A Moroccan Cop’s Battle Against Sexual Harassment — Including Her Own

How #MeToo has been weaponized in the Maghreb

A Moroccan Cop’s Battle Against Sexual Harassment — Including Her Own
Moroccans chant slogans in Casablanca on August 23, 2017, during a protest against sexual harassment following the sexual assault of a woman on a bus/ Stringer/ AFP via Getty Images

In 2003, a young and ambitious Moroccan woman, Ouahiba Khourchech, became a police officer in El Jadida, where she steadily rose through the ranks to lead the region’s division in charge of violence against women in 2009.

On any given day, Khourchech would be handling cases spanning from women enduring domestic abuse to sex workers who had survived physical assault. But in 2014, Khourchech’s new boss, regional security chief Aziz Boumehdi, began singling her out in the workplace, slowly escalating his behavior toward her, including stalking. By 2016, Khourchech was left with no other choice but to file a sexual harassment complaint against Boumehdi.

Instead of being reprimanded, Boumehdi was promoted thanks to his brother-in-law – the director of Morocco’s national police force and intelligence agency, Abdellatif Hammouchi. Khourchech, on the other hand, was forced to relocate to the region of Benguerir before eventually having her salary frozen and placed under a travel ban – an all-too-common reality in Morocco where it is the victims, not abusers, who are punished.

For months, Khourchech, her daughter and husband – both U.S. citizens – faced Moroccan state surveillance, harassment, and threats, eventually forcing Khourchech to flee Morocco by seeking asylum in Spain. When her flight touched down in San Francisco in August 2020, Ouahiba Khourchech breathed her first sigh of relief after nearly six years.

“I did whatever I could to help these women,” recounts Khourchech, who at times transgressed professional boundaries to temporarily house victims and survivors.

It is early September 2020. We are sitting in the living room of her Bay Area apartment, where she now lives with her daughter and husband. We are surrounded with troves of legal and medical documents scattered across the floor and piled on the table. Her meticulous record-keeping is that of someone with a long experience of dealing with Moroccan bureaucracy – a welcome sight for a journalist-turned-historian like myself. Khourchech’s ordeal offers just a minor glimpse into the broader struggle of women’s rights in Morocco and the ongoing weaponization of the #MeToo movement, forcing Moroccan women, spanning from officers to journalists, out of their country.

“I consistently received positive reviews in my annual performance reports,” she says as she retrieves a slightly worn out document showing her very first performance report from 2003, and then others from subsequent years up until her very last as an officer in 2019.

More than a decade after Khourchech joined the police, in April 2014, a security shuffle meant a new boss for Khourchech and her colleagues: Boumehdi. As head of regional security in the province of El Jadida, Boumehdi held one of many high-level security posts nominally under the Ministry of Interior but which are formally appointed by the king, to highlight their importance.

Prior to his arrival in El Jadida, Boumehdi boasted an illustrious career after graduating from the Royal Police Institute in Kenitra in 1993, having served in high security positions in Rabat and, later, Fes. Boumehdi, whose uncle serves as a high-ranking army general, became related to his boss, Hammouchi, through marriage.

Upon Boumehdi’s arrival in El Jadida, Khourchech’s day-to-day experience began to change.

“He enforced a rule that women couldn’t wear the jellaba [traditional Moroccan dress] on Fridays, but he didn’t disapprove when I would wear it,” Khourchech remembers.

Because her husband lives in California, she would frequently use her time off to come to the United States, where she is currently a permanent resident. “He would refer to me as the ‘American officer,’” she recalls. Suspecting that he knew her husband lived thousands of miles away, Khourchech details Boumehdi’s steadily escalating behavior.

“I noticed he would park his car near my home, watching my every move,” she says as she fetches a signed and notarized witness statement from one of the neighborhood guards corroborating her observations.

After nearly two years of what Khourchech describes as mounting sexual harassment, she filed a workplace complaint that became a full-blown legal case. “The legal route was truly my last option,” she explains. “I knew it was going to be an uphill battle due to his high-ranking status and because of the lack of a truly independent judiciary.”

