By: SUSAN SKAZA
RABAT, Morocco – Zineb Belmkaddem, 29, cynically credits the government for her newest job as an English teacher at Euromediterranean University of Fez, a recently established university in Morocco.
“I know the government has something to do with this job,” she said. “They want me off the street. I mean, off everything. My boss told me.”
Due to her outspoken criticism of the local regime, Belmkaddem says the government is trying to restrain her by keeping her busy at the university. In a country where freedom of expression is limited, this Muslim feminist is one of the last prominent human rights activists left in Morocco. Standing up for human and digital rights, she is constantly pitting herself against corruption.
On February 20, 2011, Moroccans took their first steps toward demanding greater freedom. In a push for democracy, thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand a regime change. In an effort to maintain order, the King agreed to draft a new constitution. This new constitution promised more rights and liberties to the people. But, in reality, not much has changed.
In her April 2013 interview with France24 Belmkaddem called these developments “cosmetic” and said, “There have been no steps made toward democracy.”
Nearly a year later, she stands by these words. Although she says a revolution in Morocco would “wreak havoc” and should not be attempted, she doesn’t see any other viable options left to effect real change.
“I am convinced now that there is nothing we can do without a civil war,” Belmkaddem said.
Beyond her involvement with the February 20 movement, she has also been involved in a number of other projects, including a child psychology project, a digital rights summit with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and a crisis intervention translation service for Sub Saharan migrants with Doctors Without Borders.
Belmkaddem realizes her diverse efforts may seem scattered, but said, “It’s really just dealing with different fronts of the same battle.”
For her, all of these causes are united under a single banner: human rights.
Her favorite project, Belmkaddem said, was the child psychology project. As a country coordinator liaison for the project, she helped set up the first child psychiatry unit in Rabat. Working with licensed therapists during the project, she developed a greater sense of compassion and understanding that completely changed the way she looked at the world.
She reflected on the situation as she pulled over to the side of the road to help a young beggar. The girl was crying, asking for money for her sick brother.
“Most of the time it’s just so easy to be like ‘No, they’re liars,’” Belmkaddem said. “When you have a psychological kind of approach you can never do that. You don’t start by dismissing and saying, ‘No, they’re liars.’”
The experience Belmkaddem received through the child psychology project also helped her when she worked with Doctors Without Borders as a crisis intervention translator for Sub Saharan migrants.
She Recalled stories of rape and other abuses suffered by Sub Saharan migrants that she had to translate.
“The first time was the hardest. But later, I realized that the best way I could help those women was by being professional,” Belmkaddem said, emphasizing the importance of conveying contextual meanings as a translator. “But it’s very hard to translate and not have the words hit you, the meanings hit you.”
Most recently, Belmkaddem challenged her government by helping crowd source a document for Code Numérique, a draft bill in Morocco that has the potential to limit freedom of expression on the Internet. After the public outcry regarding this bill, Belmkaddem and her colleagues thought it would be a good way to give concerned citizens a chance to productively voice their opinions.
Belmkaddem attributes her independent attitude to her childhood, particularly her father.
“He would always say, ‘My daughters’ place is not in the kitchen,’ and that really stuck with me,” Belmkaddem said, admitting that she hates to cook.
Her father died when she was 15 and she says she was essentially on her own by 16.
But she wasn’t always the fierce feminist we see today. Her strength of character developed, in part, from a darker portion of her life. After moving to America at age 19 to live with her husband, she soon became pregnant. It was at this time that the domestic abuse started. Her husband, she explained, was abandoned by his mother at an early age and Belmkaddem’s pregnancy reminded him of it. Eventually, she could put up with it no longer and, in 2006, the two divorced.
Still, Belmkaddem is able to say, “I love love. I’m always open to love. I have no regrets about that marriage.”
It was her daughter, she says, that got her through it all. Her daughter and her faith.
Having experienced such a trying and brutal marriage, to the point where she had to be hospitalized, Belmkaddem is able to empathize with other mothers who fear bringing an innocent child into this unjust world.
“I understand now – and I know this is a horrible thing to say – but I understand the mothers that kill their children,” she said, confessing she once considered it herself. “I thought, ‘[My daughter] doesn’t deserve to come into this.’
But her belief in God, she said, helped her realize things can get better.
Although very spiritual, Belmkaddem is able to criticize her religion as well as her government, both of which are taboo subjects in Morocco.
“We’re finally at the generation that realizes that…man’s laws are shit and God’s laws are shit,” Belmkaddem said.
Due to her open criticism of the government and activism, Belmkaddem has run into danger on a number of occasions. She shared one story about a time when she was in a car chase for taking videos of police trying to run over some protestors.
“Oh, it was awful. I took the risk. I was going into very narrow streets,” she said. “Narrow streets are interesting because you can lose them. But if they found you, you are dead.”
She is constantly moving – around the world, from one project to the next, even during an interview. Zineb Belmkaddem hates when things begin to feel stagnant.
A woman with an active mind, Belmkaddem desires to explore how everything is connected in life and said, “Moving allows me to work and discover more.”
“I’m fighting it,” Belmkaddem said, referring to her urge to move. “Since 2005, I’ve been moving every six months.”
She admits that if it wasn’t for her daughter she could pick up everything and move tomorrow.