The Virtual Veil

 How Internet in Morocco is helping and hindering a push towards freedom of expression

10 February 2009

By Bryanna Benedetti

 

virtual-veil

The smell of sweet chestnuts wafts through the narrow cobbled streets of the medina as streaks of red and brown jelabas whisk by. Looking round I spot shopkeepers voicing their wares into the streets, selling olives, meats, and sweets to whomever will buy. I continue to amble down the windy sloping road, glancing up at wooden signs hanging from timeworn walls, and as I turn the corner, I stop and take a second glance at the old wooden sign hanging above my head. “Cyber Cafe,” the sign reads, written in faded red paint, with a chipping drawing of a computer directly below.

I enter into the building to find a parallel universe within the ancient walls of the old Fez medina: nine teenagers sit facing computers, watching clips of MTV, instant messaging friends, and facebooking as it is now termed. The group is a mix of boys and girls, wearing a jumble of jelabas, miniskirts, jeans, and headscarves. I glance over my shoulder, confirming that I am still within the medina; still within Fez; still within Islam. Little did I know that I had just entered into the subculture of the Moroccan web.

The Moroccan web has transformed the ways in which the Moroccan people live and interact with one another and the world. Chat rooms, dating sites, blogging, and online communities have brought globalization into the homes of Moroccans and flooded internet users with the vast unending knowledge of the free web press.

“Internet has not changed Morocco. It is changing Morocco,” expressed Adel Boussaken1, administrator of Maroc-blogs.com. But is this change a freedom or a danger?

Hisham2, a Moroccan blogger from Word Press, sees this free-flow of knowledge as an opportunity for Moroccans. He believes that the internet has become indispensible to Moroccans, who before such globalized communication, were out of touch with much of the world. “Morocco (as part of the wider Arab world) has suffered from decades of dictatorship,” stated Hisham, “internet meant freedom for the people of my country… suddenly we were able to communicate with the outside world.”

Morocco was first introduced to the World Wide Web in 19953. Hisham was one of the privileged young men of his nation to adopt the internet in the 90s before it became readily available to the public through cyber-cafes. Since Hisham’s introduction to the web, much has changed. Cyber-Cafes can be found on every corner of most major cities in Morocco, and the cost averages out to around 10-15 Dirhams4 per hour (1.16 – 1.75 US).5 The availability and somewhat lost cost makes it easy for just about any middle-classed Moroccan to sign on.

Professor Nachit Mohssine6, from the University Moulay Ismail, sees this availability as both a positive and negative influence on his culture. Mohssine sees the internet as a “double edged weapon”: on one hand benefitting student research and learning, while making it easier for personal information available.

One aspect Mohssine commented on a great deal is the new wave of internet dating. Because of freedom in the chat rooms, many young Moroccans have moved away from the family-tied dating system and onto the internet to meet their mates.

“Matchmaking has gone from the bakery to the chat room,” stated Mohssine, while expressing concern for the secrecy and lack of personal interaction that goes along with internet dating. As he explained to a group of students, matchmaking was originally done by the baker, who knew everyone in town and could make better judgements as a third party. Men went to the baker to ask for advice on whom to marry, knowing that the baker knew all the women of the town. The safety of the baker’s judgements has long since passed and men and women now flirt freely using the anonymousness of the internet.

When asked how he feels about his daughter, Nada’s, internet use, who has ten separate blogs at age eleven, Mohssine chuckled and then shrugged. “I don’t think I could pose any restrictions on her,” he said, “it is a lost battle.” He still believes that every parent should worry, but instead talks to his daughter about the dangers present on the internet.

Tara Umm Omar7, wife of a native Saudi and international Western blogger, understands the world of the internet can have negative effects, but sees it in a positive light because, “friendships are developed and cultural understanding is established between people of different nationalities.” This can be seen in the internet cafes, where computers full of young Moroccans chat in different languages to online friends in Turkey, France, Italy, etc. In recent years, Moroccan-based chat rooms and Muslim dating sites have become more popular, such as salaamlove.com, muslimfriends.com, and hellocasablanca.com.

