Moroccan 'revenge porn' victims smash taboos by speaking out
By Sophie Davies
BARCELONA, July 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A social media campaign started by three Moroccan friends has emboldened hundreds of "revenge porn" victims to share their experiences, raising awareness about online abuse and challenging taboos.
The Diha F'Rassek movement - meaning 'Mind Your Own Business' - was launched to fight back against dozens of "revenge porn" accounts that appeared online during the country's coronavirus lockdown, said co-founder Sophia Zerh, 26.
"We started to receive messages that were really shocking, for instance girls starting to think about suicide," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that the campaign has drawn 15,000 followers in less than two months.
More importantly, Zerh said, about 300 women and girls have contacted the campaign group about the abuse they suffered.
Some agreed to have their testimonies posted anonymously on the group's Instagram page, which Zerh said could help other potential victims spot danger signs and challenge taboos about gender relations in the socially conservative country.
Fearing relatives could find out, many victims are too scared to speak out or seek help, she said:
"Even if a girl didn't share any nude pictures, she's super afraid of her family just hearing about something. It's really hard to convince them to go to the police."
"Women in Morocco are easy targets, with Arab culture - not everyone is lucky enough to have an open-minded family."
SCARED AND ASHAMED
In other countries too, women's rights activists have reported a rise in online posts of intimate images of women and girls, usually by abusive partners or ex-partners, during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Online abuse has become a common feature of domestic abuse in Morocco, which criminalised all forms of violence against women in 2018.
But despite the two-year-old law, campaigners say domestic abuse victims face numerous hurdles in securing convictions against their abusers.
A government survey last year showed 54.5% of Moroccan women have been subjected to violence, but only 6.6% have brought their case before justice.
When victims get in touch with Diha F'Rassek, which is supported by a volunteer network, they receive help to report the abuse or are put in touch with free legal and counselling services.
Others simply want to talk.
"Sometimes people just need someone to talk to because they are too ashamed to talk to family or friends, but feel freer to talk to us," Zerh said.
Some victims are so scared they create fake social media accounts to get in touch, she added.
'EVERYBODY WAS MOCKING ME'
Their stories can be harrowing.
"I loved him a lot and I was ready to do anything so he stayed with me," wrote one victim.
"He wanted me to send him some nudes. I hesitated many times but when he said he was going to leave me, I did it but wearing underwear," the unnamed 17-year-old posted on May 28.
"The following day, at school, everybody was mocking me and calling me a slut... That same evening, I talked to him about how he'd treated me. He said that in this life there are lots of sluts, that he knew I was one and that's why he dealt me this blow," she said.
"The harassment followed – even by my own friends. I cried and suffered every day and wanted to end my life," she said.
While many "revenge porn" victims are targeted by vengeful former partners, Zerh said it was also common for them to be singled out by strangers who hack their social media accounts to steal photos and other personal information.
In such cases, the perpetrators typically use an ordinary photo of a victim and post it alongside pornographic photos sourced elsewhere, including contact details and urging others to harass her.
A finance manager by day, Zerh and her fellow co-founders, who work in management and marketing, felt compelled to raise awareness about abuses that are often swept under the carpet.
"I'm able to wear what I want, I'm able to talk, I grew up with an open-minded spirit. A lot of women are not as lucky... so I thought I should do something about it," she said.
The three friends' initiative has caused a backlash, drawing criticism from some conservative Moroccans, Zehr said.
"But that means it's working - we're making a difference in making people talk."
(Reporting by Sophie Davies @sophiedaviesed; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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