The film ‘Much Loved’ was banned before filmmakers even applied for it to be seen — but some say it has sparked change

Originally published on Al Jazeera America – May 29, 2015

The Moroccan government published what is being hailed as the country’s first official data on sex workers this week, addressing a problem that rights activists have long accused Rabat of ignoring, after a film on the lives of prostitutes drew the ire of officials and conservatives on social media.

This first official acknowledgement of the existence of a sex industry comes only little over a week after a film about sex workers in Morocco premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. The movie is banned in Morocco, but experts say it still compelled the state to release the numbers.

The Health Ministries in four cities  — Rabat, Tangier, Fez and Agadir — said that there were 19,333 sex workers there in 2011, according to a report in Moroccan newspaper Al Khabar. There was no indication of why those statistics are only now being published.

Mehdi Alioua, a sociology professor at the Université International de Rabat, said the figures likely downplay the size of the industry given how widespread, albeit underground, it is — particularly in tourist hubs like Marrakech, a city not included in the statistics.

“Nineteen thousand? Maybe in Casa[blanca] alone,” Alioua said, referring to the bustling metropolis on the northwestern coast that was not included in the government statistics.

If the Moroccan government is only now publicly recognizing sex work, both Alioua and rights advocate Khadija Riyadi tell Al Jazeera it is thanks to a movie banned by Morocco’s Communications Ministry on Monday — before filmmakers even applied for permits to show it. The government said the film would amount to an attack on Moroccan values.

The film “Much Loved,” or “Zin Li Fik” in Moroccan Arabic, details the lives of Moroccan sex workers in the tourist hub of Marrakech, another city not included in the government’s study.

The film sparked a strong backlash from some. Moroccan actress Loubna Abidar has received death threats from social conservatives for showing her naked backside in the film, Moroccan media reported.

Riyadi said that the country is aware of its large sex industry, but that Moroccans have “a hard time seeing themselves in the mirror.”

However, this film written and directed by Nabil Ayouch “opened the debate. It’s pushed people to talk about this,” she said.

“Bravo Nabil Ayouch,” she added.

In Moroccan society, the concept of “el-hshouma,” or “shame,” normally precludes any discussion related to sex, Alioua said. Morocco’s youth speak openly of sex, Alioua added, but are harshly restricted by social conservatives who are terrified that they are losing their control of society. Alioua calls this control a “dictatorship of customs.”

One of the clips available to Moroccans online features Abidar with fellow sex workers being driven to a cabaret by a silent, 50-something Moroccan man. Abidar’s character, whose clients are visitors from the Arab Gulf, prays for a man with a cute face, a small penis and lots of money.

Alioua calls the scene “symbolic of a patriarchal Moroccan society.” While riding along in silent disdain, it is this man who represents a society that despite not verbally engaging with or endorsing them, drags women into prostitution, Alioua said.

Morocco had been silent on the issue of sex work, “because it solves problems for a lot of people,” Riyadi said. A vast majority of the sex workers, according to the new statistics, become divorced or widowed before the age of 24, leaving them with few other options to make money.

Government officials, Riyadi said, “close their eyes, because it answers questions” of economic issues for both the practitioners and a society with a dearth of public services.

The four-year-old statistics could be a modest beginning — perhaps a sign that officials can’t keep ignoring the country’s sex workers — even if their publication by the Health Ministries indicate to Alioua that the government is “protecting society against them” and not the opposite.

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