MOROCCO: New magazine braves risks to give voice to Arab homosexuals
Mithly means "the same as me" in Arabic; it is also a respectful way to refer to homosexuals. It is a word that the people behind Mithly magazine would like to see replace the more common "shazz," meaning pervert or deviant in Arabic, or "zemel," an expletive to describe gays in the Moroccan Berber dialect.
Mithly was launched in the Moroccan capital Rabat earlier this month. Even though the magazine has received partial funding from the European Union, it was printed clandestinely and its first 200 issues were distributed under the counter.
In Morocco, as in the rest of the Arab world, homosexuality is a criminal offense, punishable with six months to three years in jail.
"So far the reporting about homosexuals in Morocco has been the monopoly of the mainstream media, most of which describe us as perverts and a menace to society," said a journalist for Mithly who identified himself only as Mourad. "Mithly is a chance for homosexuals to give their side of the story. We wanted to give homosexuals in the Arab world a voice."
Mithly also lays claim to being the first gay magazine to serve the Arab world. Lebanon has had an online magazine for the gay community, Bekhsoos, since 2007.
After Lebanon, Morocco is probably the country most tolerant of gays in the Arab world. Still, according to Kif Kif, a Madrid-based gay rights organization founded by Moroccan Samir Bergachi and also the publisher of Mithly, some 5,000 gay men have served jail sentences in Morocco since the country's independence in 1956.
In recent years Moroccan authorities have been more relaxed about enforcing the anti-homosexuality laws, Mourad said. At the same time, homophobia has surged in the public arena, thanks to the rise of Islamist political parties.
"What worries us are the constant attacks on homosexuals by the Islamist parties and the papers that support them," Mourad said.
The newspaper Attajdid, often called the mouthpiece of Islamists, has already demanded a ban on Mithly. The same paper has been campaigning for months against a concert by gay British pop star Elton John, who is set to perform at the Mawazine festival in Rabat in May, claiming that it is part of a plot to "homosexualize" Morocco.
But the attacks on homosexuals don't come solely from Islamists. In 2007 the populist newspaper Al Massae incited a lynch mob with its incendiary reporting about an alleged gay marriage in the town of Ksar El Kebir. Although the marriage turned out to be little more than a fancy dress-up party, several of the participants were sentenced to prison.
The events at Ksar El Kebir were typical of the Moroccan authorities' attitude toward homosexuality, said Catherine Vuylsteke, a Belgian journalist and the author of a book about gays and lesbians in Morocco.
"Whenever homosexuality becomes a public issue in Morocco, whether it is an alleged gay wedding or the publication of a new gay magazine, the official response is guided by its desire to steal the limelight from the Islamists," said Vuylsteke. "After the events at Ksar El Kebir, for instance, the authorities organized raids against homosexuals in several cities."
The risk that publishing a gay magazine in Morocco might create a new backlash against homosexuals there doesn't frighten Mourad.
"The sad truth is that it is quite impossible to enter into a dialogue with the Islamists about homosexuality," he said. "So the only thing we can do is to add our own voice to the debate in the hope that we will be able to change the homophobic mentality in our country, even if we realize that such a thing is quite impossible in the near future."
-- Gert Van Langendonck in Rabat
Photo: A detail from the website of the magazine Mithly. Credit: Mithly