Colonialism and Sex Work in French North Africa

Catherine Phipps, University of Oxford

‘Madame, please, I don’t want to stay here. I want to go back to Oran. Give me the money for the trip home and I will pay it back.’

‘Where did Madame Fernande unearth this girl?’ shouted the boss. ‘Money for the trip home! She’s insane!’

‘If you want money, my dear, you’ll have to earn it. But that’s what you’re here for.’

I didn’t listen, clinging to my animal instinct to leave. I insisted:

‘I’ll give back to you when I arrive. My aunts will give it to me, I’ll send it to you.’

Madame Carmen laughed quickly, ‘You’ll need plenty of sous if we work out your debt: with the price of the journey here and back, you’ll have to add the money that we gave to Madame Fernande …

I’d been sold like a commodity, but I never knew the price. I paid back an amount I didn’t even know, that grew, that increased every day with my bras, my slips, my towels, my bedding that was changed when it was too dirty. My food, the water I drank, were totted up. The only thing that I learnt was the price that the men who came to see me paid: sixty centimes.”

Germaine Aziz was sold to a brothel when she was 17 years old. A young Jewish girl in Algeria in the 1950s, she was brought to Oran by a Spanish woman, Madame Fernande, for the promise of a job with another Spaniard, Madame Carmen. Crossing the threshold of that brothel, which she believed to be a bar, changed Aziz’s life forever.

Ensnared in a complex system of debt with the brothel owner, Aziz was forced to work from ten in the morning to midnight every day. She saw 80 to 100 clients a day for years to pay off the charges of her initial travel to Oran, as well as the extortionate fees for laundry, food and day-to-day essentials that Madame Carmen charged her. Germaine Aziz shared these experiences in her memoire Les chambres closes: histoire d’une prostituée juive d’Algérie, written in 2007.

In La prostitution coloniale, historian Christelle Taraud describes the French imperial system of prostitution in North Africa as a “carceral and coercive system”. Prostitution was legal in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco during the 19th and 20th century and heavily controlled by the French state to protect French citizens from venereal disease at the expense of the freedom of sex workers.

Having been formally registered with the colonial authorities as a prostitute, Aziz was unable to find a new job outside of sex work or travel without permission of her brothel manager or the police. One failed escape attempt led to being trapped by an angry crowd before being returned to the brothel “like a thief” by the police. Aziz’s experience of sex work mirrors that of thousands of women within the French Empire in North Africa. Women, particularly colonised women, were reduced to vectors of disease.

A postcard showing an aerial photograph of Bousbir, author’s collection

The most famous quartier réservé (red-light district) in North Africa was Bousbir in Casablanca. Home to hundreds of sex workers and located a few miles from the city, Bousbir was surrounded by high stone walls. Armed guards manned its only gate to keep the women contained within. According to a Maury and Mathieu’s study of Bousbir, 71% of the more than 640 women worked in the roughly 44 brothels. These mostly employed Moroccan women, although one was solely European.

In French North Africa, brothels were managed by a patronne (brothel manager or madam). She had complete control over the women she employed. Christelle Taraud observes that most brothel managers were 40-50 years old, had previously been sex workers and had “climbed the ranks of the prostitution pyramid”. Many were European woman like Madame Carmen who managed either Moroccan or European women.

European sex workers had been present in Algeria since French troops landed in 1830. The first brothel was opened by Marie Boyer in 1832 and followed the French army as it forcefully occupied the country. Racial hierarchies were explicit. The 1934 Guide Rose, a clandestine guide to brothels in France and the French Empire, listed the more upmarket, European brothels in North Africa. These were considered higher status, were more selective of their clientele and charged higher prices.  All but one were managed by a European woman.

By contrast, Taraud notes that the description of North African patronnes was usually reduced to a stereotype of the raucous, fat, colourful “moukère” (derogative word for a Maghrebi prostitute). Considered more trustworthy, they often picked up impoverished Moroccan women from hammams and market places, promising regular food and somewhere to live. “She doesn’t know that by making an agreement with this women, she will become her slave,” comment Mathieu and Maury in their study. If sex workers didn’t make 2,500 to 3,000 francs each week, the madam would keep their weekly income. Yet even if a woman did earn this, she would rarely see the fruits of her labour, which would be swallowed up by the numerous charges added to her debt.

The French regulationist (réglementariste) system so strictly restricted the movement of sex workers that they relied entirely on the economic system of the brothel in which they lived. Patronnes charged their employees anything from 2 to 300 francs a day for food and sold them clothes for double the usual price. Because the financial resources of their employees were so measly, madams also profited from lending them money on the rare occasions they were allowed outside. In Bousbir this was only once a week and with the written permission of the madam, a rare occurrence. There was also the constant threat of fines, dealt out arbitrarily by the madam for such offences as rudeness, a disagreement with a client, or not following the hygiene rules (inspecting and washing a client before sex, douching afterwards).

Most sex workers never received the payment from clients, with brothels using a system of tokens. Aziz describes begging the men to simply give her the token without having to have sex with them. The tokens were given to the patronne for rent, living costs and debts, hopefully with a few francs remaining. But these were the lucky women. Less than half of the women working in brothels ever earned any wages, with all the profits going straight to the madam. They only received small tips or presents from clients, which ranged from cigarettes to slippers. Naturally, anything too valuable was confiscated.

A postcard showing sex workers from the Bousbir red-light district, author’s collection.

Sex workers in North Africa had to navigate complex economic systems of debt and extortion, designed to extract all possible profits from their bodies and their physical labour. Not all sex work began through deception, but madams could detain their workers indefinitely with the support of the French legal system, whilst profiting from their role as both landlord and manager. The enormous financial motivation for deceit must have resulted lead to coercing unknown hundreds of women.

In turn, patronnes paid the French government taxes from sex work and brothels in Bousbir paid rent to the local French authorities via a third party. It was within French imperial economic and social interests to keep women trapped, both financially and legally, within the “carceral and coercive” system of work first introduced by imperialists.

It took Germaine Aziz 30 years to break out of this colonial labour system, chronicled in her heart-breaking and evocative memoire. I cried twice reading it. For anyone fatigued by the cycle of op-eds about statues and the ‘war on woke’, a debate that can become so focused on symbols that it overlooks historical experiences, it is also a stark reminder of the realities of colonial violence. Colonial regulationism poisoned the lives of thousands of unnamed women by forcing them to stay in sex work against their will.


About the author: Catherine Phipps is a PhD student in History at the University of Oxford. Her research examines the impact of the French imperial presence in Morocco in the early 20th century and the intimate aspects of colonial rule. She focuses on interracial relationships between European women and Moroccan men, sex work, and queer identities.

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