– Ibtissame Betty Lachgar: ‘’Feminism based on Islam is a sham. No more and no less.’’

Ibtissame Betty Lachgar: ‘’Feminism based on Islam is a sham. No more and no less.’’


A clinical psychologist, feminist and secular activist, Ibtissame Lachgar, nicknamed Ibtissame ‘’Betty’’ Lachgar, is one of the first Moroccan women to publicly assume her atheism. Born in 1975 in Morocco, she is the daughter of a trade unionist and human rights activist, who made her aware of the issue of individual freedoms from an early age. She studied at the French High School in Rabat, then went to Paris to study clinical psychology, criminology and victimology. Back in Morocco where she currently lives, she co-founded in 2009 with Zineb El Rhazoui, the Alternative Movement for Individual Liberties (MALI) which aims at defending individual freedoms in Morocco. Since then, the movement has led several actions, including a picnic in the middle of Ramadan and a public Kiss-In in Rabat to protest the arrest of young teenagers who had posted a photo of them kissing on Facebook. These actions caused a scandal in Morocco and opened the debate on individual freedoms in the country. Courageous, Betty also openly defends the LGBT community, the right to same-sex marriage and the legalization of abortion. In August 2018, she was arrested in Rabat and spent 24 hours in police custody as she was on her way to a police station to denounce an assault against her. We really like this dynamic and generous activist, who spares no energy defending women’s rights!

French version here

Her commitment:

« We (M.A.L.I) always carry out symbolic actions. We set up campaigns and organize events aimed at addressing the Moroccan people. What we reproach some associations is that they only hold meetings, round tables, openings, etc. that only interest and concern a small part of the population, often already convinced. We target people who are far away from all that, who live in the countryside, who come from underprivileged backgrounds, who have never been to school. And it works. Whether people agree with us or not, everyone talks about our campaigns, whether in a taxi, at work, at the hammam, at the hairdresser’s, with the family… It’s not by holding small events or round tables that people will find out about us, it’s really by throwing a paving stone in the pond. For example, two weeks after our creation, during the month of Ramadan in 2009, we organized our first action which was a picnic in the middle of the day. This action intented to denounce article 222 of the Moroccan penal code, which condemns to prison any person known to be a Muslim and who breaks fast in public. Many people did not know that some Muslims choose not to fast. For many, when you are born a Muslim, you are bound to stay that way for the rest of your life. It was also about highlighting the fact that freedom of conscience does not exist in Morocco and to demand this fundamental right. What is important for us is to do symbolic actions, from punch campaigns to shocking slogans to get messages across, to decry all the laws and practices that destroy freedom and all the injustices, as we were able to do in 2013 with the Kiss-in organised in front of the parliament in Rabat or when we coloured red the capital’s fountains to denounce violence against women. These are things that mark and make people think, that can pave the way for some change.

My commitment took a turn at puberty because of the sexist harassment and other sexual assaults I was subjected to. During this period, I questioned misogyny in religions, the place of Islam in society and the place it gave to women. As a woman, I quickly realized that the public space is made by men for men. In the same way, women face a macho society and a masculinist justice. Stereotypes against women stem from deep-rooted values, norms and prejudices, which shape ideas and opinions that serve to justify and maintain male domination over women. All of this has made me realize that sexism, like racism or anti-Semitism, is an ideology.

As a secular universalist feminist, I regretted, along with other comrades, the absence (in Morocco) of feminist demands and/or in reference to secularism. It is still very complex, in an absolute monarchy of divine right. Calling for the separation of religion from politics is a subject that many are cautious about and there were sometimes clashes. Activists are part of a society that is fundamentally conservative and macho. I don’t understand how progressive people who advocate freedom, dignity and social justice can prioritize some struggles and rights. I remember not being taken seriously when one of my signs talked about equality in heritage. They suggested talking about priorities. Really? Where is equality between women and men, in the demands as well as in the public space? Sexual segregation in certain demonstrations − certainly of the Islamist movement − and the male-dominated speech? A call for democratic change is impossible by making half of humanity invisible. »

On Islamist ‘’feminism’’:

