Morocco: ending ban on extramarital relationships divides politicians

Morocco: ending ban on extramarital relationships divides politicians
During the last few years, opposition against the outdated penal code has grown, pressuring the government to opt for urgent reform.
3 min read
04 April, 2023
"We are going through these conditions, and all you could see is consensual extramarital relations," Islamist leader Benkirane said. [Getty]

The Moroccan Minister of Justice Abdellatif Ouahbi's plans to "decriminalise" consensual relationships outside of wedlock triggered widespread controversy and divided the country's political elite, with the once-ruling Islamist majority vividly opposing the new reform.

In the first face-off between the two populist leaders, Abdelilah Benkirane, head of the moderate Islamist party of Justice and Development (PJD), lashed at Ouahbi in front of reporters, saying, "We are going through these conditions, and all you could see is consensual extramarital relations."

In response, Ouahbi bent over Benkiran and whispered in his right ear, the one next to tens of microphones, which recorded the minister saying, "Consensual is better than the beach incident."

"The beach incident" refers to a scandal dating back to August 2016, when two vice presidents of the Unity and Reform Movement Justice, the second largest religious movement in Morocco with close ties to PJD were arrested under charges of having extramarital sex in public in a car on a beach in Casablanca.

The video of the two leaders' interaction at the Mohammed V Mausoleum over the weekend went viral and re-ignited debate around the double standards of Islamisation over personal freedoms.

Under Article 490 of the Moroccan Penal Code, sexual relations outside marriage are prohibited and can be penalised with a prison sentence of one to two years. 

This law was first administered during the French protectorate in Morocco, along with the criminalisation of eating in public for Muslims during the month of Ramadan. 

After the independence, the North African kingdom maintained these laws as a large portion of the conservative population supported the pro-Islamic regulations.

However, during the last few years, several activists have voiced criticism of the outdated penal code and called for urgent reform.

Moroccan Outlaws NGO, established after jailing Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni over an alleged abortion, is one of the leading figures in this battle against Article 490.

Ghizlane Mamouni, a member of the Outlaws, says the criminalisation enforces the oppression of women and harms mainly the underprivileged class.

"According to this article, victims of abuse, rape, and human trafficking, can spend up to one year in prison if they failed to prove the abuser's crime, and the chances of failing are high since it's difficult to prove legally this type of crimes," said the lawyer.

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Meanwhile, PJD accuses the justice minister of trying to provoke "sedition" by saying that the country's penal code needs to be reformed.

In a press release in February, PJD especially took issue with what they considered Ouahbi's attempt to "stir sedition" by introducing "trends" that are against "Islamic and national constants."

In an interview with local media, the self-proclaimed progressive minister said last week that the draft text for the new penal code is "ready and can be presented to the parliament."

The current ruling coalition has 270 seats in the parliament, facing 79 seats for the opposition. However, the Islamist party has only 13 seats, with the rest divided among socialist parties which support the controversial decriminalisation.

After being the centre of a nepotism scandal, the newly promised reform has restored the popularity of the Justice Minister, who once risked losing his role in the government over accusations of manipulating bar exam results.