(MENAFN - AFP) When Moroccan divorcee Soumaya moved in with her new French boyfriend she was hoping to forget the unhappiness of her marriage. Instead, she lost her children.
It's a crime in Muslim Morocco to live together out of wedlock, and unmarried couples not only face police harassment but also the prying eyes of disapproving neighbours.
Soumaya, a mother of two, says her jealous ex-husband ratted on her to the police when she started living with her boyfriend in Marrakesh, accusing her of prostitution and finding 12 witnesses to support his story.
"I didn't want to make the same mistake twice," she said of her decision not to re-marry.
But the boyfriend eventually left her and she lost custody of the kids.
Cohabitation may be relatively common in Morocco's swish urban districts, but conservative religious attitudes can be stifling, especially for young couples living in downscale, traditional neighbourhoods.
Ibtissam Lachgar, an activist and co-founder of a campaign group to promote individual liberties, says she lives happily with her boyfriend in her apartment in the centre of the capital, Rabat.
"I don't feel my sexual freedom is restricted, even though we're not married. The neighbours don't bother me, probably because I own my apartment," she says.
The problem begins, she says, when they travel to the country's hinterland and try to stay in a hotel.
"It's impossible; the law forbids it. They ask to see a marriage certificate. So we're forced to seek alternative arrangements, like staying with friends."
Last October, social sensibilities were put to the test when activists staged a symbolic "kiss-in" outside parliament.
They did that to show their solidarity with three teenagers arrested for posting pictures on Facebook of two of them smooching -- a case that sparked an online uproar.
Around a dozen couples took part in the event, which was swiftly disrupted by a small group of counter-protesters who accused the couples of "atheism," shoving them and throwing chairs at them.
The court acquitted the teenagers, who had been accused of public indecency, but the offending couple, aged 14 and 15, were reprimanded by the judge.
Lachgar's boyfriend Soufiane Fares, who studies law in Rabat's twin city of Sale, said "consensual sex between adults is a personal decision which others have no right to interfere with.
"But living together outside of marriage is very difficult in a conservative society."
Hostile looks and prejudices
Ghassan Hakam, in his 30s, has his own experience of this, living in Casablanca with his French girlfriend for three years.
Originally from Fez, the theatre director says that even in Morocco's largest city, they are constantly aware of their neighbours' displeasure.
"I try to be discreet, avoiding kissing or touching my girlfriend in the area where we live. But I feel we are being watched, even if they don't say anything," he notes.
His girlfriend Fanny is sure that her life would be a lot more difficult if she were Moroccan.
"I would definitely have suffered even more from the hostile looks and prejudices I encounter," she says.
Hakam, who lived in Paris for six years, doesn't believe he needs to get married to prove his love, and questions the reason for criminalising cohabitation.
"Are two people who love each other harming society or committing a crime by living together under one roof," he asks.
Article 490 of Morocco's penal code states that sex outside marriage is punishable by up to one year in jail. In December 2012, 22 feminist organisations called for it to be repealed.
Justice Minister Mustafa Ramid, who belongs to Morocco's ruling Islamist party, declared his opposition to that.
"These sexual relationships undermine the foundations of our society," he insisted.
Karim, a young entrepreneur who recently moved into a crowded neighbourhood of Rabat, no longer lives with his girlfriend.
"She used to come round to my house, but she couldn't stand the looks of the neighbours, especially the men sitting in the cafe opposite."
"Sometimes we were forced to return late at night to avoid the intrusive looks, which made us feel we'd committed a crime."
A study conducted by the health ministry in 2007 indicated that 36 percent of young Moroccan men had had sex outside marriage, while the proportion of unmarried young women who had lost their virginity was much lower, at 15 percent.