Why Women Still Can't Walk Into A Cafe Alone In The Arab World

A cafe in Marrakech, Morocco
A cafe in Marrakech, Morocco
Rime El Jadidi

CASABLANCA - Cafés are a public space like any other. Theoretically, nothing prevents women from entering one. But too many women still will not frequent certain cafés, which are always occupied almost entirely by men.

Obviously, we are not talking about chic cafés in the center of town. When they have the choice, some women prefer to go to more expensive cafés just to avoid harassment.

Using a video camera, we conducted a series of interviews in a café in downtown Casablanca. It is interesting to see that opinions on this topic varied greatly. It may seem mundane at first glance, but this is a sensitive subject. Many people refused to answer us or to be filmed. In the café where we carried out our inquiry, the proportion of women was minuscule, and among the women, only one was alone.

Paying more to be left alone

Among the women who were interviewed, many said they preferred to go to cafés only when accompanied, to avoid being harassed. Nada, 26, an assistant said, "If men are sitting with women in a café, I know I can go in. I would never go alone into a café where there were only men, not because they would bother me, but because I wouldn't feel comfortable."

Most of the women interviewed said that they had been harassed when they had entered a café alone.

Christelle, 33, is a manager for logistics and warehouses. She says there are more and more women in cafés, but they are rarely alone. "It's happened to me a few times that I am sitting with friends in this same café and men come over to bother us and even sit down at our table. I choose this café because it is near my job, more than anything else. But if I worked in a young, hip, bustling neighborhood like Maârif, I wouldn't go into this kind of café."

Adel, her colleague, is a sales manager. He says, "My coworkers and I often come here to take a break and de-stress. As a man, I don't see any problem with women going to cafés."

What men think

The presence of women in downtown cafés does not seem to disturb men, with a few exceptions. But all the people were categorical in agreeing that some cafés are not for women.

One of the people interviewed, a young man who refused to be filmed, told us that he thought there was nothing wrong with his going to a café with his girlfriend, but that it was out of the question for his sister to do the same thing. This is not a peculiarity of Morocco, since the same problem exists in other Arab countries.

In Belgium, an association of Arab women organizes "raids" on cafés every Sunday to get men used to the feminine presence. More radically, in Ramallah, Palestine, women have opened a café where men are banned.

Meanwhile, back here in Morocco this week, a young woman launched an appeal on social networks for women in favor of a "cooperative café in Casablanca, reserved for women." The appeal says that "men will not be excluded, only unwelcome, except for Friday during the day, which is reserved for them from the café"s opening until 3 p.m."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!