One spring evening in a stylish neighborhood of Casablanca, a group of young women crowded a DJ booth at a cozy music-themed coffee shop. Vinyl, inspirational quotes and pictures of skateboarders lined the walls at People's Choice Records cafe. The women included nurses, film directors and university students, but outside of work and class, they were all pursuing the same hobby. Most of them had never touched a DJ mixer. One by one, they approached the mixer, some tentatively, some with more confidence, and fiddled with the buttons until they produce a steady beat.
They were all there for a beginner DJ workshop for women in Casablanca hosted by SoundSisters, a DJ collective that creates safe environments for women to experiment in electronic music and perform their first gigs. The collective was founded in the quiet beach town Taghazout last year by two young musicians Ritta Ben and Maria Malasangre. SoundSisters has since hosted classes and parties in Marrakech, Agadir and across Morocco.
For Ben, SoundSisters is about more than creating music. Through it, she has found a community of women with similar passions and concerns, with whom she can freely express herself and gain confidence in her voice.
"We all find it hard to tell our thinking in a man's world," Ben said. "It has been hard to speak up for my rights, basic rights as any other human being. It was not okay for a female to have better ideas sometimes, or to have another perspective and just feel free to share it."
Morocco has a rich history of innovation in electronic music—an industry that, in recent years, has gained international recognition through destination music festivals, like Oasis and L'Boulevard, popular with music lovers across the world. Yet the electronic music scene is plagued by a recognizable problem: It is almost entirely dominated by men.
To confront that reality and change the face of Morocco's music industry, Moroccan women are forming a movement—launching grassroots initiatives to train aspiring DJs and support them to book their first gigs and produce music. DJs are increasingly outspoken about demanding more opportunities for women and creating safer conditions for women to party.
"I think nightlife is the place where you can feel free from the many burdens that you encounter as a woman in Morocco. This is what electronic music and techno music is all about."
- Amira Belghazi
A vast majority of Moroccan electronic music DJs and music producers are men. In a lineup of DJs for an electronic music club or festival, it is common to see just one woman, if any, among a long list of DJs.
"I think I know all the women that are actually working professionally as a DJ, and they are not more than 10 people," Soumaya Laghiti, who performs as "DJ Stranger Souma," told me. A successful music producer and DJ in Morocco, she is also a member of SATAT, an electronic music band and self-described "powerhouse of female energy."
Laghiti brings a collaborative spirit to all of her musical projects. Growing up in Morocco with few models of successful women DJs, she freely shares her musical expertise and industry knowledge with aspiring women musicians, to elevate them alongside her in their careers. She calls her generosity toward younger women artists her "pacific feminist battle."
"I'm doing it very pacifically by sharing what I know and teaching girls how to produce and mix," Laghiti said. "Even when the boys are blocking things, they will be surprised that even if they didn't share anything, some people got to learn."
With this ethos, Laghiti became a mentor in a program called the FeMENA residency, which is dedicated to empowering women in electronic music and digital arts in Morocco. It was founded by 4S', a nonprofit organization that supports cultural actors in music and digital arts. FeMENA has hosted artist residencies for women and non-binary DJs to learn about music production and management and advance their careers.
Fadoua Rasmouki is one of the success stories to emerge from the FeMENA residency. One night in June 2022, a year after completing the residency, she was hanging out at the SottoSopra and noticed that the bar had a DJ booth but no DJ. In her characteristic boldness, she approached the manager and asked if he would hire her. She was offered a residency that month and has performed at the SottoSopra every Friday night since. Rasmouki, or "DJ DramaDrama," has become a celebrated DJ in Rabat's nightlife.
"I just went straight forward to make my own scene," Rasmouki said. "I had to walk into that place and ask the manager if they needed a DJ, and I had to convince them that they needed one and that they need me."
Women trying to get booked as DJs often encounter men who are only willing to hire male DJs or collaborate with male producers. As a result, women, who are already underrepresented in electronic music, are barred from opportunities to perform and produce. Rasmouki says that even though more women DJs are appearing in lineups, typically only one woman will be booked in a longer lineup of male DJs—to offer the appearance of inclusion without creating real equality.
"I'm not going to do that thing where, 'Let's call a female DJ,'" Rasmouki said. "I'm not going to be a female in their lineup. I'm going to be a whole event, if they want to call me on my own. Just 'Drama.'"
Meryem Makhchoun had a promising start in music. She started to DJ five years ago and hit her stride in the summer of 2022, when she was booked for a party every weekend. Yet her constant encounters with sexism from other male DJs and producers gradually eroded her passion and motivation to stay in the industry. At the end of the year, resolving to prioritize her mental health and wellbeing, she quit.
"When you see a lineup in a party, it's only men. It's very rare to see women getting booked. It's always the same names," Makhchoun said. "So I was like, why am I doing all of this?"
Women DJs and producers of all levels of experience, ranging from beginner to veteran artists, are targeted by sexism in their everyday work. Women DJs are frequently belittled by their colleagues, and their musical expertise discredited.
While working as a DJ, Makhchoun had several experiences when men from the audience would interrupt her set to give her advice on how to mix properly. Once, an audience member approached her while she was performing and started playing with the buttons on her mixer. During another performance, a male DJ approached her during her set and asked if he could play instead of her.
