French-Moroccan filmmaker Meryem Benm’Barek’s debut film, Sofia, paints a critical portrait of Moroccan society challenging laws, confronting taboos to the wind, and highlighting the contradictory values of Morocco’s various social classes.

The film, written and directed by Benm’Barek, won “Best Screenplay” at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival in the “Un Certain Regard” category. The category, meaning “from another point of view,” features films from around the world that tell stories in nontraditional ways.

Sofia fits the bill perfectly, evoking the taboo subjects of extramarital sexual relations and pregnancy outside of wedlock, both of which are crimes under Morocco’s penal code. Benm’Barek explains that the film aims to show “the pressure imposed by a society that cannot comprehend a birth without a husband.”

The script follows a 20-year old single woman, from a modest, middle-class family in Casablanca, who is struck by sudden stomach pain while preparing a family meal. Her cousin, Lena, a medical student from a privileged background, examines Sofia and realizes she is pregnant and going into labor. The cousins head to the hospital, after telling their family they are stopping at a pharmacy. Upon their arrival, however, the hospital refuses to treat Sofia because she does not have marriage papers and because sexual relations outside of marriage are punishable in Morocco by up to one year in prison.

Fortunately, Lena knows a physician who is able to get Sofia admitted to deliver her baby, but the hospital insists that Sofia provide paperwork identifying the father by the following day. After Sofia gives birth, she and her cousin set off in search of the father and eventually find Omar. The families quickly arrange a marriage for Sofia and Omar who, it is revealed, met by chance when Sofia was fired from her job at a call center.

The film, on the one hand, is a critique of traditional Moroccan values which are increasingly mismatched with the nation’s fast-paced modernization. On the other hand, it comments on Western stereotypes of the Arab world and especially Morocco, stereotypes which Benm’Barek finds often lack complexity. According to the director, women in the Arab world are frequently depicted in Western film, literature, and art as victims of patriarchal domination. While patriarchy and machoism contribute to the position of women in the Arab world, Benm’Barek argued in an interview that they cannot be understood outside their economic and social context, which is characterized by vast economic inequality and social division.

Sofia’s firing from a call center evokes the very real problem of unemployment that youth face throughout the Arab World, as well as some of the negative aspects of private sector work in the developing world, which is often temporary and provides minimal social protection.

The story involves, first, the search for the baby’s father and second, the impact of Sofia’s pregnancy on her family. The two leading female characters, Sofia and her cousin Lena, represent two competing versions of Moroccan society. Sofia dresses in traditional Moroccan clothes, while Lena, who is half-French and half-Moroccan, wear’s Western garb and frequently switches from Darija to French. She represents the more privileged Casablanca elite, as well as the Western perception of Morocco. Finally, Omar, the father of Sofia’s child, lives in a shabby downtown apartment and represents the lower-class.

Moroccan society has traditionally viewed children born out of wedlock as a source of shame and dishonor. The law furthers the stigmatization of single mothers and their offspring. If no father is present at the time of birth, the child’s birth is not recognized or recorded by the state. That often leads to a lifetime of hardship for both mother and child.

Article 446 of the Moroccan Jurisprudence states “any person born outside marriage [is] a bastard; whether he is recognized by his biological father or not.” Article 148 adds that “illegitimate filiation to the father does not produce any of the effects of legitimate filiation,” while Article 54 specifies that legitimate filiation to the father is necessary for access to health care, education, protection and “respect of their identity and its preservation.”

The film elicits the question of whether the criminalization of and social stigma against extramarital sex is outdated in a society where young Moroccans are more and more choosing to delay marriage. The average age of marriage, according to a 2014 study by Morocco’s High Planning Commission (HCP) in urbane areas is now 32.1 for men and 26.4 for women. Compared to the previous generation, the average age of marriage was around 24 for men and 17 for women. Meanwhile, sociologist Abdel-Samad Aldealmi reports that the average age of young Moroccans’ first sexual act is 17. In an interview on Public Radio International (PRI), Aldealmi argued that the delay in marriage has led to “a lot of premarital sex, non-marital sex, emergence and visibility of homosexuality and lesbianism,” and he added, “a lot of emergence of prostitution also.”

Article 490 of the Moroccan Penal Code punishes illicit sexual relations from one month to up to a year in prison, while adultery is punishable by up to two years in prison. Reforming the law has been the topic of much debate. Dozens of women’s rights organizations have called for repealing the article, however, the government has so far refused.

In December, 2012, former Justice Minister Ramid, a member of Morocco’s ruling Islamist party (PJD), declared that “these sexual relationships undermine the foundations of our society.” In 2015, a draft law proposed reducing the maximum sentence to three months with a fine of from MAD 2,000 to MAD 20,000 (about 200 to 2,000 euros), however, the bill did not pass.

Benm’Barek’s first feature film, Sofia, touches on a sensitive subject, yet it does so in a thoughtful and nuanced manner, while portraying the role of Moroccan women with complexity and multi-dimensionality. The cast includes Sara Elmhamdi Elalaoui (“Much Loved”), Sarah Perles (“Burnout”), Hamza Khafif, the Belgian Lubna Azabal (“Exiles” and “Paradise Now”), Faouzi Bensaidi (“The Blissful”), Nadia Niazi, and Saïd Bey.