Morocco begins to confront AIDS issues

Last month, a princess broke with tradition and spoke publicly about AIDS.

Last month, Moroccan Princess Lalla Fatima Zohra, the king's sister, broke a taboo: She spoke publicly about AIDS. As chair of Morocco's family-planning association, she denounced the media's lack of sensitivity on "the serious threat of AIDS."

For this, observers compared her with her great-aunt, Princess Aisha, who shocked the country's religious establishment by lifting her veil in the 1950s. Now Lalla Fatima Zohra is lifting the veil on the private life of Moroccans.

Despite a reputation as the Arab world's sex capital, Morocco has shunned public discussion of AIDS. On the one hand, it fears riling Muslim conservatives, who consider any appeal to practice safe sex as a ticket to promiscuity. On the other hand, it fears revealing the extent of the country's clandestine sex industry, which health workers say is growing in tandem with the poverty rate.

Of the 25 million people in Africa infected with the AIDS virus, less than 1 percent is in Muslim North Africa. Islam, officials say, is good immunity.

But these figures are a self-deception, say health workers like Hakima Himmich, Morocco's most-prominent AIDS campaigner and director of an AIDS clinic. Unpublished health ministry reports, she says, estimate that the number of Moroccans infected with HIV rose fourfold last year alone, to 20,000. It's not only spreading, but crossing class boundaries from high-risk groups such as prostitutes into those of middle-class professionals. "We are on the verge of an AIDS epidemic, and the government does nothing to make the public aware," she says, echoing the concerns of many health officials here. They are calling on the government to take an active role in promoting the use of condoms.

Fearing that Morocco would be the first North African state to face a mass scourge, Ms. Himmich penned an open letter to Prime Minister Abderrahmane Youssoufi, pleading for a televised campaign to highlight the dangers of sexually-transmitted diseases.

The Interior Ministry, whose governors run state television, rejected her appeal, saying it risked inciting an Islamist backlash.

Mustafa Ramid, who heads Morocco's parliamentary Islamist party, Justice and Development, warns that advertising condoms on TV will provoke his supporters to return to the streets. "God ordained AIDS as a punishment for those who dared violate his laws," says Mr. Ramid. "Condoms help only treat the outward show of the social disease of fornication, not the social disease itself."

But while girls in Morocco may be donning veils in public, health workers say their private lives are becoming increasingly un-Islamic. "The authorities hide and say AIDS doesn't exist," says Aicha Chajai of the nongovernmental Association for the Fight Against Aids. "Because when you speak about AIDS, you speak about sexuality. In the Muslim culture, we are pure: There are no extra-conjugal relations, no homosexuality. Except that there is."

With its northern peninsula located just eight miles from the coast of Spain, Morocco's Islamic veneer disguises an urban youth culture where casual sex is as common as in Europe, researchers say.

Adult programming is freely available over satellite television; a new royal program aims to increase European tourism from 2 million to 10 million visitors annually; and poverty is on the rise, with one-fifth of the population living on less than a dollar a day.

This country's illegal sex industry employs an estimated 200,000 prostitutes. And despite occasional crackdowns - in Casablanca alone, the most recent police figures show there were more than 12,000 prostitution-related arrests in 1998 - the industry is booming.

"A lot of girls are forced to have sex before marriage to live, to help the parents," says Abdelsamad Dialami, professor of sociology at Fes University, and a compiler of surveys of sexual practice in urban Morocco.

The controversial public appeal last month by Princess Zohra is seen by some as a sign that the government may be ready to act. Already, the health ministry has opened an AIDS-awareness office, and together with the UN has organized a conference on AIDS training. But the government spends just $400,000 of its $11 billion budget on the fight against AIDS.

UN officials cheer the government's first steps, cautious as they may be. "You have to find out what is minimally acceptable for the religious and social authorities to allow you to say about sex and homosexuality," says Alexis Pokrovsky, the head of UNESCO's North Africa bureau. "Once they've made that concession, then what's one more, and one more, and insidiously you bring it up."

Some social workers are taking their education campaign to the streets. Chakib Zwizen in Fes (Fez), Morocco's spiritual capital, joined the family-planning association after his closest friend died of AIDS. By day, he tours the city's medieval coffee shops, giving impromptu sermons on the importance of condoms. By night, he tours the red-light districts, offering prostitutes advice. "We have to break the taboo."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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