“Online interaction allows Moroccans (particularly those on the fringe of society) to connect with other Moroccans they may not have the opportunity to meet otherwise,” explains Jillian York8, blogger and project coordinator for Open Net Initiative, a partnership created to expose internet filtering and advocate towards a free internet. Jillian is noted for her involvement in Global Voices Online, and her interest in the international blogging community. She believes that the internet, and in particular blogging, pushes a move towards individualism and expression needed in Morocco.

“What is unique about blogging,” Jillian explains, “is the opportunity for an audience – to test out ideas, or for writer, to get feedback early on. I think that that type of expression is very important to you people, and even more important for people in “oppressed” societies (I’m not saying Morocco is necessarily oppressed, but freedom of expression isn’t a favorite of the regime).”

Jillian is correct in stating that complete freedom of expression is not favored by the monarchy, even the progressive monarchy in power today. Recently, there have been arrests made regarding internet blogging and facebook profiles. Hisham, among many other bloggers, has his blog regularly checked by the government, but this does not stop him from expressing his opinions. “I know I, and many of my blogger friends, are being regularly monitored,” writes Hisham. “My only protection is the anonymity that I try to preserve…this is the price we know we have to pay to keep up blogging freely.”

Others, such as Nachit Mohssine, take a much more conservative approach to this issue. Although he does not believe that what the people arrested did was wrong, he believes that “there are some red lines we should not transgress.” These lines, whether one agrees with them or not, are part of the system. Mohssine sees the monarchy moving towards a “more modern institution” than it had been in the past, seeing as all people arresting based on internet posts were pardoned by the king, but certain red lines have not yet been erased.

So where does this leave the bloggers and internet users of Morocco? According to well-known blogger Farah Kinani9,

“It’s now evident that Morocco is taking seriously its bloggers. After the Jankari scandal, the Moroccan media is stressing the growing number of the blogs in the country. And while some of them tend to not give credit to what they call a perishable phenomenon, most of the Moroccan journalists applaud the emerging of the blogs as another form of journalism in a country avid of more forms of expression.”

As more and more Moroccans turn to the internet to express themselves, it is important the impact this new form of expression is having on the people as a whole. Even with arrests and monitoring by the government, people still find a way to sign on, meet new people, and transgress the social, political, and religious divides to learn about the globalizing world. We, as Americans, cannot expect Morocco to change in a day. The change will be gradual, but as Adel said, “it is changing.”

 

“We need to keep our roots and develop our wings,” Mohssine stated, because “when we express ourselves, society is able to move ahead.”

 

1 – Boussaken, Adel. Administrator of “Maroc-blogs.com”. Online interview.

2 – Hisham. Moroccan blogger referred by Jillian York. Refused permission to publish last name to protect anonymity. <https://almiraatblog.wordpress.com/&gt;. Online interview.

3 – United Nations Economic Committee for Africa, Morocco: Internet Connectivity. <http://www.uneca.org/aisi/nici/country_profiles/Morocco/morocinter.htm.&gt;.

4 – according to cybercafes.com database and personal experience.

5 – as of February 2009, according to international exchange rates

6 – Mohssine, Nachit. Professor at the University Moulay Ismail. In person interview.

7 – Umm Omar, Tara. quoted by in the Saudi Gazzet by Affifa Jabeen in the article “A Gender

Divide?”. <http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&content

ID=2008103120726>.

8 – York, Jillian C. Blogger on Global Voices Online and project coordinator for OpenNet Initiative. <http://jilliancyork.com/&gt;. Online interview.

9 – Kinani, Farah. Blogger with Global Voices Online. “Moroccan bloggers gain in popularity and reduce the predominance of French blogs.” November 5, 2006.

http://globalvoicesonline.org/2006/11/05/moroccan-bloggers-gain-in-popularity-and-reduce-the-predominance-of-french-blogs/

 

 

Published with the kind permission of the author whom I thank for her insightful work.

Picture courtesy of Ollografik

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3 thoughts on “The Virtual Veil

  1. Pingback: >Male And Female Blogging « Future Husbands And Wives Of Saudis (FHWS)

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