Hundreds of lawyers have mobilised to defend two women in Morocco who are being prosecuted for indecency after wearing "tight" summer dresses in a souk.

The two young women, hairdressers aged 19 and 23 who worked in the nearby city of Agadir, were harassed by a group of traders as they walked through a souk, or market, in the town of Inezgane.

They were taken to a police station for their own safety, but ended up being forced to stay the night and were brought before a court on charges of "offending public morals".

The case has prompted a strong reaction in Morocco, which is divided between a relatively conservative majority and a more Westernised minority, who are proud of Morocco's traditions of openness.


The country also depends on tourism, including beach tourism, which has brought about culture clashes in more conservative towns and villages. Tens of thousands of people have signed a petition demanding that charges be dropped, and 200 lawyers showed up at court for the first full hearing on Monday after news circulated about the arrests, to offer to defend the women.

Meanwhile, protests were held including in Agadir, in the capital, Rabat, and in the commercial capital, Casablanca, where men and women together held up skirts as banners under the slogans "Wearing a dress isn't a crime" and "My dress, my freedom".

The two 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 themselves from small, conservative inland towns but had moved to Agadir to work in hairdressing salons.

No photographs have appeared to show exactly what kind of dresses they were wearing, but the apparel of some of the women who attended the protests in their support, wearing sleeveless dresses and knee-length skirts, may give some idea. The police report said the dresses were "tight-fitting".

As with most Muslim countries, it is common but by no means universal or compulsory in Morocco for women to wear a headscarf. Unveiled women in traditional areas - such as a souk in a conservative town - would normally cover their shoulders, arms and legs, but there is no requirement to do so.

There is considerably more latitude in Westernised and tourist areas.

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 and even paedophiles - Morocco has faced many of the same difficulties as other Arab countries squaring its society with some effects of modernisation.


In common with many other Arab countries, it has become more conservative in recent years.