BIR JDID - The family dream was to move to a slum in Casablanca. Shantytowns are no longer as bad as they used to be, says the mother: "Everything there is well-planned nowadays."
She proudly lists out all the advantages of living there: "Electricity, sewage, waste collection, humanitarian organizations and even a mailman." Every big city has slums; they are close to work and transportation. And when a slum is demolished, "there are official relocating programs." She stops and sighs: "We could not afford to live in the slum."
The mother works as a maid. She has three children. Her husband, straightening his moustache with his finger, does odd jobs in the construction industry: "We are like everybody else: we have the right to have a roof above our heads and a fridge."
So they built a house right here, where housing is twice as cheap as in the slums and seven times cheaper than in regular neighborhoods.
Welcome to Bir Jdid, an "illegal block" or clando as they say in Morocco – where a piece of land costs nothing, where there are no construction permits, no urban planning. Overnight, people secretly bring in cinder blocks, which they top with sheet metal. It takes them all night, but they have to be done by sunset, so that authorities can’t stop them.
These past 10 years, clando neighborhoods like these have grown all over the country. Officials call them "the Kingdom's new plague,” adding that "We were almost done with shantytowns but now these new kinds of illegal housing are sprouting elsewhere." Officials have ordered every new shed to be demolished, which has slowed down the phenomenon.
A year ago, an unfounded rumor shook the clandos. People were saying that the Kingdom had announced that it was now legal to build these neighborhoods. At the time, in this particular region of the world, it was the kind of story that could lead to an "Arab Spring."
The clando we're in stands at the very end of a dirt track. Tiny houses are lined up on the rugged hillside. At the very top of the hill, not far from where a local resident sells water in plastic bottles, you can just make out the paved road, and the first buildings of Bir Jdid, a peaceful country village. Fifty kilometers from here, the city of Casablanca seems incredibly far away.
Almost everybody in the clando had done their best to keep away from the Arab Spring – known in Morocco as the "February 20 movement"– when it first started in early 2011. Politics? Here the word is used as cautiously as nitroglycerin. "Anyway, there were no demonstrations in the region and I have never had the honor to be introduced to those people. They have college degrees. We are the underclass," explains a farm laborer, that everybody considers a wise man.
The wise man welcomes us in his home comprised of two rooms, the floor of which is covered in colorful plastic mats, sheepskins and terry-towels decorated with cartoon characters. The lady of the house seats her guests in a way that they won't get wet from the drops of water falling from the ceiling. She said she saw the Feb. 20 protests on TV but did not understand what the protesters' demands were. Sometimes, a neighbor comes in. People are quiet, by force of habit. In the closed world of the clando, everyone knows each other. But in Morocco, can one really know who is a police informant and who is not?
“If I want to burn down your house, I can”
The neighborhood consists of six streets. They are less than two meters wide and in the middle of them runs a drain full of waste water. A middle-aged woman hangs out the washing in the heavy rain. She was one of the first to settle there. One day, a representative of the local authorities came to her front door. He told her: "Between you and me, there is only this lighter. If I want to burn down your house, I can."
She wanted to grab his neck and strangle him. Yet she could not. Head down, she begged: "Have mercy, we have rights." He screamed back at her: "You built here without a permit, what rights are you talking about?" From time to time she has to pay: "Here, you need a special budget for bribes, to avoid your house being demolished."
She sends her son to do the grocery shopping – six olives, nothing more. The grocery store looks like a tiny doll shop where everything is sold separately, by the piece: one diaper, a quarter of soap, a handful of pasta. "People here have odd jobs, they do not starve" says the shop owner. "But once they have finished a meal, they wonder how they'll be able to afford the next one."
In order to appease the Feb. 20 protest movement the government decided to organize a referendum on the constitution and parliamentary elections. On the hill, everybody voted. "We didn’t vote for a party," explains a woman who works in a flour factory, "we voted for electricity."
