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Controversial Sex Worker Drama ‘Much Loved’ Opens Debate about Prostitution in Morocco

Nabil Ayouch director of Much Loved
The director of the controversial movie Much Loved, Nabil Ayouch, on the set of the movie Whatever Lola wants, 2007. Photo Archives du 7e Art/DR

Directed by controversial Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, Much Loved is about four female sex workers in Marrakesh. Through these women, the filmmaker seeks to shed light on sex tourism in Morocco and the harsh realities of this clandestine industry. The film, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival in May 2015, is the first to address seriously the issue of prostitution in Morocco, a Muslim developing country.

The film has provoked an unprecedented national debate in the media and become a talking point in workplaces, schools and homes. While some see in it a creative endeavour, a piece of art that reflects freedom of expression in Morocco, others regard it as pornographic and debauched.

The film made headline news even before it was screened in Morocco, after several clips with sexual overtones and “profane”, “indecent” language were leaked on YouTube.

The clips fiercely divided opinion, attracting both condemnation and praise. The lead actress Loubna Abidar received death threats and a Facebook page was set up calling for the execution of both Abidar and Ayouch. Supporters, meanwhile, defended the director’s attempts at authenticity and noted that condemnation would only serve to protect the wealthy who exploit young women in need of money.

High-profile political and religious figures also weighed in, denouncing the film for presenting Morocco as a brothel, glorifying sexual relations outside marriage and sympathizing with homosexuality.

The filmmaker responded by saying that his work includes bold scenes derived from reality. He also tweeted that “Moroccans have to visit their country”.

As the debate intensified, the Ministry of Communication announced that it would not authorize screenings in Moroccan cinemas. The main reasons advanced were that it “undermines the moral values and dignity of Moroccan women, and is a flagrant attack on the Kingdom’s image”.

The decision to ban the film was rejected by the national film producers association, which called it “illegal, contrary to the country’s constitution and in violation of freedom of opinion, expression and creativity”.

The film turns an uncompromising gaze on a problem that most Moroccans would like to forget: the world of prostitutes, the “go-betweens” or pimps who exploit them and the officials who permit and even profit from their trade. Prostitution is illegal but poorly regulated in Morocco. According to l’Organisation Panafricaine de Lutte Contre le Sida – OPALS (Pan-African Organization Against AIDS), in 2008, 90% of prostitutes in Morocco were under 20 years old, 31.5% had never been to school while 21.1% had a tertiary education.

In the film, the director describes prostitution as instigated and financed by the rich and carried out in carefully guarded locations. Of course they would lose in any scandal that erupted showing them with a notorious pimp and important members of their network. Referring to those who cater to “petrodollars” – the money wealthy men from the oil-producing Gulf states are willing to pay for sex – the film warns against sex tourism, which is becoming increasingly widespread. Ayouch’s aim is to force people in general, and decision-makers in particular, to confront the dangers of prostitution and the corruption linked to it.

As controversy continues to swirl around Much Loved, it is worth remembering female journalist Aicha Mekki, who began her career at the Moroccan Radio Station in Rabat in the late 1970s. She then moved to the Moroccan francophone daily l’Opinion, where she would remain for 17 years, writing primarily for the section “Au ban de la société” (On the bench of society), which chronicled judicial proceedings. She became a champion of the downtrodden, describing in depth the hardships of the marginalized and ignored, including battered wives, maids, drug addicts, alcoholics and prostitutes, and illuminated problems such as domestic violence, obsolete traditions, social exclusion and the debilitating effects of poverty. Her work reflected her belief in the nobility and dignity of all human beings, and frequently took her to forgotten corners of society where few journalists, much less female journalists, dared to go. She died under suspicious circumstances in 1992.

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