Moroccan village divided over 'Islamists' driving out prostitutes

Moroccan village divided over 'Islamists' standing up and driving out the ladies of the night, which left the local economy in free fall

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2012, 3:34am

For years, the Moroccan mountain village of Ain Leuh with its crumbling whitewashed walls was known locally as the place to go for sex.

Women - some dressed in tight jogging suits, some in dressing gowns - dallied in tiled doorways off the main square, offering a dusty version of Amsterdam's red-light district.

But no more. A band of men, known as the Islamists, took matters into their own hands last autumn. The men deny that they were on a religious campaign, or that they are fanatics.

They were tired, they said, of living side by side with drunken, brawling clients, tired of having their daughters propositioned as they headed home from school, tired of being embarrassed about where they lived.

"It reached a point after Ramadan," said Mohammed Aberbach, 41, who helped organise the campaign to drive the prostitutes out of town, "that men were actually waiting in lines. It was crazy".

These days the side streets are quiet. The doors, painted green and yellow, are mostly shut, although a few prostitutes remain, now trying to sell candy instead of sex.

The changes in Ain Leuh are being held up by some in Morocco as another triumph of the Arab spring - testament to what can happen when ordinary citizens stand up for change and make life better for themselves.

For others, however, the events of the past year show how the more fundamentalist Islamists, though continuing to be shut out of power in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, nonetheless manage to promote their conservative agendas - often taking the law into their own hands, and in this case threatening the prostitutes and their customers and driving away the only industry in these parts.

"The economy is in free fall here," said Ali Adnane, who works for a rural development agency. "The girls rented. They had cash. They bought things. Some people here are really happy about the changes. But some people are not."

Morocco has avoided much of the violence that has gripped Arab countries in the last few years. In the face of mounting protests, Morocco's King Mohammed offered to curb his own powers and last year pledged a variety of reforms. Since then, the country has adopted a new constitution and elected a new government, led by a moderate Islamist party.

Exactly what happened in Ain Leuh, a village of 5,000 people in the Middle Atlas Mountains and about a two-hour drive from Rabat, the capital, is in dispute. Aberbach says the Islamists never did anything illegal. The campaign, he said, largely involved demonstrations in the main square. No one threatened anybody or used violence or stood at the entrances to the village demanding identification from men who wanted to enter. "That would be against the law," said Aberbach.

But others, including Haddou Zaydi, a member of the town council, say all those things, and more, took place. Sometimes, he said, the Islamists used padlocks to imprison prostitutes in their houses after a customer had gone in. Then, they called the police.

Mourad Boufala, 32, who runs a cigarette and candy shop in the main square, said he was not in favour of prostitution but he was offended by the methods used by the Islamists.

"The way they did it was really rough," he said. "They hit girls and scared them. And the problem is that they offered them no alternatives."

Boufala worries that the country is adrift, easily prey to self-appointed militias such as the Islamists. "No one is governing," Boufala said. "The militias exist like they are the authorities."

Curiously, few people there see the campaign against the prostitutes as particularly religious. Aberbach and several other members of the Islamists frame the campaign in moral terms - and business ones. They say the name "Islamists" was attached to them because they are members of Islamic parties, including the governing one.

They say that they consider the prostitutes victims of criminal gangs that brought drugs and human trafficking to their village.

"What we did is related to the Arab spring because it brought the culture of speaking out," Aberbach said.

For those prostitutes who remain, the last year has brought hard times.

"I won't even make 10 cents today," said Khadija, 34, who has tried to earn a living selling cigarettes, candy bars and small toys displayed on a round table outside her door. "My neighbours are feeding me."

"They are watching us all the time," she said, referring to the Islamists.