Every Saturday, 20 young Moroccans meet in Rabat’s El Youssoufia neighborhood to learn about sex and sexuality. The meeting is organized by OPALS Maroc, a nonprofit fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS in Morocco. Photo by Ella Feldman.
Last updated December 2019.
RABAT, Morocco — Like many Moroccan teenagers might, 16-year-old Boutaina Gouzden and her friends spent a recent Saturday morning taking an online quiz. But rather than inquire about favorite colors and dream vacations, this quiz asked questions like, “Is it risky to kiss my partner lovingly if they are HIV-positive?”
When that question was projected on the white screen before her, Gouzden shot her hand up immediately, a proud smile spreading across her face. “La!” she said, “no” in Arabic. Saliva, she explained, cannot carry human immunodeficiency virus. A number of young people in the room nodded in agreement. Aziz Fawzi Benzaouia, the sexual health doctor leading the exercise, clicked a button that revealed the answer. Gouzden was right—kissing an HIV-positive partner does not pose a risk, unless both partners have exposed wounds in their mouths.
The gathering is a weekly routine for Gouzden and the 19 other young Moroccans in the room. They form the Rabat youth team of OPALS Maroc, one of a number of nonprofits dedicated to fighting HIV and AIDS in the North African kingdom. In recent years, organizations like OPALS Maroc have scaled up their HIV awareness and prevention efforts with great success—since 2010, new HIV infections in Morocco have decreased by 2 percent and AIDS-related deaths have decreased by 42 percent, according to UNAIDS.
But a room full of young people openly quizzing each other about sex is an uncommon sight in Morocco, a country with no mandatory sexuality education. The OPALS Maroc youth teams, which exist in 12 Moroccan cities, intend to give young Moroccans the sex education their teachers will not. The online quiz Gouzden and her peers were taking is OPALS Maroc’s latest endeavour in this arena: an interactive web application created to give young Moroccans free, comprehensive sexuality education.
“Teenagers here don’t know anything about sex education,” Gouzden, the youngest member of the OPALS Rabat youth team, said of her generation. “When we talk about these subjects, people just laugh and think it’s a joke. It’s not. It’s reality and it’s dangerous.”
Studies have repeatedly shown that sex education deters risky sexual behaviors, yet comprehensive sexuality education is entirely absent from Moroccan schools, according to Abdessmad Dialmy, a renowned Moroccan sexuality expert. The closest thing is a class called education in health reproduction, which public schools are required to give students in their last year of middle school and first two years of high school. The curriculum includes biological information on human reproduction but stays silent on other aspects of sexuality. And according to Dialmy, because the class only begins at the end of the school year and attendance is not enforced, “it’s not really successful.”
The lack of holistic sex education in Morocco is in line with the North African kingdom’s overall conservative approach to sexuality, including laws that criminalize sex outside of marriage, same-sex relations and abortions. Although these laws are rarely enforced—and when they are, are often seen by human rights activists as political tools used by the government to arrest vocal critics—they solidify sex as taboo.
Youness Bermime, a 25-year-old search engine operations specialist from Casablanca, learned nearly everything he knows about sex from movies and the internet. Growing up, he said the few conversations he had about sexuality were “rolled in morality.”
“Whether it’s in schools, or in our families, or even in our communities of friends or small groups, there is always the question of, what am I doing? Is it wrong or right? Is it prohibited by religion or is it accepted by religion?” he said. “This limits the scope of the discussion to, am I going to hell or am I going to heaven for this?”
Bermime’s experiences inspired him to write his master’s thesis at Casablanca’s Hassan II University on premarital sex attitudes and sex education. He found that 40 percent of Moroccans admit to having had at least one sexual relationship before marriage and 70 percent think premarital sex should be legalized.
Although Bermime learned most of what he knows about sex from Google searches, he said he does not consider the internet to be an effective tool for sex-ed. Neither does sex expert Dialmy.
“No one talks to youth about the erotic dimension of sexuality,” Dialmy said. “So the master is the internet—pornography.” But internet porn, he said, sets unrealistic and dangerous expectations that have harmful effects on youth—especially young women. “It is impossible to imitate,” he said. “So it leads to a kind of sexual misery.”
Gender inequalities are also taught in classrooms, according to Zouhair Gassim, a sociologist who studies sexuality and teaches history and geography at a public high school in Temara, a suburb of Rabat. By framing sex only in terms of animalistic reproduction, Morocco’s health reproduction education reinforces inequalities between men and women and “makes female sexuality invisible,” he said.
“We must remodel sex education to reintegrate the social dimension,” Gassim said. “When we integrate that social dimension, we include rights, obligations, norms, values, and other forms of sexuality.”
Gouzden and the rest of the OPALS Maroc youth team aren’t willing to wait for the government to make those changes. Over the past few months, the team has worked with the organization’s leadership and a consulting agency to transform what began in 2004 as an educational CD that only contained information on HIV and AIDS into an online tool with information on a wide range of sexuality topics. After making an account, users can access educational modules on subjects like sexually transmitted infections and contraception in three languages: Arabic, French and English. According to Ali Chenaoui, the 20-year-old president of OPALS Maroc’s Rabat youth team, they’re working to make the application available for download on smartphones later this year.
The OPALS youth team has been involved in every step of the app’s development process, from writing quiz questions to giving aesthetic input, according to Boutaina Alami, the national coordinator for OPALS Maroc.
“It is an application developed by young people, because it is an application intended for young people,” she said. “Right now young people are in a digital world. They’re no longer interested in conferences or speeches, but it’s vital for them to have accurate information.”
To make it to the youth team’s weekly meetings, Gouzden wakes up at 7:30 a.m. every Saturday morning. This gives her just enough time to get ready and eat breakfast before her father drives her from their home in Temara to the Moroccan capital’s El Youssoufia neighborhood. By 9 a.m., Gouzden is seated in a conference room in the large white building that houses OPALS’s Rabat chapter. She isn’t back home until 4 or 5 p.m.
Most of her friends spend their Saturdays sleeping in, working on homework, and hanging out. But Gouzden said she doesn’t mind waking up early.
“I used to be a sleep lover, but now I recognize that sleeping is nothing important,” she said. “Comparing staying home and doing nothing and coming here and learning, I prefer to come here and learn.”
Feldman studied journalism, culture and politics in Morocco through SIT Study Abroad in fall 2019. Youssef Sikou of Morocco’s Connect Institute contributed reporting.