I was born with the gift of skepticism, stoicism, and a love for women. The combination could have ended with me in prison, so here is the story of why I left my country.
My home country of Morocco is a beautiful and fascinating place, but not all of us are free to be ourselves. Homosexuality is still criminalized under Article 489 of the Penal Code. At a very young age, girls are taught to dream about their wedding days, the dresses, the ideal men they are meant to wait for and marry. For this to happen, they are taught to cherish one thing: their virginity.
I tried to comply but was not attracted to men; nor did I believe in Allah as a Creator. I lived with the idea that coming out would lead inevitably to violence, exclusion, and prosecution, and I already knew that religion was made up. But I kept it all to myself out of fear. My misogynist and oppressive Muslim society taught me one thing: Keep your sexuality and nonconformity to yourself. Do not risk your safety, and do not bring shame to your family.
Growing up as a female in such a society means being forced to carry a load heavier than some people can manage: a continuous consciousness of inferiority, enforced gender roles and expectations, and distress over not achieving womanhood as conventionally defined. Being a lesbian does not make this any easier. In fact, it creates a constant fight within you, because not only are you fighting the imposed heteronormativity, but you end up questioning your own sanity: “Why am I different? Should I talk to someone? Should I psychoanalyze myself to uncover the roots of my same-sex attraction? Was it a childhood trauma? Did I watch too much TV?”
I tried to make a change, because the angry intersectional feminist in me loves my country so much that I never wanted to leave it. I tried to organize safe spaces under art and craft themes, but the fear of prosecution was stronger than these initiatives’ ability to move ahead. I grew up with a circle of friends who were primarily closeted gay guys. We fostered our tiny gay culture to care for each other and to survive the systemic oppression. We were a group of atheist teenagers in a land of Allah, of queer and gay kids in a land of compulsory heterosexuality, of colorful people in a land of black and white.
I learned that secrecy was the key to safety, and this is how my double life began to grow. At age 21, I secured a full-time job and performed one of my first acts of rebellion: moving out of my parents’ house. Girls are not meant to leave their parental home unless they’re moving into their new husband’s house.
I was not afraid to meet women and invite them over. I started to have the healthy sexual life that I had always wanted. I met a girl on Tinder, and we discretely met in coffee shops. But very quickly our dates moved to each other’s homes. After a few months of dating, I made a typical lesbian move: I asked her to move in. She did, but only after going to war with her family. I thought a committed relationship should have been enough to give me a feeling of contentment, but there was always something missing.
I wanted to come out, to be able to take my partner out as my date and not my friend. I wanted her to meet my family and to have the clichéd dinners and photo ops. I knew being a lesbian was nothing to be ashamed of, but I saw no future for myself or my partner at that time. I felt that I needed to break free from that culture, from the invisibility, the judgment, the questions about my interest in the neighbor’s son.
When two teenage girls were arrested in 2016 because they kissed and faced charges of homosexuality in court, I felt helpless. My inability to defend basic human rights frustrated me. I felt that one of those girls could have been me. I found myself isolated from everyone, unable to trust anyone. I eventually cut off much of my world, and the saddest part was breaking up with my girlfriend. I was too anxious to be in a relationship. I was scared and angry and longed to break free. I started looking at my options.
I wanted an English-speaking community and decided to try my luck in Ireland. After a few months of difficult procedures, I managed to move there in 2017 and began working as a postgraduate researcher. I left everything behind me and moved to a country that values people like me. They even have a lesbian organization, Lesbians in Cork, or LINC.
I started traveling, and on one of my trips to Trondheim, Norway, I met the love of my life: a singer-songwriter, a traveler, an artist, a kind soul. After months of long-distance dating, she decided to move to Ireland. We are now engaged and living together in Cork.
And every time I feel homesick, I remember the reasons why I left Morocco. I can’t help but question why anybody would perceive something this beautiful and genuine to be worthy of punishment.
Asmae Ourkiya is a Moroccan environmentalist and human rights activist residing in Cork, Ireland and currently a doctoral student at Mary Immaculate College, the University of Limerick, Ireland where she is writing a thesis on Ecofeminism and environmental justice. Asmae has been active internationally to support different causes revolving around minority rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights.