Soufiane Hennani felt free to be himself in his family home growing up in Morocco. His father never discouraged him from watching the Egyptian romance films he adored, usually starring the iconic duo of Omar Sharif and Faten Hamama. He was never told he should play sports instead of watching love stories. All this changed at school, however, where his classmates mocked him. Egyptian movies are for women, not men, they would say.
In hindsight, he recognizes these early experiences as part of the construction of toxic masculinity that most young people internalize in Morocco. His precocious mind recorded these instances, the foundations of his quiet rage that he would later channel into theory and activism in his adulthood. They sparked his interest, specifically, in understanding masculinity.
Hennani, who has a Ph.D. in oncology and molecular biology, is the producer of "Machi Rojola," a popular French-language podcast in Morocco rethinking masculinity. Its name is a popular expression in Moroccan Arabic that translates roughly as "it's not masculine"—a phrase often used to suggest someone is "not a man," with all the implied stereotypes about manhood and masculinity. The podcast, as Hennani has said, aims to "reclaim this expression and advocate a plural and inclusive masculinity, instead of an exclusive and toxic one."
"It is very difficult as a queer person to have access to education, social services, hospitals. All problems in society are related to the LGBTQI situation. If there is violence in society, LGBTQI people are violated more."
- Soufiane Hennani
Hennani was not exposed to feminist or queer theory in his youth. He grew up in El Jadida, a small town about 60 miles down the coast from Casablanca known for its stunning beaches. During Hennani's childhood, there were no cinemas, cafes or other public places for young people to gather. For a curious young mind animated by cultural activity, the town's rhythm was too slow.
"Living there, it was like I'm in the wrong place," Hennani told me.
It was also difficult to lead a private life in El Jadida, outside of the watchful eye of the tight-knit local community. Yet the lack of activity offered Hennani an unexpected gift. He took advantage of the silence and solitude to reflect and build a confident, unshakable sense of self. Coming into his queer identity was not burdened by trauma, guilt or shame. It was "soft," in his words.
Hennani describes Morocco as having a "conservative and closed" society. LGBTQ+ issues are not discussed openly, especially in schools. This silence serves as a kind of censorship-by-omission. Children do not need to be told explicitly that being queer is wrong to feel implicitly that sharing their feelings would place them in danger of punitive reactions from authorities, parents or teachers. Especially in a small town with few public gathering spaces, queer youth had "no place where you can feel safe," he said.
Yet this environment could not pierce Hennani's secure sense of identity. Instead, it fueled his frustration and desire to dismantle existing systems of social injustice.
"I was a rebel," Hennani said. "It was the marker of my character as a teenager, that I don't accept the order of society. Even when I was a child, I think I was like this."
Not everybody shared Hennani's experience, though. His classmates who exhibited non-normative gender expression, and who could not conceal their queerness like he did, were bullied. One of his classmates could not handle the constant harassment and dropped out of school.
Reflecting on his youth, Hennani theorizes these experiences through the lens of intersectionality, or how different systems of inequality overlap to produce unique forms of oppression for people with multiple marginalized identities. He says Moroccans who are both queer and underprivileged on the basis of their class, race or other identity markers face "double discrimination."
"It is very difficult as a queer person to have access to education, social services, hospitals," Hennani said. "All problems in society are related to the LGBTQI situation. If there is violence in society, LGBTQI people are violated more."
Hennani first immersed himself in the challenges facing Morocco's queer community when he joined an organization in high school fighting for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. When he moved to Casablanca to attend university, he remained a part of the organization, where he worked on sexual health education. He later became a member of Amnesty International, where he worked on reproductive and sexual freedom, as well as issues like political violence and corruption in Morocco.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hennani decided to take a break from his Ph.D. program to launch a podcast with Elille, a collective he created with his friends to advance gender diversity—and whose name, as Hennani told another interviewer, "can mean 'night' in Arabic, but mostly is a contraction or a pun around the [French] pronouns 'she' and 'him.'" The resulting podcast was "Machi Rojola," where he hosts academics and activists working in queer and feminist studies for conversations reimagining masculinity.
Hennani crafts his podcast to be accessible to broad audiences. He hopes that people who tune in leave with the understanding that LGBTQ+ issues don't exist in isolation, but rather impact everyone in a country like Morocco. Advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ people unveils an entire set of norms at the basis of society that restrict the free expression and bodily autonomy of people who are not part of the queer community.
"This is one of the reasons why we choose masculinity to work on these topics. It's like working on the root, the origin of the problem. Liberating queer people, it's liberation for the whole society."
- Soufiane Hennani
For instance, the challenges facing queer people in Morocco are deeply interlinked with women's issues. Article 490 of Morocco's penal code criminalizes sex outside of marriage. The law, which dates back to French colonial rule in Morocco, means that both queer people and women who are not married can face prosecution for pursuing their sexual freedoms. Hennani calls the movement to overturn Article 490 the "same fight" for women and queer people—"it's the fight to be free."
The same is true for the societal stigma attached to having sex outside of marriage. Both queer people and women feel ashamed to approach their families and openly discuss their dating lives. Queer youth fear being shamed for their identities, and women, for wanting to have sex at all. Women and queer people are also primary targets for sexual harassment. The list goes on.
Hennani believes toxic masculinity is at the core of the oppression of both women and queer people in Morocco. "This is one of the reasons why we choose masculinity to work on these topics. It's like working on the root, the origin of the problem," Hennani said. "Liberating queer people, it's liberation for the whole society."
For Hennani, the fight is not only to dismantle power hierarchies within Moroccan society at large. It is also to confront inequities that are reflected within the wider queer community, including abroad, where intolerance and prejudice exist in other forms. He feels this implicitly when he travels to Europe or the United States to conduct research or for international conferences. Even when he is at an LGTBQ+ event, he is often subjected to discrimination as a Moroccan. In France, where he travels frequently, he said Arab men are assumed to be misogynists or terrorists. At one gay bar in Paris, he said, it was clear he wasn't welcome—likely because he looked Moroccan and had a beard. "I didn't look gay enough to be in this bar," he said, recalling a bartender who treated him like he "wasn't in the right place."
He has felt the same dynamics across Europe of being seen only as an outsider, including in Berlin, a famously queer-friendly city where Hennani has spent time conducting research. "In Morocco, it's difficult as a queer person to create your space in heterosexual spaces. When you go to Germany, it's the opposite," he said. "There's queer spaces, but it's difficult to exist as an Arab queer person. So, it's the same mechanism. You feel the same exclusion, but for different reasons—here [in Morocco] because you are queer, and there because you are Arab."
Hennani views these experiences abroad as another extension of the harms of toxic masculinity. He believes there is something inherently masculine in racism and colonization, and inversely, something colonial in masculinity. Dismantling these systems of oppression requires transforming masculinity itself, from a singular notion based so often on violence and domination, into plural, positive masculinities.
"Even when we are queer, we grow up in patriarchal spaces. I think toxic masculinity, racism, all these things are constructions in society," Hennani said. "Sometimes when we go to queer spaces, we go with all these constructions. We need to work on our auto-deconstruction. We work on it by having access to knowledge, creating spaces to talk about it, reading books," and he added, "creating the podcast."
The reporting for this article was supported by NYU GlobalBeat, the international in-field reporting program at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.