As Morocco prepares to try the teenagers responsible for sparking the “#FreeBoussa” (Free Kiss) campaign, Saudi Arabia is making headlines for cracking down on men offering Free Hugs on the streets of Riyadh. The cases draw attention to rigid morality policing in the autocratic states — which fall on opposite ends of the spectrum of morality code enforcement within the Arab World (with Morocco known for its supposed moderation on social issues and Saudi Arabia for its extreme conservatism). Despite the superficial differences between the social codes of the two countries, the uniform response to perceived subversive activity by authorities in both should serve as a reminder of the underlying politically repressive apparatus behind these incidents — something which should also challenge the prevailing focus on public morality.
An understandable outcry broke out back in October after teenagers in Morocco’s northern city of Nador were arrested for posting a photo of themselves kissing on Facebook. The public indecency charges leveled against the teens were seen by many as outrageous and excessive and the story quickly went viral, eventually sparking a solidarity campaign known as #FreeBoussa. The “kiss-ins” that emerged from this campaign — which saw couples in Morocco’s capital city flouting social taboos with public displays of affection — generated serious media attention, as intended. Intended as well, it seems hard to argue, was the backlash by social conservatives, which helps to generate sympathy in more socially liberal nations around the world. As in the Saudi “Free Hug” case where the men offering hugs were detained for “violating local laws” and “engaging in exotic practices,” the sense that these challenges to morality codes are foreign encroachments on local culture only adds fuel to that fire. That the first #FreeBoussa kiss-in took place not in Morocco but Paris did not help dispel this notion.
In the aftermath of the Saudi arrest on Thursday, there are already indications that others are planning to jump on the “Free Hug” bandwagon in protest against the authorities’ response. Even if a Saudi Free Hug campaign does not take off like #FreeBoussa, it is worth noting that the style of these viral-ready campaigns lends itself to keeping the issue focused on the acts themselves — rather than the underlying limitations on individual freedoms. Which is precisely the problem: by keeping the discussion focused on the retail aspects, so to speak, of political repression (and the global sympathy that gathers against campaigns to end public makeout sessions and free hug extravaganzas), activists are throwing softballs to the autocrats, who are now in positions to make very minor concessions on these particular incidents without giving up any real ground on the repressive apparatus that enables this kind of policing. The Saudi government, which has been fairly successful in funneling criticisms against its strict moral code towards the Morality Police and clerical class, has already demonstrated its skills at deflecting issues like these. And in the likely event that the case against the Nador teens is dismissed, it will only be a superficial victory — King Mohammed VI’s promised judicial reforms are no closer to fruition and, with egregious violations against free expression (like the case against journalist Ali Anouzla) still underway, activists have given authorities a very easy out here. Which means activists should be choosing their battles more wisely. Along with their methods.