"Violence against women is a social phenomenon, not a series of random cases" - Laila Slassi, co-founder of Masaktach - Morocco (1/4)

Laila Slassi. Photo credit : Afrique Advisors

Laila Slassi. Photo credit : Afrique Advisors

A few days after I moved to Casablanca, I decided to take a walk on my own and explore the city centre. Within ten minutes, I had had my butt grabbed, been called a “pretty Black chick” , and been followed by a guy who didn’t like me ignoring his catcalling. I turned around and since then, I don’t go anywhere without my car.

So, you can guess how excited I was to hear about Masaktach, a group of women and men who campaign against street harassment and sexual violence on social media. I didn’t know what to expect when I reached out to co-founder Laila Slassi, but I am glad I did. We had a fascinating conversation, which I’m delighted to share with you.

Laila told me that she created Masaktach out of outrage after the media blamed a young sexual violence survivor for the ordeal she’d endured (part 1, below). We talked about Masaktach’s most successful campaign to date one that involved colorful whistles (part 2). Laila analyzed the ingredients of Masaktach’s successes, sharing inspiring advice for activists around Africa and the world (part 3). Finally, Laila told me what she thought of the way the Moroccan society viewed women – and she did not mince her words (part 4).

Hi, Laila! Can you please tell me a bit about yourself?

My name is Laila Sassi, I’m 34 years old and I’m a lawyer. I came back to Morocco three years ago to set up my law firm here, after practicing in Paris for several years. I specialize in business law and tax law – a far cry from my dreams to become a human rights lawyer!

Three months ago, I co-founded Masaktach. It is a collective of twelve Moroccan men and women who use social media to fight violence against women and raise awareness about rape culture in our country. In darija, our local language, Masaktach means “I won’t stay silent”.

Why did you decide to start this movement?

It all started when I heard about Khadija’s case [Note: Khadija is a Moroccan teenage girl who filed a lawsuit against 12 men for kidnapping, gang-raping and forcibly tattooing her over a period of two months]. I got really upset after I read an article about her ordeal. The following day my friend Maria and I got in a car and we took a four-hour drive down to Khadija’s village. All we wanted was to tell her, "Girl, we're here for you."

At first, the media covered Khadija’s case in a supportive way. Then a fake news article came out, calling Khadija a liar and saying that she’d had the tattoos for a long time. Suddenly every media outlet engaged in clickbait journalism. They published dozens of senseless articles every day. Even the “serious” media outlets didn’t resist the temptation to be sensationalist.

Maria and I got on social media and we tried to argue some sense into this whole debate. We were calling journalists out for their lack of professionalism. Two other friends joined the team but we soon realized that the problem was bigger than Khadija’s case. There’s a real issue with how this society treats women. There’s a real taboo around rape. Whenever a woman dares to speak out, people will do anything to shame her into silence. The decision to start Masaktach was rooted in that realization. We wanted to make women’s voices heard and to raise awareness.

“There’s a real taboo around rape. Whenever a woman dares to speak out, people will do anything to shame her into silence.”

How does Masaktach go about bringing change?

We raise awareness through social media campaigns. We come together as a group and agree on a topic and on the specific change we want to see. Then we pick our moment and we all start tweeting simultaneously.

Our first campaign was about calling out the press for how complacent they were with Saad Lamjarred, a popular musician who’d been accused of rape by several women. There’s an ongoing case against him in France, and we’ve heard of cases in Tunisia and the US. Here in Morocco, there’s no ongoing legal case but several women have told us in person that he subjected them to sexual violence. 

So, here was a man with a shady past, and whose music was still hitting the airwaves like nothing ever happened. Many stars supported him when the rape case was brought forward; the king even offered to pay for his legal fees. The man was untouchable, so we thought, let’s bring him down! (She laughs)

We picked the day of his custody hearing in France and we coordinated our messages. We were simply asking for local radio stations to stop playing Lamjarred’s music. All twelve of us started tweeting at the same time, and it caught the eye of Moroccan journalists, activists and citizens online. We first heard the good news that the hearing led to him being incarcerated. Soon after that, several radio stations announced that they had decided to stop broadcasting his music.

How did that make you feel?

It felt like victory! A group of just twelve people spending three or four hours on Twitter, that’s all it took for us to silence him for good. It gave us wings: we’d done that, now we could do everything. That’s how things started.

What happened next?

We launched our second campaign after the news broke that a young law student from Meknes had been murdered for saying no to a guy who wanted to marry her. She said no because she wanted to graduate and become a judge, not get married right away. And for that he stabbed her twenty times and she died.

We highlighted this case to open a discussion about consent. We started the #machi_b_sif hashtag. It is an expression in darija which literally means "not with a dagger", and figuratively, "not under duress". We also called out the media for covering such cases as minor news stories. We had to make journalists understand that violence against women is a social phenomenon, not a series of random events.

Head over to the second part of this interview, where Laila tells me about the campaign that has made Masaktach famous in Morocco and abroad: whistles against street harassment! Interested? Click here.