« As a secular universalist feminist, I in no way endorse so-called Islamic or Muslim feminism. Muslim feminism if we are talking about Muslim women activists who are not in the « land of Islam », and Islamic feminism when women are in a country that enforces Sharia law. I fully believe in the universality of rights that don’t recognize skin colour, borders, religion, sex or class. And this applies to women’s rights. I reject the dichotomy between North and South or between East and West that we see all too often. Rights are the same for all, or at least should be. I cannot accept arguments such as: yes, but we are in − such country −, but the culture is not the same, but it’s a Muslim country, but it’s their traditions, but… but… With ‘ifs’ we can do things, not so much with ‘buts’. I would not say that they are Islamists, but they are on a slippery slope in the sense that often their discourse and their justifications are in line with the words of the Muslim Brotherhood or certain retrograde personalities. And there are their direct connections with obscurantist ‘’feminists’’, with the ‘’Protest for everyone’’ movement, with anti-abortion activists… Of course, the issue of women’s veiling is essential in the secular universalist struggle. The veiling of women comes from a rigorist interpretation or rather from a rigorist prescription. And above all, it is anything but a simple garment, it is sexist AND political. As it is a clothing injunction that refers to male power, the veil goes against what feminism advocates; namely, gender equality. It is a symbol of women’s oppression. To make it a main demand is very dangerous, in addition to being (in my opinion) perfectly anti-feminist.

Lallab (A ‘’Muslim feminist’’ association based in France) makes it its flag, but the veil is the banner of the Islamist model, whose macho injunctions they support by the same token. The aim of feminism is to guarantee political, economic, cultural, personal, social and legal equality between women and men. It aims to combat all discrimination and inequalities against women and aspire to their emancipation. While Lallab is supposed to defend and make women victims of racist and sexist oppression’s voices heard, the core of its struggle participates in a set of patriarchal violence. What are the concrete feminist issues dealt with by the association? Who and what do they defend? An emancipation that is not one and where women do not exist as such but remain objects of appropriation. In arguing for a feminism of Muslim values against a ‘’Western’’ and ‘’white’’ feminism, there is an indigenist (and indigestible) racist resonance − in addition to referring to an inegalitarian and Islamist ideology. This is what the secular and universalist movement − of which I am part − denounces and which has been for this − in an oh! so easy way − qualified as fascist. Let’s not mistake fascism. As a victim of a religious dictatorship, I’m talking about religious fascism.

As a secular universalist feminist, I oppose religious or cultural accommodations that undermine women’s emancipation. That some women suffer multiple discriminations that combine is beyond doubt. However, to put forward categories of oppression based on social class or skin colour is to deny the common struggle against male domination and to minimise the violence to which what some intersectionals call ‘’white bourgeois women’’ might be subjected. It is a counter-productive feminism.

As a convinced secularist, I believe that religion should remain in the private sphere and that the religious should be separated from the political. Religions participate in women’s enslavement, in their submission and humiliation; they cannot participate in their emancipation. Religions are misogynous in essence and Islam is no exception to the rule. Neither reform nor reinterpretation of this religion will lead to women’s liberation. Nadia Yassine said: ‘’Modernize Islam by feminizing it’’. A reinterpretation or reform of the Koran can bring about change in particular areas, such as the economic sphere, but not with regard to women’s rights. The essential reference for these women remains Islam, the religious, in other words a reference that belongs to the past, a very conservative past, on which the men of the present still live. Free women then? No. Women under control. Women’s veiling is not a freedom or a choice; in a macho culture, it fully contributes to their invisibility. How can religions in general, and Islam in particular − the last monotheistic religion − which serve as a legitimization for phallocrat systems and male supremacy, be enlisted in the service of feminism? Feminism based on Islam is a sham. No more and no less. A feminism diverted from its universalist principles cannot be one.

This is reminiscent of the whole debate on cultural relativism, which in some regions has set women’s struggles back several millennia. Everyone, women in particular, has the right to free will, and I cannot bow to religious accommodations that are detrimental to women’s emancipation. For Asma Lamrabet, ‘’a reform of religion is important and unavoidable because it can slowly but surely deconstruct in a pedagogical way all this conservative reading and train future generations to draw on Islam’s spiritual message through its ethic of acceptance of the Other, open-mindedness, clemency and indulgence which are key values in Islam’’. In the case of countries such as Morocco, making that kind of speeches takes us away from the struggle for secularism. Such an approach confines all persons of Moroccan nationality to the Muslim religion. All Moroccan women would then be Muslims − which is the de factoreality as we try to establish freedom of conscience. A reformist approach can only concern people who consider themselves Muslims − secular or not. As a secularist, my response to this is that the essential struggle should be secular education instead of Islamic education within the school system. To recall the importance of a secularist pedagogy as a fundamental principle for the good functioning of the public school. A secularism in which philosophy teachers, for example, can train students’ critical spirit and put the learning of thought at the centre of educational concerns. A secularism, as well as the respect for human rights closely linked to it, which the school should have the mission to share, and where religious instruction, in contradiction with the universality of human rights, has no place. »

On male violence against women in Morocco:

« 63% of women are victims of male violence according to the HCP (High Commissioner for the Plan). According to UN Women, 62% of Moroccan men say they do not have a problem with violence against their wives. There is a lot to be said on the subject. Macho violence within the family is unfortunately commonplace in society. Not only on the part of the father, but this may also be the older brother or any male figure. All women can be victims: grandmother, mother, daughter, sister. It can involve verbal abuse, humiliation, physical and sexual violence and sometimes kidnapping. The main reasons for such violence, as far as young women are concerned, are often the way they dress, going out at night and being with the opposite sex. And unfortunately, when they try to make a complaint, they are sent back to their families by an equally macho and backward police force. The father is always, literally, the ‘’head of the family’’, both informally and formally. There are articles of law which minimise certain forms of violence by providing mitigating circumstances in cases of honour killings, such as when the ‘’head of the family’’ (sic) catches his wife in the act of adultery (Article 420 of the Penal Code). Rape remains the most unpunished crime, marital rape is not punishable and is rather considered the marital duty of wives. This means that thousands of women are raped every day in Morocco. Not counting forced marriages. What are we waiting for to condemn marital rape? Moroccan justice is complicit and reduces women to sexual objects. It should be known that sexual relations outside marriage are prohibited by articles 490 and 491 (adultery) of the penal code. As a result, it is women who are most often convicted of prostitution. Thus, consensual sexual relations outside marriage are reprehensible but marital rape is not considered as such.

Sexist and sexual harassment is a major problem in Moroccan society. It is part of violence against women and is the result of a clear sexual misery. The macho character and the particularity of male violence are neglected, they are invisible and excluded from political reflection (as are women themselves!). We are still far from a true recognition of this violence. Hence the urgent need to break this continuum that exists between violence − which originates in education, or rather in the lack of education in general, and sexual education in particular, and more generally in male domination − and the patriarchal system generating a construction of sexist and gender stereotypes. One cannot be outraged by physical violence and remain indifferent to gender stereotypes and ordinary sexism − because gender stereotypes feed inequality. The public space is made by men for men (like the rest of the world). From an early age, children are taught different treatment between girls and boys and therefore a difference in their place in the public space: girls and women have no place there. Yet ordinary sexism, and less ordinary sexism, does not make us jump. Sexism is, however, a discriminatory attitude − just like racism − based on sex and the stereotypes associated with it. There are places in Morocco that are forbidden to women, or spaces in certain places that are forbidden to women (the counter of cafés, for example). This segregation is carried out with impunity and no one seems to be outraged by it. And out of this sexism is born a macho society which, under the guise of a supposed and assumed domination of men, leads to attitudes that are expressed through harassment and, in a more extreme way, sexual violence. Attitudes aimed at controlling and dominating women. An imaginary where women’s bodies do not belong to them. Their body is a desirable and desired object for a desiring man, women − being without desire − cannot express any refusal or consent.

Many women in Morocco don’t dress the way they want or do what they want because they are confronted with unbearable looks and comments. For example, it is very complicated for many women to walk on the street in a tank top. A woman cannot sit in a park to read. There are continual remarks, sexist and sexual harassment. It’s unbearable. There are clearly places where women do not belong in 2018, bars and cafés where they cannot go. Minors come up to you on the street and say, ‘’Cover yourself up’’. In Rabat, on a popular beach, there were two of us in swimsuits. The others were dressed, or in burkas. The men were in swimsuits, shirtless. »

On the repression of homosexuals in Morocco:

« In Morocco, individual liberties are stifled, we live a socio-religious inquisition and are subjected to liberticidal articles. As far as sexual freedom is concerned, homosexuality, as well as sexual relations outside marriage and/or adulterous relations are forbidden. Respectively by articles 489, 490 and 491 of the Moroccan Penal Code, which M.A.L.I. asks for the repeal. Many homosexuals are still sentenced to three years’ imprisonment. The conditions of arrest, interrogation and detention are not without violence and take place in archaic conditions. Homosexuality is still considered a sin. In prisons, homosexuals often find themselves in walking yards with inmates suffering from contagious diseases. Homosexuals are victims of harassment, intimidation, threats and homophobic violence. Arrests are frequent, often due to denunciation, as in the case of the two young minors in Marrakesh. Homosexuals live their sexuality away from the public eye. It should not be forgotten that, in addition to be a patriarchal society, Moroccan society is deeply conservative, and religion has become increasingly dominant over the years. In a country that practices state homophobia, the fight for the decriminalization of homosexuality (and for sexual freedom in general) is a long-term struggle. For this to happen, sex education, which would necessarily involve a sexual revolution, is necessary: a sexual revolution that would guarantee equality between women and men, combat violence against women and promote sexual and reproductive rights for all. »