International Social Agents and Norm Diffusion: the Case of LGBTQ Rights in Morocco.

By Merouan Mekouar, York University

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “Transnational Diffusion and Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa,” held June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany

On June 2nd 2015, two French members of the feminist collective Femen organized a gay kiss-in front of a mosque located in Morocco’s capital city, Rabat. After inviting a group of local journalists, the two women removed their shirts and showed their naked torsos on which pro-gay slogans were written. For one of the two activists, the purpose of the “shock-action” was to spark a conversation on LGBTQ rights in the country by creating an “iconographic platform that would speak to people both within and outside Morocco (E., personal interview, May 3, 2016).” A month earlier, during a concert organized in the same city, the bassist of the British rock band Placebo also publicly denounced Morocco’s anti-gay legislation by displaying the crossed out number 489 (relating to the article in the Moroccan penal code criminalizing homosexuality) on his guitar. These actions follow others initiated by international artists or transnational advocacy organizations that all attempt to induce change in the LGBTQ legislation in the country by publicly denouncing Morocco’s anti-gay legislation or lobbying the government to overturn anti-gay verdicts (HRW 2007).

This essay attempts to examine the following question: can foreign social agents nourish learning (Richter and Bank 2016) and induce norm diffusion? If so, what characteristics do they need to have in order to exert an impact on the general public? Using the case of transnational advocacy networks[1] that attempt to promote and defend Western LGBTQ norms in Morocco, the first part will show that, in line with Massad (2007), actions taken by social agents deemed foreign or culturally alien are largely misread by the general public and are often counterproductive. The second part will show how international actors can actually enact norm diffusion if perceived as legitimate or culturally close by the general public.

Western Social Agents: All Gain, No Pain

While Moroccan LGBTQ activists were involved in careful work to raise awareness about LGBTQ issues (particularly the fact that sexual orientation is not a choice), Femen’s bold action sent an ambiguous signal to the intended audience and created new and largely negative associations in the minds of the Moroccan public. For Mina, a 35 year-old LGBTQ advocate in Rabat “even the folks who never heard about Femen before, suddenly learned all about them. Worse, they associated LGBTQ rights with the actions of the movement,” (Mina, personal interview, April 6, 2016). The defense of LGBTQ rights was associated with a number of negative stereotypes ranging from being anti-religious and promiscuous to being part of a large Western conspiracy aimed at breaking the social fabric of the country. For Hicham, a 30-year old gay man from Meknes:

the action taken by the Femen was a provocation (…), it was really an imposition of other people’s view and a dangerous one at that, as it could nourish more aggressive reactions from people who disagree (Hicham, personal interview, April 23, 2016).

Similarly for Ali, a young gay man:

regardless of the nature of their action, the Femen are people from the outside. Instead of seeing that they defend LGBTQ rights, people [Moroccans] only see that they are foreigners (Ali, personal interview, April 23, 2016).

For Seif-Eddine, a Moroccan gay man in Paris:

the action of the Femen put the LGBTQ question on the map. For conservatives, the message was ‘oh, they [members of the LGBTQ community] exist, so we need to get rid of them’ (personal interview, May 2, 2016).

Although members of Morocco’s LGBTQ community recognize the need for change, they knew that the general public would perceive the signal sent by foreign activists as a Western provocation. Partly because they were conducted without support from local organizations, actions taken by Western groups and personalities in favor of LGBTQ rights did lead to the opposite of the intended result. On the day following the kiss-in action in Rabat for instance, 1500 people congregated in front of the French embassy to denounce the Femen and the perceived Western support of the action. From then on for Mina, “gays were hunted everywhere (…) two guys who took selfies at the location where the Femen did their kiss-in were accused of being gay and outed on national television,” (personal interview, April 6, 2016) and were later jailed under the provision of article 489. Following the events, one magazine published a cover with the title “Should we burn the gays” before the issue was banned by the authorities (MEE 2015). A few months later, one popular online personality published a video mocking the two Femen activists watched by close to 500,000 people, the vast majority of whom condemned the action of the two women and engaged in gay-bashing. The video was published as a number of anti-gay incidents were occurring all over the country, the most publicized of which was the gruesome arrest and beating of two men arrested by their neighbors in the city of Beni-Mellal and jailed because they were allegedly engaged in same-sex activities. Actions conducted by Western activists also prompted the state to crackdown on the small spaces of relative freedom that local activists had previously been able to secure. As summarized by Seifeddine, “the state has bigger fish to fry but has to pretend that it is tackling the question,” (personal interview, May 2, 2016). Because the authorities are afraid that the more conservative fringes of society will use foreign actions as a pretext to challenge the state, the authorities feel that they have to tighten the application of the social provisions of the penal code.

