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Moroccan Actress Loubna Abidar in Paris, February 8, 2016. (Pierre Terdjman/The New York Times)


Actress Loubna Abidar refuses to be silenced by fatwas, death threats or violence

June 23, 2016

Too liberated, too frank, too woman, too “whore”?

Exiled Moroccan actress Loubna Abidar, vilified and assaulted for playing a local prostitute in the award-winning film Much Loved, refuses to be silenced by fatwas, online death threats and violence.

A refugee in France since her brutal beating on the streets of Casablanca last November, the 31 year-old activist — who still bears the visible scars of abuse on her face and body — has responded to persecution and hate with defiance, courage and truth-telling. In a searing autobiography called La Dangereuse (The Dangerous Woman) based on interviews with senior Le Monde journalist Marion Van Renterghem — Abidar tells her extraordinary story of overcoming poverty, exclusion and physical and sexual attacks by her father to become one of the most acclaimed young actresses and feminist voices to emerge from North Africa in years.

At the same time she denounces the “hypocrisy and prohibitions” that oppress women in Morocco and, in her reckoning, much of the Arab-Muslim world. As Abidar sees it, a cabal of Islamists are pushing agendas championed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and a woman who “takes charge of herself” and lives freely is condemned as a “slut.”

‘‘I don’t want to live among the lies and fear anymore,” said Abidar, who was refused medical treatment and mocked by police after the Casablanca attack.

Loubna Abidar was forced to move to France after a backlash in her Moroccan homeland. “ (Pierre Terdjman/The New York Times)
Loubna Abidar was forced to move to France after a backlash in her Moroccan homeland. (Pierre Terdjman/The New York Times)

Speaking from her adopted home of Paris, where she will soon be joined by her daughter and Brazilian husband, who are also leaving Marrakesh, she told Women in the World: “I love my country so much but it’s not a country where free women can live.

“I want to walk without a problem in the street, and smoke my cigarette or have a drink on a café terrace. I can’t do that in Morocco. I want to swim and go to the pool and the beach. In fact I just want to be a normal everyday woman, but you can’t live like that in the Arab world in general today.”

In her gripping confessional-cum-manifesto, masterfully retold by Van Renterghem, Abidar recounts a childhood blighted by her father’s violence, and the social rejection associated with his Amazigh [Berber] indigenous Moroccan heritage, contrasted with spells living with the wealthy side of her family. There is the flamboyant grandmother who let her secretly watch old Egyptian movies featuring sultry dancers, but told her that all actresses were just “whores,” whom she should not be tempted by because they were “going to burn in the fires of hell.” All the taboos of Moroccan society are tackled  — entrenched anti-Semitism, institutionalized sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, religious double standards in a country that “has more brothels and bars than mosques,” increasing pressure to wear the Islamic veil, and profound misogyny that affects girls from birth. ‘The catastrophe started when I came out of my mother’s womb,” Abidar recounted in her book. “It was convenient and had been decided that I would be a boy. It couldn’t be any other way Inch’Allah.”

But La Dangereuse is not a sensationalist tell-all: the actress needed to be persuaded by writer Van Renterghem that she should talk about her personal history of incest. “I put myself inside her skin, and there were things I suggested to her,” Van Renterghem told Women in the World.

The French journalist joined Abidar when she snuck back into Morocco late last year to see her daughter and family, with the pair visiting the Hammam together, secretly visiting her favorite places in Marrakesh and talking with the actresses’ friends and relatives. “Still, she took some time to tell me the story of her father and rape. Then when I understood what had happened she said ‘in any case I don’t want to talk about it.'”

Van Renterghem persisted, convincing Abidar that it was impossible not to speak of the abuse. “I said to her ‘Do you realize to what extent it is important and it is representative of all the falsehoods and hypocrisy of this society, that insists women come to marriage as virgins but in fact they are being raped inside their families?’ Because her case is not isolated.”

Abidar overcame her doubts because she believes it is her duty to expose the truth about the treatment of young Muslim girls and women, and especially poorer women and members of the Amazigh ethnic group, in Morocco and North Africa.

“In the Arab world generally we have this problem of rapes committed by people known to the victims — by relatives, fathers, uncles,” Abidar told Women in the World. “I don’t only talk about my own story, I have done a lot of work with activist associations, especially with little girls living in the mountains.

