“What you have to realize is that protesting in Morocco can be difficult for anyone, but raising your voice as a woman is far more difficult.”
Amsterdam – Leaving the lonely confinements of the Dutch asylum center, Nawal Benaissa visited Amsterdam last weekend to talk about her experience as one of the most prominent faces of the Hirak-movement, which mobilized after the tragic death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in 2016. Benaissa and her youngest son fled the Rif aboard a ferry to Spain and were allowed asylum by the Dutch government last month.
At ‘De Balie’, a well-known Amsterdam-based center where people are provided with a platform to raise their voice, Benaissa opened the evening. “Thank you all for coming! Before we begin I would like to express my solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Rif who have been imprisoned and continue with their hunger strike as we speak. We have not forgotten you.”
“It is a very strange feeling having to flee your home and hearth. On the one hand, there is a sense of relief and gratitude, since I and my youngest son are right now living in safety. On the other hand, I had to leave my friends and family behind who are still in Morocco. Life in the asylum center can be tough. There is very little privacy and other asylum seekers do not understand why I left Morocco on account of my provisionary sentencing of ten months.”
After the imprisonment of Nasser Zefzafi, who took to the streets after the death of Mouhcine Fikri and spearheaded the Hirak movement until his imprisonment in 2018, a void presented itself. Who did the people in the Rif look to, to fight for their demands of social services such as schools, hospitals, and infrastructure?
“Within the media, there is an understandable tendency to describe me as a leader of the Hirak-movement, but to be completely frank with you, I don’t really regard myself as a leader, nor did I seek to embrace the role. In the beginning, I actually did not address political issues all that much. But, I have always had a strong moral urge to speak against injustice.”
Though initially overwhelmed by all the attention of the press and rather hesitant to provide any interviews to inquisitive journalists, Benaissa agreed to speak with me after the debate.
“After the death of Fikri, something changed within me,” she said.
“What you have to realize is that protesting in Morocco can be difficult for anyone, but raising your voice as a woman is far more difficult. I am not just talking about coming face to face with the police, but I have had to face up to my own parents who did not support me in my struggle because they felt it is unseemly for a woman to speak out like I do.”
Raising your voice as a woman
“Within the Rif, it is exceedingly difficult for women to leave their homes and move to another city in order to get a proper education. Illiteracy is far from a marginal phenomenon within the Rif, caused by a lack of education and exacerbates the lack of awareness among people within the region to raise their voice and bring about change. These are enraging conditions we have to put up with as women,” Benaissa said to the captivated audience.
“I am not just looking to the Moroccan government for this, but I will remind Spain and France of their history and shared responsibility in the region. Friends of mine have died because of cancer and did not receive the proper treatment they needed. The chemical weapons that were used by both Spain and France after their defeat during the Battle of Annual in 1921, left a legacy of the highest cancer rate in all of Morocco.”
“As men, it is possible to address these injustices, but people are not used to seeing women taking such an active stance. Yet it is my belief, that in the end, women push the wheels of change.”
Benaissa’s successful asylum application to the Netherlands comes at a time when the diplomatic relationship between Morocco and the Netherlands has taken a frigid turn.
Exactly one month before Benaissa was granted political asylum in the Netherlands, two socialist members of the Dutch parliament visited the parents of Nasser Zefzafi in Al Hoceima. Shortly thereafter they published a report about the state of the Rif, urging for the release of Hirak prisoners.
“This is absolutely unacceptable. Morocco is a sovereign country and we do not accept any interference of any party in its internal affairs,” spokesperson of the Moroccan government, Hassan Abyaba said in response to the publication of the report.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nasser Bourita added: “This is not a diplomatic question, and cannot be subject to a diplomatic discussion; it is an internal affair and under no circumstances can it be dealt with through discussions.”
A just cause
The national council compiled the report between November 2019 and March 2020 after interviewing several families and stakeholders around Al Hoceima, detailing the transition of the Hirak from peaceful protests in the beginning to another stage marked by the use of violence.
The report was met with criticism within the region. Ahmed Al-Zefzafi, the father of Nasser Zefzafi, criticized the CDNH report and Khaled al-Bakkari, a human rights activist, decried the report as “unprofessional,” as reported by Hespress.
Where is papa?
No longer able to actively participate in the Hirak movement, but forced to look from afar, I asked her the concluding question: Would you ever consider going back to Morocco one day?
“Sometimes my son wakes up in the middle of the night and asks me ‘where is papa?’ It is moments like these in which I wonder, ‘what have I done?’ “But in the end, our cause is just and worth fighting for. Perhaps I will return one day to Morocco, but I do not think that will be any time soon”.