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 Unpublished health ministry reports,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
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-