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Torture, oppression, censorship – all commonplace in Morocco. A forbidden student association fights against it.

In a large room with piercing neon light in the cultural centre Dar Saida in Marrakech about twenty young people sit in small groups around one flipchart each. It is Saturday afternoon and the sun is shining outside, while inside there is lively discussion about the documentary Beyond Borders on feminism in North Africa and the Middle East from 1999. “The situation of women hasn’t changed here, rather it has worsened,” Amina Terrass throws a sparkling glance at the group. The 27-year-old is chairman of the local USCE group (Union des étudiants pour le changement du système éducatif), a student association that fights for a change in the Moroccan education system and is represented in a total of eight major cities in the country. Officially, however, USCE is not a recognised organisation – they are banned by the state.

“Critical thinking is not part of Morocco’s educational plan. Instead, knowledge is dictated from above,” Amina explains later. This is why USCE organizes once a week so-called “Popular Universities” in order to offer students a hierarchy-free alternative to what is otherwise taught in the overcrowded lecture halls of the universities in the country. In workshops, everyone can contribute their knowledge and benefit from each other’s knowledge. The activities usually take place in pedestrian zones or parks. “With street philosophy we want to recapture public places that are marked by consumption, oppression and violence and transform them into places of learning,” says Amina.

Why does a group of philosophising students scare the state so much?

Because of the film screening, the event took place inside today. The organizers are happy that everything went so smoothly in the cultural center. Renting private conference rooms has proved to be extremely difficult in many cases. “It often happens that the police are in front of us at the venues and intimidate the landlords, so that we have to read everything off,” Amina reports. But even the outdoor activities often end with all those involved having to pile head over heels in front of the arriving security forces.

But why does a group of philosophising students scare the state so much? “It’s very likely because many activists from the February 20 movement belong to the group,” photographer and filmmaker Nadir Bouhmouch suspects. He means the Moroccan counterpart to the Arab Spring, under whose banner in 2011 many young people took to the streets for more democracy. The now 26-year-old filmed a documentary about the role of his generation and asked why the protest movement was so quick to settle for the constitutional reform passed by the king.

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That’s how you get the best texts now on your smartphone. Every day in the evening. “People just don’t learn to think for themselves here,” Nadir complains, adjusting the red and white Palestinian scarf that he has loosely tied around his fuzzy hair. The superficial reforms have enabled the state to maintain a democratic image that still gives international donors and corporations the feeling of investing in a stable country. But the situation of the population, especially the poorer part, has hardly changed at all. Nadir and the other USCE activists therefore continue to advocate political and social change by changing the education system from the bottom up. Among other things, by bringing topics such as feminism, social justice, environmental protection and sexual diversity to the table in the underground universities, which they miss out on much in the state universities.

“Only with knowledge can oppressed people free themselves from their situation in the long run,” Amina believes. In addition to organizing workshops, the group has therefore committed itself to the goal of denouncing the increasing privatization in the education sector. Between 1995 and 2010 alone, the number of enrolments in private schools and universities in Morocco doubled. Not least because the government creates incentives for private providers through tax breaks, as a report submitted by the USCE and 50 other NGOs to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2014 shows. “Commercialisation means that the learning conditions at state schools and universities are constantly deteriorating,” explains Nadir. This is leading to the emergence of a two-tier system that makes access to education more difficult, especially for the poorer classes.

The activists in a discussion after the film screening

Because the USCE is not a recognized organization, students cannot raise funds for their purposes. Public relations work is mainly done through social media. Since the state authorities keep an eye on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, however, they often refrain from advertising actions in advance and only post photos online afterwards. “Unfortunately, we often can’t do much more than openly address things and draw attention to grievances,” says Nadir. However, just expressing criticism of the system is already an important and courageous step with which one risks one’s own security in Morocco.

“If you ever see the sun again in your life, you can come and shit in my face,” a policeman said to Fatima. “Morocco is a safe country for tourists. For the people who live here, it is difficult. Especially for women and young people,” says philosophy student Fatima Zahra Faiz after the film screening in a secluded courtyard. She herself was arrested by the police in 2011 after a registered demonstration and held for five days together with a friend in the local police station. “They took all our clothes from us, insulted us and beat us,” recalls the 29-year-old with many cigarettes and a pot of mint tea. It was February 23. In their report, however, the officers entered the following day, when no demonstration had been allowed. For example, there was a criminal offence against the 22-year-old woman for unlawful protests. It was only after three months in prison that she was brought before a judge, who acquitted her on most charges due to lack of evidence. The only crime she could be charged with and openly admitted was distributing flyers with political messages.

Of the total detention, the five days at the police station were the worst. Water and food had hardly been given to them and certainly no opportunity to wash, Fatima remembers. “This was extremely unpleasant for my girlfriend, who also had her period during that time. They just let her bleed.” In the middle of the night they were woken up again and again by the officers and were pierced with questions. They showed her photos of her in cafés with friends months earlier. With threats like “If you ever see the sun again in your life, you can come and shit in my face,” they tried to intimidate her and get her to reveal names of like-minded people.

Fatima’s relatives were let to believe that they had been arrested for alcohol consumption and prostitution. In one of the nights the officers had forced her to lie naked on the floor. She was told to imagine that she was sleeping with her boyfriend. According to Amnesty International, such sexual humiliations and extreme psychological violence, as Fatima experienced them, are still common torture methods used in Morocco to break the resistance of political activists. Between 2010 and 2014 alone, the organization recorded 173 such cases.

During the three months Fatima spent in prison, her relatives were left in the belief that they had been arrested for alcohol consumption and prostitution. For their extremely religious and conservative parents, the shame was so great that they did not even have the courage to visit their daughter.

In prison, Fatima shared a cell with a total of 18 women. “There was nothing to do and not even blankets to sleep on,” she recalls. Therefore, she wasted her time teaching the many illiterate women among her cellmates to read and write. The prison administration didn’t like this at all and she was handcuffed to a door for an hour. “I went on anyway, because I really loved the women in prison,” says Fatima, who amazingly looks back on time without bitterness and says she is even grateful for the experience she made so much stronger. “I always try to get the positive out of everything and in the three months I have realized that women in Morocco are in prison only because of patriarchal structures”.

Although Fatima still feels observed almost seven years after her imprisonment, she continues to actively fight for the rights of women and minorities. She regularly participates in USCE actions and political demonstrations. “I have principles that I cannot let go of and I am willing to pay a price for my freedom. If necessary, even the one to end up in prison again,” she says in a firm voice, shaking her curly head.

Filmmaker Nadir also says that a lot has to change not only in the political system, but also in society. In his opinion, Morocco has to find and go its own way. The 26-year-old, who studied one semester in California, doesn’t think much of it when Western organizations want to improve things on their own and impose their ideas from above. “We are feminists, but we don’t believe that we have to copy Western concepts one to one to create an equal society,” says Nadir.