Morocco: Should pre-marital sex be legal?

A couple at the beach in Morocco (July 2012)

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The editor of Morocco's Al-Ahdath Al-Maghribia daily newspaper, Moktar el-Ghzioui, is living in fear for his life after he expressed support for pre-marital sex during a local television debate.

"The next thing there was a cleric from Oujda releasing a fatwa that I should die," he says.

"I am very scared for myself and my family. It's a real blow to all the modernists who thought Morocco was moving forward."

According to article 490 of the penal code, Moroccans can be jailed for having sexual relations outside marriage.

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Sociologist Abdessamad Dialmy

Society may not talk about sex but they think about it all the time”

End Quote Abdessamad Dialmy Sociologist

This is based on Islamic law, which bans unmarried people from engaging in sexual activity.

This is why Mr Ghzioui's televised comments created huge controversy in a society that remains predominantly conservative.

The Moroccan Human Rights Association is calling for an overhaul of the penal code in order to tackle the harassment of women, often by sexually frustrated men.

However, even if the law is changed, sex therapist Abu Bakr Harakat believes that negative perceptions of sex outside the marital home, and the importance many people attach to a woman's virginity, will not change overnight.

"Society forces people to respect laws and not the individual," he says.

Protesters stage a sit-in outside a local court in Earache, Morocco, where a judge ordered 16-year-old Amina Filali, to marry the man who had raped her, in order to preserve her family's honour. She later committed suicide (15 March 2012) Some women have been campaigning for laws on rape and marriage to change

'Sharing hotel rooms'

For example, last year, a judge ordered a 16-year-old girl, Amina Filali, to marry the man who had raped her, in order to preserve her family's honour.

She committed suicide in March after she was severely beaten by her husband.

This incident happened in a poor rural village in the north of Morocco, where traditional beliefs are strong.

A sociologist at the University of Mohammed V, Abdessamad Dialmy, argues that article 490 needs to be removed because human beings have the right to sex.

He says more and more unmarried couples are having sex because they are getting married much later.

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If I want to go and spend a nice weekend with my boyfriend, we will just book two separate rooms”

End Quote Loubaba A Moroccan woman

"Society may not talk about sex but they think about it all the time," he says.

With pre-marital sex on the increase, some couples are able to sidestep the restrictive laws, such as the ban on sharing hotel rooms.

Loubaba, 25, is an example of the young generation whose attitudes are changing.

"If I want to go and spend a nice weekend with my boyfriend, we will just book two separate rooms," she says, giggling.

But she knows she is running a risk.

'Female hunting'

An unmarried man and woman were recently jailed for six weeks after they were caught having sexual relations.

Mourners at Amina Fillies grave (March 2012) Amina Filali's death in March sparked outrage

Imam Hassan Ait Belaid who preaches at a mosque in the commercial capital Casablanca says article 490 is part of the culture of a non-Western society.

"If the code is removed, we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster," he says.

Critics of the Islamists argue that the strict sex laws merely increase the harassment of women.

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Legalising sex outside marriage is an initiative to promote debauchery”

End Quote Mustapha Ramid Justice Minister

Men often talk of going for "female hunting", as they drive down boulevards trying to pick up women.

Such harassment shows the sexual frustration that persists in predominantly conservative Muslim societies, analysts say.

But Morocco's Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid, from the newly elected Islamist government, has made it clear that he will not change the law.

"Legalising sex outside marriage is an initiative to promote debauchery," he said recently.

When a new constitution was unveiled last year, Western leaders praised Morocco as a role model for democracy and modernity compared to its neighbours.

Many young people want to see a society where liberal freedoms can be expressed in the way Mr Ghzioui has.

But the problem is that it clashes with those who want to stick with the country's deeply embedded Islamic traditions.

Moroccan society seems to be torn between conservative and liberal ways of thinking, just as it is torn between the influences of the East and the West.

However, the fact that the issue is for the first time a hot topic of debate shows that long held taboos are slowly being broken.

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