- Exoticism or Empowerment?The Representation of Non-normative Women and Prostitution in Nabil Ayouch's Much Loved
IN RECENT YEARS, a number of Moroccan directors have gained recognition abroad and at international film festivals, yet they have been criticized in their home country for perpetuating Western perceptions of Morocco.1 This tension has defined the career of one of the country's most famous directors, Nabil Ayouch, whose recent co-production, Much Loved (2015), sparked controversy because of its focus on a group of Moroccan prostitutes living in urban Marrakech.2 The film premiered at Cannes and was praised by the French and Anglophone press. However, it was banned in Morocco by the Centre Cinématographique Marocain because of its controversial content. Following the release of leaked scenes on YouTube, Ayouch was charged with creating pornographic content, and his lead actor, Loubna Abidar, was physically attacked on the street. The film itself was heavily criticized by the press, Muslim clerics, and members of the Moroccan government for its 'defamatory' representation of Moroccan women and for appeasing the assumptions of Western viewers.
This article analyzes Much Loved against the backdrop of these debates and the changing attitudes to Moroccan women and their bodies since the updates to the Moroccan Mudawanna (Family Law Code) in 2004. Drawing upon feminist theories and (film) phenomenology, it examines the extent to which Much Loved can be accused of objectifying its protagonists' bodies and playing up to the expectations of Western viewers. Contrary to much of the popular criticism of the film, I argue that Ayouch subverts stereotypes of Moroccan prostitutes by adopting an intimiste, documentary-style aesthetic that both destabilizes the normative male gaze and immerses the spectator in his characters' life-worlds. Simultaneously, I question the extent to which Ayouch's vision of female empowerment through the body is couched in Western feminist notions of individualism, autonomy, and emancipated female sexuality. I conclude that Much Loved makes a brave, if contentious, intervention into highly topical current debates involving questions of gender, visibility, and freedom of expression in Morocco and the wider Arab world today. [End Page 99]
Gender trouble: women and prostitution in Moroccan culture and film
In Muslim-majority societies like Morocco, women's roles and identities are determined by patriarchal religious traditions that position their bodies as vehicles through which male and familial honor and respectability are ascertained. In Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Muslim Society, Fatima Mernissi argues that female sexuality is viewed as active in the Muslim world because women are considered to be able to cause fitna (disorder or chaos) in their male counterparts.3 As a result, writes Mernissi, the Muslim "social order appears as an attempt to subjugate [women's] power and neutralize its disruptive effects" (33). Women are expected to dress and behave modestly. Strict regulations are imposed upon their movements in (male) public spaces. Veiling is not compulsory in Morocco, but women are expected to wear clothing that covers certain parts of their bodies (breasts, shoulders, torso, knees) in the public domain. Moreover, female sexuality is heavily controlled, and women are not supposed to engage in sexual relations with men outside marriage. Those women who do not adopt a virtuous code of conduct are considered to bring shame to their families and are often cast out from society. As Mernissi explains, "[s]ocial order is secured when the woman limits herself to her husband and does not create fitna, or chaos, by enticing other men to illicit intercourse" (39).
Despite the persistence of traditional attitudes towards gender, Moroccan women have gained greater legal enfranchisement in recent years. In 2004, changes to the Moroccan Mudawanna granted women the right to marry without the consent of a legal guardian and strengthened their divorce rights.4 Furthermore, as Katja Zvan Elliott indicates, "a 2003 reform of the Labor Code recognized the principle of gender equality in employment and salaries" (5). These changes have improved women's legal standing and position in the workforce. Yet, as Moha Ennaji explains, "[i]nequality concerning inheritance is maintained" and women are still expected to conform to certain gendered norms regarding their appearance and behavior.5 Moreover, unemployment...