encouraging men. And, Hirak is good for women, because it made them be present in the street, just like the men, rather than playing a secondary role: it is a revolutionary change in our society.

* See Miriyiam Auoragh’s recent essay in Historical Materialism for a greater sense of the 1958-9 insurrection.


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