There was a rumor that the authorities would finally give electricity to the neighborhood if everyone voted. The woman points to the single light bulb dangling from the ceiling, struggling to light the room. "At least we got electricity right after the election results were announced." â€¨â€¨
That is precisely when, in Dec. 2011, the rumor of clandos being officially legalized started spreading. Some claimed that they heard Abdelilah Benkirane, who had just been appointed prime minister, say it on television after his Justice and Development Party (PJD, conservative and Islamist) won the elections. Others said it was King Mohamed VI himself.
More likely, nobody said anything. "Was it a way to buy social peace while the Arab world surrounding us was growing restless? We will never know," says a prominent local resident. It does not matter in the end. The rumor spread across Morocco like a tsunami, from Oujda to Agadir, creating much excitement around the illegal clandos. As soon as the news broke out, people went out into the streets and talked of nothing else, totally ignoring the election results.
In Bir Jdid, the first truck arrived at noon, by the main road, loaded with tools and building materials. In front of the bewildered crowd, a group of men started building up walls, very peacefully, out in the open. "These men drew their courage from each other and that’s how things got started," recalls a clerk from a computer store. "This time, the revolution was finally happening, the real one, our revolution. That’s what human rights are about, right?"
At the Bir Jdid market, women started selling their blankets and pots to buy building materials. Families rushed from all over the place in search of the last plots to build on. "Local authorities finally showed up, saying that building was not allowed, asking for ID papers," explains Soraya el-Kalahoui, a young French-Moroccan sociologist writing a thesis about the neighborhood. "People showed their IDs without looking at the authorities and kept digging with their pickaxes. For the first time, fear had changed sides."
Over a four-month period, the neighborhood went from nearly 100 houses to 700. The whole country turned into a gigantic construction site, micro-credit firms were stormed, and the price of construction material boomed. The illegal neighborhoods gave themselves war names: "Resistance," "Chechen," "Built by force" or "Guts."
“We are ready to die for this”
One morning in April 2012, about 20 soldiers showed up at the bottom of the hill, behind Bir Jdid. They built a roadblock near a square of grass that people called the football field. Trucks were stopped one by one. Residents started arriving, running down the hill. They threw stones at the soldiers – everyone did, even women and old people. "This is going to be Libya," screamed one of them. "It cost me everything, I had to take out a loan and now you want to destroy my property?"
He pointed to the yellow wall of a shed with holes he would only be able to fill when he had enough money to buy windows. Another man grabbed his daughter – she must have been two or three years old – and waved a can of petrol. He said he would sacrifice her as a martyr on the spot, like in Tunisia. "We felt strong. We were thinking: We are ready to die for this."
And then, something that no one had expected happened. The soldiers backed down. Similar riots took place near Tangier and Agadir. Some even stored petrol cans and sticks, just in case.
Relations with the authorities have improved since then, says a clerk. "Sometimes, the authorities even look us in the eyes. One even smiled at me once. These are small things but they matter." The other day, when she requested a legal document, she got it "straight away, without paying a bribe." Then, she realized she also wanted running water and waste collection. And a proper sewage system. So her husband created an association. Soon, about 30 people, some wearing Nike baseball caps, others in traditional garb, were meeting by the well. Why not send a delegation to town? First they said they would not appoint an illiterate delegate, but then they gave up. This would eliminate 80% of the candidates.
"We can't go there with a cart pulled by a donkey," said a boy. People started to look for cars and then a representative of the caid (the local Prefect) showed up.
Police informants from the neighborhood had reported that there was something going on. The man was holding a piece of paper in his hands. He was shaking. Since the Arab revolution, the State has weakened, is the most recent common complaint to the interior ministry.
"Especially in these troubled neighborhoods, where a single spark can light a fire. It has become State business," explains a top-rank official. They remind him of France's troubled city outskirts, which blew up in 2005. He just read an article about them where youths attacked the police.â€¨â€¨ Facing the crowd, the caid’s representative can hardly talk. Nobody moves in front of him. Should they be afraid? If so, afraid of what? Everyone is shaking. "This is today's Morocco," says a man. It starts to rain again.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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