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Morocco's skirt length battle: What are the deeper questions?

When two Moroccan women were accused of gross indecency earlier this month, for wearing clothing deemed “too tight” as they walked through a market in Inezgane, near the southern city of Agadir in Morocco, the headlines were focused on yet another Muslim country’s seeming obsession with women’s sartorial choices.
In an indication of the inflammatory nature of such issues, rallies in support of the two women were held in both Agadir and Casablanca, while hundreds of lawyers offered their services in defence of the women.
Certainly the issue of what women can - or can’t - wear in Morocco continues to cause debate, whether on the streets where women, whether in the traditional djelaba or in short skirts, invariably experience some form of sexual harassment, or on the pages of the nation’s dailies. And although the question is tied into a broader struggle for women’s greater autonomy and individual freedom in a deeply patriarchal context, the debate also speaks to a much deeper, underlying question over the very nature of Moroccan society, and who gets to define it.
The issues at stake are far wider than women’s hems.
In particular, Moroccan law in the form of Article 483 of the penal code, carries a penalty of up to two years in jail for anyone found guilty of committing an act of “public obscenity”. In recent years, women’s groups in particular have sought to challenge what they perceive as undue restrictions on women’s choices enshrined in law, as well as a lack of legal protection for women in cases such as marital rape or domestic violence more broadly, among a range of other issues.
Just last month, one of Morocco’s most critically acclaimed film directors, Nabil Ayouch, was summoned to court on charges of “pornography, indecency and inciting minors to debauchery” for his portrayal of the Moroccan prostitution industry, in his latest film Much Loved (“Zine Li Fik” in Moroccan Arabic). Thousands called for the film to be banned and the Minister of Communication Mustapha al-Khalfi, from the Islamist-inclined Justice and Development Party (PJD), decried the film as undermining “the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women”.
And in June, two Moroccan gay men were sentenced to jail in another case which caused uproar, after they were arrested as they posed for a photograph in the political capital of Rabat. One of the country’s most provocative, French-speaking publications, Tel Quel, regularly enflames such debates by featuring nudity and sex in its pages, and most recently, an editorial describing “consensual love between two adults” as “not a crime,” despite homosexuality remaining illegal in the kingdom.

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