Morocco Begins to Confront AIDS Issues ; Last Month, a Princess Broke with Tradition and Spoke Publically about AIDS

Article excerpt

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 Unpublished health ministry reports, she says, estimate that the number of Moroccans infected with HIV rose fourfold last year alone, to 20,000.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. …