At 11 p.m. on a spring evening at a hospital between Ifrane and Fes, a potbellied man in his fifties and a young woman negotiate payment for an illegal procedure. Hugging her, the man tells her to undress, and she begins to shiver. Meriem, a university graduate, wonders if this is a nightmare.
She freezes as the man, described as a hospital manager, pushes a pill inside her with a cone-shaped tool. Lightheaded, she sees stars.
He injects her with an unidentified fluid, twice, and she returns home. Meriem gets severe cramps and hopes that, this time, the procedure will work.
Meriem attempted to induce a miscarriage with pills. She tried injections. She visited a doctor in Meknes, who inserted his finger in her anus and stormed out of the clinic when she asked to bring a friend into the operating room.
Finally, in a Rabat clinic, Meriem found a doctor who ended her pregnancy. Though she suffered no lasting physical harm, she says the psychological and financial costs were significant.
In her search for an abortion, a procedure illegal in Morocco except in very restricted circumstances, Meriem was hardly alone. Morocco legalized contraception in the 1960s. Free condoms are available in public hospitals and emergency contraception is sold in pharmacies. Abortions are legal only if pregnancy threatens a mother’s health and in cases of rape or severe birth defects.
But education on contraception in the North African country is focused on those who are married. Premarital sexual intercourse is illegal and heavily stigmatized, according to France’s 2006 Emergency Contraception in Africa survey.
But a classic double standard permeates Moroccan society. The culture appears to consider premarital sex necessary to prove male virility, but 90 percent of women surveyed said keeping their premarital virginity is a “social duty.” Most men said they would refuse to marry a woman who is not a virgin, with one respondent likening women’s premarital sexual behavior to prostitution.
Nevertheless, many women begin sexual relationships before marriage: In a 2006 L’Economiste study, 34 percent of women reported having premarital sexual activity.
Unmarried women discovered as sexually active are shamed, and, if pregnant, can face outright ostracism and abuse. Perhaps consequently, levels of illegal abortion are high: Between 130,000 and 150,000 procedures happen each year, according to a 2003 USAID study.
If contraception is readily available, why are there so many illegal abortions?
Ignorance about sex strongly shapes unprotected behavior. The French survey found unmarried women often began sexual activity without contraception, as reproduction was only briefly discussed in schools and overlooked in families.
In schools, many teachers refuse to teach sex-related topics to pupils younger than 15, long after most of them can get into trouble. Some Muslim authorities dismiss premarital sexual education for single people, as clerics believe it encourages promiscuity.
Though the Ministry of National Education recently signed a bill to promote reproductive education in public schools, it is unclear whether this measure covers premarital sex.
It also fails recent secondary-school graduates, who are entering university unprepared for sexual culture.
Students from some universities can avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections by accessing emergency contraception on campus and buying condoms in nearby cities.
Like other Moroccan youth, university students have had little sexual education. Education centers on the biomedical model and discusses diseases, cures and prevention, but largely overlooks discussion of the psychosocial aspects of sexual behavior, like respect, that have a strong effect on student decision-making.
Dr. Jallal Toufiq, a psychiatrist and director of Salé’s Arrazi Hospital, believes students’ ignorance also comes from cultural silence.
“This is a conservative society, and [students are] not educated [to] talk about their sexual lives… very easily,” said Toufiq.
New male students, says Mohammed, a former student, expect university life to mirror an American Pie movie, the series of U.S. teen sex comedies about boys trying to lose their virginity. Young Moroccan men also pursue numerous encounters in a coercive manner, Mohammed says, often oblivious to safe sexual practices.
“’I’ll be insistent until you fall down and do whatever,’” said Mohammed, characterizing how he believes the men think.
Laila, a female student, says the sexual double standard permeates the local dialect of Arabic.
In the Moroccan dialect, she says, sex is verbalized as something men do to women, not a mutual act between two consenting adults. She says most female students try to keep what is considered to be the physical proof of their virginity before marriage, even though they may still have sexual relationships.
When asked what consequences single, pregnant students face, Mohammed mentions the psychological burdens stemming from religion.
“Religiously speaking, it’s forbidden to have premarital sex,” said Mohammed. “It’s seen as something evil… like she did the worst crime in humanity.”
Simo, a male student, says most of his friends have impregnated women and that, frequently, the women abort due to fear and shame about what their families might think.
“Morocco is (a) very conservative society,” said Simo. “People are worms… the way they’re going to treat her.”
In addition to pregnancy and transmission of disease, ignorance can lead to risky situations. Mohammed recalls an overnight trip with a co-ed student group. Though sleeping arrangements were segregated by sex, a man still attempted to coerce a woman into having intercourse. Mohammed returned to campus with the woman to help the one facing coercion get away from the alleged offender.
According to Glorianna Pionati, a school counselor and professor, students have reported Rohypnol, a date rape drug that can be slipped into women’s drinks, as being common. Young female students, she says, are especially susceptible to sexual violence because they are unprepared and do not expect it.
Simo believes freshman-level sexual education could decrease risk-taking and help young adults learn that they should get a partner’s clear and explicit consent before proceeding with sexual activity.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that to create an effective sexual education course, teachers should focus on reducing behaviors that cause unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, take a clear stance on unprotected sex and adapt material to students’ cultures. Effective programs, the CDC says, last 14 or more hours and work best with small groups.
A school administrator near Fes, Abdelhamid Lotfi believes it would be possible for schools and universities to create effective sex-education courses. He stresses that a well-designed course should lead students to understand and discuss social attitudes and universal human rights.
“Sexual education… has to go along with what’s taking place in the social environment,” said Lotfi.
In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development declared access to health-care services and education as fundamental human rights. To help students realize their rights, many health educators believe Moroccan universities must focus on sexual education.
* Students requested anonymity due to this topics’ social stigma.
* Ida Sophie Winter is an undergraduate student of journalism at the University of Missouri. During the 2014-15 academic year, she attended Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane as a Boren Scholar.