Although Khourchech had been calm, collected, and composed, her hands start to slightly tremble. She briefly pauses and takes a deep sigh before continuing her account. With the insight of someone familiar with the inner workings of legal and security proceedings in Morocco, Khourchech hired former member of Parliament and minister of human rights Mohammed Ziane as her lawyer. At the time, Ziane was one of several lawyers defending leaders of the Hirak popular protest movement, some of whom are now serving jail sentences of up to 20 years.

“During the height of my case, Mr. Ziane was also defending Taoufik Bouachrine,” publisher of an independent newspaper known for criticizing the regime, Khourchech notes. She was aware of Ziane’s high-profile stature as one of a handful of Moroccan lawyers known to take on challenging legal cases involving human rights.

Khourchech’s decision to hire Ziane, a notable adversary of the Moroccan security apparatus, became a pivotal moment in her case. On the one hand, it signaled that she was bound and determined to seek justice; on the other hand, it solicited the regime’s mounting ire at a time when Ziane’s clients were drawing the attention of international human rights organizations and media outlets.

Beginning in October 2018, her husband started receiving phone calls from an unfamiliar Moroccan phone number. On the other end was the voice of a woman who, in separate calls, revealed she had intimate knowledge of his personal life and explicitly told him to get his wife to drop her case and her lawyer. Later, he received a call from a U.S. number with a New York area code suggesting that his daughter was at risk of being kidnapped in Morocco.

While Khourchech spent her New Year’s holiday in California with her husband and daughter in January 2019, her husband received a series of text messages containing images of Khourchech and her daughter taken with a hidden device in a private setting. “It was not just one person behind these communications,” reflects Khourchech. “It was an entire state institution.”

Not only was it a state institution, it was one that she devoted years of her life to serving and that prohibits its officers from unionizing, voting, or running for office. It is also an institution whose leadership is highly centralized and consolidated under one person: Hammouchi, Boumehdi’s brother-in-law.

Since 2005, Hammouchi had been serving as head of Morocco’s intelligence agency, the General Directorate for Territorial Surveillance. By 2015, King Mohammed VI had also appointed him as director of the country’s police force, the General Directorate for National Security.

Hammouchi’s ascent as Morocco’s senior security chief has not been without contention. He faced several allegations of torture that prompted a diplomatic row between Morocco and France in 2014-2015.

While Khourchech’s husband and daughter were facing harassment and surveillance stemming from her sexual harassment complaint against Boumehdi, the high-profile case against another of her attorney’s clients, Bouachrine, was unfolding. Bouachrine was a columnist and publisher of Akhbar al-Yaoum, and his case was the first of a series of cases against journalists with Akhbar al-Yaoum, one of the last remaining independent publications in Morocco known for coverage and op-eds critical of the Moroccan state. After his arrest on Feb. 23, 2018, Bouachrine was sentenced on Nov. 9, 2018 to 12 years in jail over charges that included sexual assault, rape, and human trafficking. An appeals court lengthened Bouachrine’s jail sentence to 15 years in October 2019.

“While the state was appearing to be concerned with victims of sexual assault, I was worried for my life and that of my family,” says Khourchech, who pulled out several medical documents detailing her hospitalization in February 2019 over what doctors diagnosed as “hysteria.”

In her workplace, Khourchech endured administrative pressure that professionally and socially isolated her from her colleagues, culminating into her being relocated to another region before she was placed under a travel ban and had her salary frozen. Despite the seemingly insurmountable odds, Khourchech and her daughter managed to flee Morocco, receiving asylum in Spain before arriving in the United States.

As they waited for their asylum request to be processed in Spain, Boumehdi held a ceremony in El Jadida to honor women in the police force in commemoration of International Women’s Day.

As of November 2020, Khourchech’s sexual harassment complaint is under appeal. Following the harassment and surveillance of her husband and daughter, Khourchech filed a separate legal complaint in 2019, which remains “under study” with no formal charges. As Khourchech rebuilds her life in Northern California, Boumehdi has been promoted and praised for his work.

Khourchech has resigned herself to the idea that she will never be able to return to Morocco. In that resignation, she feels the same heavy-heartedness that a growing number of Moroccans have been forced to accept in recent years.