“If someone says to me ‘You are soiling the image of Morocco,’ I ask them to take some time, go up into the mountains and listen.”

La Dangereuse links systemic abuse of girls and children with widespread societal sexual frustration and effective legal impunity. Abidar confronts the truth by uncovering the reality behind the pious façade: that sex is everywhere and prostitution and abuse of young girls and women is rife.

“Loubna is not the first to speak out and she has always said what she thought, from the years when she first became known in Morocco as a dancer and actress in telefilms and even denounced a famous film director who insisted actresses sleep with him in order to get paid,” said Van Renterghem. “She has an exceptional intelligence and a great candor. I rarely saw someone who has such a strong rapport with the truth.”

A proud Muslim who says her “religion of love and peace” has been progressively hijacked by extremists since the 1980s, Abidar was in shock and almost overcome by feelings of depression and suicidal thoughts after her Casablanca assault, and flight to Paris the following day.

The beating came after months of public shaming of Abidar for starring in the confronting movie by Franco-Moroccan director Nabil Ayouch, exposing the sleazy underbelly of Marrakesh’s sex trade and hidden brothels filled with rich Saudis exploiting poor prostitutes. Much Loved was swiftly banned in the kingdom for “bringing shame on the Moroccan woman.” Waves of death threats appeared on Abidar’s Facebook page and on social media, as pro-government politicians and clerics fomented raucous street demonstrations decrying the actress. “It was very difficult after the first polemics and attacks,” she said. “At one point there was no one around me. But thanks to a few girlfriends and thanks to the French state and the public I was able to regain my strength and self-confidence. People really rallied around me and when I had to move, and came to live in France, I was able to pull myself back up.

“The Islamists and their fatwas — because the Moroccan state is governed by Islamists today — have really done a lot of damage to me. And that is why my book is called La Dangereuse, because my words are dangerous for them and for Arab men. But I took all this bad energy and I transformed it into good energy and today that is my strength.”

The contradictions of her country make Abidar laugh when she compares the divergent reactions of the public to her career highs. ‘‘This society is 100 percent hypocrite,” she said. “When I tell the truth it upsets everyone. But when I was nominated for the first time for a Cesar [the French Academy Awards] they were very happy and proud of me.

“When I receive prizes they are thrilled but when I speak in the press and I tell the truth there are fatwas against me, protests in the streets, court cases. I still have a court case related to the film Much Loved. When it was my daughter’s birthday I had to slip back into Morocco in disguise to go to Marrakesh for three days. I always miss it.”

The sense of responsibility to her fellow Muslim women inspires Abidar to continue with her activism and her politicized choices of film roles. “I feel obliged to speak about what is happening in the Islamic world,” she explained.

Asked if she has anything more to add to our interview, the actress does not resile. “I want to say something very important to all Muslim women today. It’s fine to be a good Muslim, but we mustn’t traffic in lies.

“The veil is a sham — it doesn’t exist anywhere in the Koran, and it didn’t exist at the time of Mohammed, just like the burqa. If you put on the burqa or the veil today in honor of Allah you are wrong — it has nothing to do with Islam and good Muslim women should be free.

“I’m speaking about the hijab, the veil in general and the burqa, all these black plastic bags — unfortunately that’s how I see them. Sadly, these women have accepted to live like this in the name of Allah but it’s not based in truth. It is done in the name of a few men who have decided this is the way it is. But in reality, in Islam the veil doesn’t exist.”

Such fearlessness will likely always get Abidar into trouble, yet it doesn’t stop her from calling truth to power. “She is very courageous,” Van Renterghem commented. “I think she will unfortunately all her life be threatened because there are always some crazed zealots out there who cannot abide her frankness.”

“Loubna Abidar is the incarnation of resistance,”writes Van Renterghem in her preface to the La Dangereuse. “She is the symbol of all the women that patriarchal tradition, misogyny and macho culture divides into two categories: the pure and the prostitutes …”

That split — of virgins versus whores — has only worsened under the influence of rising Islamism and fundamentalism, Abidar and her co-author affirmed to Women in the World.

“10 years ago I would not have been assaulted in Morocco for playing such a role,” says the actress. “The fact that I have been attacked is not because of the Muslim religion or traditions, it is because of the new Islam.”

Van Renterghem responded: “Thank you, Loubna, for not keeping quiet.”


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