Even for the more politicized members of Morocco’s LGBTQ community, actions taken by Western activists occur from a platform of privilege with which they cannot identify. Local activists know that the foreign citizenship of international activists renders them largely immune from state prosecution. As such, local activists also know that their Western counterparts are for more willing to engage in ill-conceived “shock-actions” that have little or no cost for them but might have serious consequences for the more vulnerable members of the Moroccan LGBTQ community. For one Femen activist, “the fact that we are Western women is part of the operation,” (E., personal interview, May 3, 2016). Perhaps more disturbingly, Femen activists seemed to have been aware of the consequences of their actions on the more vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community whose rights they claimed to represent. For E., “we accepted the risk that the more vulnerable are the ones who will bear the brunt of state repression (…) unfortunately; they are collateral damage.”

Diffusion through Regional Relays

If protest actions by Western advocacy groups are counterproductive (Massad 2007), could actions by other international groups or personalities with different characteristics help promote LGBTQ rights in countries like Morocco?

In line with the literature on diffusion (Lohmann 1994, Kricheli, Livne and Magaloni 2011, Mekouar 2014; 2016), for diffusion to occur, social agents must have certain characteristics – the most important of which is that they need to be perceived as generally moderate or mainstream by the general public. The closer social agents are to the political or social equilibrium of the population, the more impact their message has with the general population.

Thus, recent actions taken by prominent regional figures in North Africa and the Middle East might have more resonance with the public and might foster a new dynamic around LGBTQ rights in the region. One case in point is a statement by Salman al-Ouda, a respected senior Saudi cleric, generally thought to be conservative who declared[2] to a Swedish newspaper that:

even though homosexuality is considered a sin in all the Semitic holy books, it does not require any punishment in this world (…) Homosexuality is a grave sin, but those who say that homosexuals deviate from Islam are the real deviators (MEE 2016).

Another respected public figure who came strongly in favor of LGBTQ rights is former Tunisian Prime Minister Rached Ghannouchi, the head of Tunsia’s Islamic Party Ennahda, who called to decriminalize homosexual relations and protect LGBTQs. The statement followed other similar statements made by members of the Muslim Brotherhood exiled in the UK (Alyomnew 2015).

While it is difficult to assess the impact of these statements, it remains clear that they have the ability to trigger a conversation, as their authors cannot be automatically dismissed as foreign agents.[3] Similarly for one interviewee, actions by respected local actors might change things in the future:

there are no respected, admired gay personalities who are open about their sexuality. There are no Arab or Muslim role-models that members of the Moroccan LGBTQ community can identify with. We see Americans, Europeans, Latin Americans, but no Arabs (personal interview, May 2, 2016).


According to a Femen activist interviewed for this work, “the Femen wanted to be there because local actors could not,” (Gala, personal interview, May 3, 2016). However, foreign social agents cannot replace local ones. Because Western activists seldom have to bear the consequences of their actions, local activists and sympathizers have difficulty relating to the message put forward by these actors who gain all the “prestige” related to these actions but bear none of the costs. In some cases, international “resistance” may even reproduce and nourish new forms of state oppression (Massad 2007) by forcing the state to crack down on the small spaces of relative freedom that local LGBTQ communities have carved for themselves. However, transnational advocacy might work for diffusion as long it is carried by local or regional social agents who have the perceived legitimacy/stature needed to negotiate the adoption of new international norms and the ability to communicate with the local publics.




[1] See Keck and Sikkink (1998) for a broader analysis of the logic of transnational activist groups.

[2] Before nuancing his statement few days later after facing a barrage of criticism.

[3] The same logic explains why for instance, the Islamic party Ennahda in Tunisia is also engaged in the defense of sex-workers’ rights instead of the more secular parties. In other words, the best agents of diffusion on a particular issue are people who are seen as mainstream on that particular issue (I would like to thank Monica Marks for this observation).




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