There are a lot of reasons to dislike Morocco. For one, its doubtful that any country on earth has a larger population of touts. They swarm around you, constantly buzzing in your ear like flies over the dead carcass of a donkey. Then there is the fact that Morocco is still very much an authoritarian monarchy. King Mohammad VI, who began his reign in 1999, has deftly maintained democratic forces in check through laws that prohibit any one party from holding a majority in parliament.
Yet, there is something even more sinister at play in Morocco apart from annoying touts and heavy-handed government: sex tourism. Yes, Morocco not only receives more foreign tourists than anywhere else in Africa but is also a major hotspot for prostitution, putting into sharp contrast a country that is deeply divided between its own traditional conservative values and imported mores from the West.
And nowhere is Western and secular influence more apparent than in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. Rabat is a college town, and it’s probably among the younger generations that Western culture has taken its greatest hold. Although Rabat has a vibrant nightlife, there is still something a bit clandestine about social gatherings here: the music is played low, the few bottles of wine are drunk slowly and deliberately, and the occasional joint of tobacco and hashish is passed around communally. Many of these young men and women see their future in France, where their lives can be lived more openly without fear of societal pressure.
However, there is another side of Rabat, one related to its slow liberalization but running not entirely congruent. I came in contact with this particular aspect of Morocco one day in the guise of a doctor from the UK. After we got to talking, I learned Ibrahim, as he called himself, was originally from Pakistan and frequently traveled to Rabat to “relax.”
Apparently, among certain Muslim men, Morocco has a reputation of being a place where casual sex can be had without much difficulty. Ibrahim told me that if you’re good looking enough, just a bottle of wine is sufficient to convince a woman to come home with you. I didn’t bother to test this particular theory; nevertheless, I got the impression that most of the women sleeping with men they had just met were paid for in cash, not booze
According to the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, there were approximately 75,000 sex workers active in Morocco in 2016. To put that in perspective, Egypt is estimated to have less than 23,000 sex workers despite a population that is three times larger. This poses a particularly difficult question for Moroccan society.
For conservative and religious Moroccans, prostitution is generally blamed on Western influences. The influx of alcohol and drugs combined with a robust tourist industry has allegedly led thousands of women astray. But it’s hard to imagine Morocco’s youth turning to selling their bodies because of a couple of pulls on a joint or a glass of wine, no matter how much European style hedonism is romanticized.
For its part, the Moroccan government has mainly focused its efforts on closing down trafficking networks. And as admirable as this is, it largely ignores the reality that most women in Morocco are not victims of sex traffickers but rather Moroccan culture. A Moroccan Ministry of Health survey from 2011 found that between 62 and 73 percent of prostitutes were either divorced or had lost their husbands before the age of 24. Few of these women were physically coerced into prostitution, but because Moroccan society leaves little room for women to earn a living independently or remarry at a later age, basic economics forces them to a life working the streets.
This is not a critique of Islam, but Moroccan culture: a culture that stigmatizes divorce to such an extent that a woman in a bad marriage cannot get a second chance, a culture that keeps one third of its female population illiterate so that they may never join the workforce or acquire knowledge independently, and a culture that denigrates women for selling their bodies while turning a blind eye to the buyers of flesh.
That said, Mohammad VI has attempted to lead a tepid liberalization of society, including the introduction in 2004 of a new Mudawana, or family code, that has increased legal rights for women. Nevertheless, culture must be altered from within not imposed from above, and this calls for a climate of openness, something that is seriously lacking under Morocco’s despotic regime. Indeed, if Mohammad VI was sincere in promoting women’s rights he would foster an environment conducive to an open debate regarding prostitution. Instead, we have seen the government take the opposite course.
In 2015, director Nabl Ayouch released Much Loved, a film starring Moroccan actress Loubna Abidar and detailing the lives of four prostitutes living in Marrakesh. The movie was banned in Morocco with one politician for the conservative Justice and Development Party stating that the “film undermines the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women, as well as all the image of Morocco.” Despite a slew of death threats, Much Loved was still aired, not in Morocco, but at the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia. Morocco can refuse to have a conversation about its very troubling societal problems, but as Much Loved has shown, the rest of the world will not remain silent.