Morocco in Transition
(Middle East Report 218, Spring 2001)
This Time I
Choose When to Leave
Fatna El Bouih was born July 10, 1955, in Benahmed, a village in Settat province. In 1971, she received a boarder's scholarship to Casablanca's prestigious girls' high school, Lycée Chawqi, and became active in the national union of high school students (Syndicat National des Elèves). Arrested the first time as a leader of the January 24, 1974 high school student strike, for her second arrest she was forcibly disappeared from May 17 to November 1977 in Derb Moulay Cherif, Casablanca's notorious torture center, with other women activists, such as Latifa Jbabdi, Ouidad Baouab, Khadija Boukhari and Maria Zouini. Transferred to Meknes Prison, they were held from 1977-79 without trial. In 1979, she helped organize a hunger strike to establish her group's status as political detainees and was finally sentenced three years after her arrest by the Rabat court in 1980 to five years in prison for "conspiring against the security of the state," membership in the illegal Marxist-Leninist group "March 23," and distributing political tracts and posters. She completed her sentence at Kenitra Civil Prison (1980-82) and also finished a degree in sociology. As part of her civil service, she began teaching in 1982 at Collège Najd, Casablanca, where she continues as an Arabic-language instructor. She resides in Casablanca with her husband and two daughters. The interview below was conducted and translated by Susan Slyomovics.
When did you resume your political activities after prison?
After my release in 1982, I only really started to speak and become active again in 1991. I became a member of the coordinating council for all the then-existing women's groups (al-Majlis al-Watani lil-Tansiq). We combined forces to change the mudawana (the code of laws governing family and women's status), laws that obviously handicap women. If we could change the law, we felt we could change anything. I began with the Union d'Action Feminine (UAF) campaign to collect a million signatures. I knew UAF president Latifa Jbabdi from the "March 23" organization, then again we were together in Derb Moulay Cherif for seven months, followed by the prisons of Ghbila and Meknes for three years from 1977-80. I was among those women who put together documents and texts presented to King Hassan II in 1992. Some changes were effected in 1993. Since that collaborative experience, I learned that women have to struggle to make changes but equally we have to alleviate, or ease women's social and cultural burdens.
Please explain "alleviate." How do you ease women's burdens?
Beginning in 1995 and until now, I volunteer weekly at a Centre d'Ecoute et d'Orientation Juridique et Psychique des Femmes Battues in Casablanca's l'Hermitage neighborhood. It is the first such place in Morocco, a reception center for battered women where they are listened to and helped. We open a file and prepare documents for lawyers and psychiatrists on a case-by-case basis. I specialize in istima'/l'ecoute which I prefer. I can make women talk. Remember that the model for all Moroccan females is the woman who lowers her eyes, never raises her voice, whose tongue "does not go out of her mouth," as in the Moroccan proverb "ilfum mesdud ma duxluh dbana" (into a closed mouth no flies can enter). Girls are raised with: "Samt hikma u-mennu tfarraq ilhikayem" (silence is wisdom and from it comes even greater wisdom). It is part of my society. This was the way I, my colleagues and friends were raised and I revolted against this situation. In my own case, I was interviewed in 1994 by Malika Malek for Moroccan television. A half hour interview about my experiences as a former political prisoner was cut and only two minutes were broadcast. So I began writing about other women political prisoners and their amazing courage that should be part of Moroccan history. At first, I could not write about myself because that was "hshumah" (dishonor).
In 1997, you ran for political office?
Yes, I came a close second to the incumbent candidate from the USFP (Socialist Union of Popular Forces) in the 1997 local elections. I ran for the position of Casablanca municipal councillor (mustashara) as a candidate of the OADP (Organization of Democratic and Popular Action) -- an official political party and successor to the illegal leftist movement "March 23" -- to represent Derb Ghallef where I have taught for 18 years. I didn't conduct the campaign properly, relying only on door-to-door canvassing. It is a poor, overcrowded, badly served district; many of my students live in terrible conditions in what we call lkoury, dialect for the French écurie, a stable now used for housing humans.
How do you see the transition in Morocco?
As a former political prisoner, I feel this enormous psychological relief and unburdening since the death of King Hassan II and note the changes in me and in Morocco. It is only during this "new era" ('ahd jadid) that I became really active. Before I just wrote, now I feel useful. For example, my husband and I are among the founding members of the Moroccan Observatory of Prisons (OMP) officially organized November 13, 1999. I experienced prison, I wanted to help other prisoners, and I found a way to do so through the NGO movement. We write reports, visit prisons, and last Ramadan, we organized festivities first in the women's and then in the men's sections of Oukacha Penitentiary. We are working to establish programs to help prisoners reintegrate into society by paying attention to their individual familial and social contexts, and we work to change laws concerning current prison sentencing practices. The prison authorities have been receptive.
So now you are back in prison?
Yes, but this time I choose when to go and when to leave.