"I am doing my job here. Why are you bothering me? And you feel like if it was a guy [performing], he wouldn't even have the courage to do that," Makhchoun said.
Makhchoun was conscious of being treated differently from her male counterparts. She says the men she collaborated with would frequently talk down to her or speak to her in a rude way. Her ideas were regularly dismissed during joint musical projects.
"It makes me feel like I am useless. I felt demotivated. To feel like someone underestimates you or makes you feel like you are not enough," Makhchoun said. "Especially when it's something that you really love, and you want to share something that you love with people, and then someone just comes and destroys this ambition and motivation you have. You feel like you just don't want to do this anymore and that you have no value."
Laghiti, or "DJ Stranger Souma," says that she started her "pacific feminist battle" after a sexist encounter at her first ever DJ set in Morocco. She was opening for a male DJ and good friend, yet he abruptly ended her set early.
"He saw that the public was on fire, and then he came up to me and told me, you need to shut it down. It was the first time I encountered misogyny directly," Laghiti said. "I think maybe he felt unsafe or threatened."
"It is a really empowering feeling—to impose ourselves in a male world."
- Ritta Ben
Women who work in nightlife are also vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault. In 2018, Morocco's government adopted a law on combating violence against women. The law criminalizes sexual harassment in public spaces, among other measures. However, women's rights activists have criticized several gaps in the law. Notably, the law places the requirement on women targeted by sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence to report the incident to law enforcement, which very few do. For women who file a complaint with the police, many are met with skepticism or judgment.
"In Morocco, we have independence as women. We can go out. We can do whatever job we want. We can have our own money. We can drive cars. We can do anything as men," Laghiti said. "But security wise, it's better to be safe than sorry."
Rasmouki calls working as a DJ a "high-risk job" for women in Morocco, where sexual harassment is widespread. In Rabat's nightlife scene, Rasmouki is famously outspoken in demanding safer conditions for women and members of the LGBTQ community. She once turned down an offer to perform at a club where she has seen sexist and homophobic behavior. Instead, she sent the club owner a long list of suggestions on how they can make the club safer. Since then, the club has instituted policies to promote inclusivity and safety.
"I wrote a huge paragraph," Rasmouki recalled. "Are you asking me to actually play in a club where I got groped in one night four times? Are you asking me to bring my audience, which is mainly queer people and women, to your club so they get harassed?"
Rasmouki is committed to making her performances a safe space for marginalized communities. Her weekly DJ sets are a haven for members of the LGBTQ community to dance freely and dress authentically. She herself has a signature, colorful style. She likes to sport one small detail to signal her queer identity, like a rainbow pendant or multicolored nail polish.
"The fact that a lot of the same people come to my sets regularly, and people who are from different backgrounds, for me it just means that I am definitely succeeding in building not only a dance floor, but also something that is beyond a dance floor," Rasmouki said.
Amira Belghazi is a self-described "techno fairy." From her home in Morocco, she travels across Europe solo seeking the best electronic music festivals. In her travels, from Paris to Amsterdam to her favorite city, Berlin, she has witnessed safety protocols to protect partygoers from harassment. These include informational fliers about consent and phone numbers for people to contact security services.
"I think [nightlife] is the place where you can feel free from the many burdens that you encounter as a woman in Morocco," Belghazi told me. "This is what electronic music and techno music is all about. It's creating a safe space for people of all genders to enjoy the moment, to forget about the daily life struggles."
Champions of women's rights in Morocco face a number of legal and social barriers to gender equality. Issues related to the family, including marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance are governed by the Moudawana, Morocco's family code. While based originally in Islamic jurisprudence, the family code was most recently reformed by Morocco's parliament in 2004, replacing the 1958 personal status code that was codified after Moroccan independence from France. The revisions in 2004 came in response to popular mobilization to secure women's rights to self-guardianship, divorce and child custody. While those changes were widely applauded by human rights groups at the time, the Moudawana still doesn't treat men and women equally in other areas. For example, under Morocco's inheritance law, women inherit half of the amount of inheritance that men do. Feminist activists have also launched movements to challenge two articles of Morocco's penal code criminalizing sex outside of marriage and same-sex sexual activity.
These laws force many women to lead double lives, outside of what is legally permissible. Rasmouki says this disconnects many women from their Moroccan identity.
"I don't want to feel dissociated from my own culture and my own country," she said. "I want to feel strongly related to it. I want to feel strongly represented and representative of it."
Makhchoun says women are also constrained by social mores that dictate how women should dress and behave. Living authentically requires adopting a "fake identity."
"You feel like people are always going to judge you, whatever you do," Makhchoun said. "In the end, everybody is free to do whatever they want, but in Morocco it's not really working this way."
A sense of freedom permeates the SoundSisters workshops. At one point during the beginner class in Casablanca, Malasangre invited the women to dance. They stomped their feet and clapped their hands to embody the beats they would produce electronically. Their sheepishness melted away as they danced around the cafe in a circle, laughing.
"It is a really empowering feeling," Ben said, "to impose ourselves in a male world. We can have a lineup full of females, full of good DJs, female DJs that can fight, that can make people dance, that can change the world the same way male DJs do."
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. Additional story development was provided by Mahacine Mokdad.