Khourchech’s ordeal is far from unusual, but it highlights the Moroccan state’s troubling and deeply flawed treatment of sexual assault allegations. Though headlines in the loyalist press would indicate that Morocco is making huge strides in holding sexual predators to account, the government has weaponized the country’s #MeToo movement to silence critics and opponents, sometimes lethally.

When a woman came forward in February 2017 alleging that Salim Cheikh, director of Morocco’s public channel 2M, had sexually assaulted her, her identity was leaked to Moroccan media and reports circulated that she was facing charges of defamation. When a French-Moroccan woman filed a complaint that pop star Saad Lamjarred had raped her in Casablanca in 2015, her case was dismissed. In March 2012, when Amina Filali, a 16-year-old girl, managed to bring a case against her rapist to court, the judge ruled that she marry him; she drank rat poison and died a few days later.

Journalist Soulaiman Raissouni – also an employee of Akhbar al-Yaoum – is in detention awaiting official charges over rape allegations following his arrest on May 29. Raissouni’s jail cell in Casablanca Oukacha’s prison neighbors that of independent journalist Omar Radi, who was subjected to extensive government surveillance and accused of collaborating with foreign intelligence agencies, then accused of rape and arrested in July.

The bigger picture shows that politics and power have tainted the way the Moroccan state selectively treats cases of sexual violence. Amid one of several rape-related cases that Lamjarred has faced during his musical career, in November 2016, King Mohammed VI announced that he was taking charge of the pop star’s legal fees and that Lamjarred would be represented by the king’s lawyer and current French minister of justice Eric Dupond Morreti. In one of the gravest public cases, the Moroccan state itself was complicit in the sexual violation of journalist Hajar Raissouni, also a former journalist with Akhbar al-Yaoum: When she was arrested in October 2019 over allegations that she had an abortion and extramarital sex, Moroccan authorities forced her to undergo a medical exam against her will to determine whether she had an abortion.

While building its cases against journalists like Bouachrine and Soulaiman Raissouni, the Moroccan state forced at least one woman to falsely testify that she was raped or created false testimony by forging the transcript of a statement she gave to police investigators. When Bouachrine’s colleague at Akhbar al-Yaoum, Afaf Bernani, was summoned to appear before the police, she asserted that she had no qualms with Bouachrine. She was surprised later when she found out that her statement was falsified and now claimed the journalist had raped her.

When she publicly protested and announced her willingness to sue the authorities for forgery, Bernani ended up being charged herself with defaming the police and was sentenced to six months in prison following a months-long campaign of harassment and defamation on pro-government media. She eventually fled to Tunisia, and recounted her ordeal in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Other women who refused to testify in Bouachrine’s case were threatened with the release of private video footage, as well as relentlessly defamed on websites with close ties to the security services. In Soulaiman Raissouni’s case, at least one Moroccan woman publicly came forward to deny allegations that he had raped her and to protest pressure she claimed to have endured with the aim of getting her to press charges against him.

These cases offer a brief glimpse into how the Moroccan state has sought to co-opt the #MeToo slogan to silence critics, conscripting women and their bodies onto the front lines of its battle against dissent.

In late October 2020, Khourchech and I joined 20 other Moroccan women in signing a statement by feminist collective Khmissa, which calls for effective mechanisms to deal with cases of sexual violence and the end of the instrumentalization of women’s bodies in political cases. Others who have signed Khmissa’s statement include the journalists Bernani, from her Tunisian exile, and Hajar Raissouni, who has also left Morocco to live in Sudan with her husband.

For the Moroccan state, not all sexual assault allegations are treated equally. Pop stars receive royal support for their legal funds and well-connected security officials are promoted, while critical journalists are swiftly detained, charged, and jailed — to say nothing of the daily cases that never make it to headlines. Instead of meting out justice for victims of sexual assault, the state is using the #MeToo movement as a weapon against its critics.

In a society where sexual violence, victim-blaming, and rape culture remain rampant, it is the victims and survivors who ultimately bear the cost when politics and power become the measure for determining whether or not allegations become convictions.

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