Hundreds of lawyers have mobilised to defend two women in Morocco who are being prosecuted for indecency for wearing summer dresses in a souq.
The two young women, hairdressers aged 19 and 23, were harassed by a group of traders as they walked through a souq, or market, in the town of Inezgane near the holiday resort of Agadir.
They were taken to a police station for their own safety, but ended up being forced to stay the night and brought before a court on charges of “offending public morals”.
Their lawyer is now counter-suing some of the men involved for harassment.
The case has triggered a strong reaction in Morocco, which is divided between a relatively conservative majority and a more westernised section of society, who are proud of the country’s traditions of relative openness.
The country also depends on tourism, including beach tourism, which has also brought about culture clashes with more conservative towns and villages
Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition demanding that charges be dropped, while 200 lawyers showed up at court on Monday after news circulated about the arrests to offer to defend the women.
Due to space requirements, only around 30 of the 200 were allowed in to present arguments that the arrest were a breach of the women’s freedoms and rights. A verdict is due next Monday
The women have asked for anonymity, saying they are unused to the public spotlight, and have been named in local media only as Sanaa and Siham.
Their lawyer said they were from small towns themselves but had moved to Agadir to work in hair-dressing salons.
No pictures have appeared to show exactly what kind of dresses they were wearing, but the throngs of women who attended a protest in their support wearing sleeveless dresses and knee-length skirts may give some idea.
As with most Muslim countries, it is common but by no means universal or compulsory for women to wear a head-scarf. Unveiled women in traditional areas – such as a souq in a conservative town – would normally cover their shoulders, arms and legs, but there is no requirement to do so.
Protesters in Rabat hold placards in support of the arrested women (EPA)
Despite its liberal reputation – derived partly from its history as both a French colony and a haven for westerners looking for a variety of “alternative lifestyles” ranging from artists to drug-users to paedophiles – Morocco has faced many of the same difficulties as other Arab states squaring its society with some effects of modernisation.
It has suffered terrorist attacks, albeit rarely, but there is also a divide between the pro-western monarch and the semi-democracy he has introduced, which has voted in a moderate Islamist government and prime minister.
There were recently calls for tourists to stop wearing bikinis on beaches during Ramadan. The security apparatus has cracked down hard on extremists, but has also been frequently criticised by international groups for rights abuses.
Last month, the pop star Jennifer Lopez was accused by some media and conservatives of being too “scantily” dressed during a concert in Rabat that was broadcast on public television.
The two girls are said to be embarrassed by the attention – which has also involved their hair-dressing salon being mobbed by reporters – and not to have told their families about what has happened.
“One of them is engaged and is afraid of jeopardising her relationship,” their lawyer told the local branch of the Huffington Post website.
“The victims have even been forced to temporarily leave the hair salon where they work because tens of NGOs and journalists have come to try to meet them.
“But they are shy by nature, and not accustomed to any of all this. The media buzz has got them scared.”
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