It is often the case with human rights that it usually takes a tragedy in order for change to take place. It appears that this is the case for Morocco. On March 10 2012, reports spread around the world that a 16 year old girl had killed herself after being raped, and then forced to marry the man who perpetrated this heinous crime.
Amina Filali lived in a small town of Larache, near Tangiers in the northern region of the country. She swallowed rat poison after being severely beaten by her new husband whom she was forced to marry. Reports from witnesses have said that Ms Filali’s husband was so outraged that she had drank the rat poison, that he dragged her down the street by her hair. She died shortly afterwards.
The penal code in Morocco allows the “kidnapper” of a minor to marry her in order for him to escape jail. But what of the minor who has been subject to this horrific abuse?
The legal age of marriage in Morocco is 18, unless there are “special circumstances.” This is why Amina was married, despite her being underage. It is left to the judge in the case to recommend marriage only if all parties agree. But women’s rights activists say that huge amount of pressure is placed on the victim’s family to avoid shame and scandal and have their daughter marry the perpetrator.
In 2004, a new family code, the mudawana was updated in order to give more rights to women. And while headway has been made toward elevating the status of women in Morocco, it seems much remains to be desired. Samia Errazzouki is a Moroccan-American writer whose research focus is Morocco’s political economy and reforms. She told Our Other Sisters that “the actual law [the mudawana] is a remnant of France’s ancient regime which left its mark in Morocco’s legal system after colonialism. France, like Morocco, shares a steep history of patriarchy and much of that has remained embedded in the justice system.”
Samia explains that the update to the mudawana in 2004 would only have been controversial to a minority in Morocco. “Over half of the Moroccan population is illiterate, so it’s understandable that legal documents are relatively inaccessible to them. Moreover, even if it was controversial, there was no reason to denounce it because no major case like Amina’s had happened. It’s sort of like the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida that has been cited to defend Trayvon Martin’s killer. People are now starting to mobilize and denounce this law because, unfortunately, it took a major situation to bring attention to its flaws.”
Women’s Rights Groups
Women’s rights groups in the country say that the law is used to justify a traditional practice of allowing a rapist to marry his victim to preserve the honour of the woman’s family.
To date, nearly 800,000 people have signed the petition to repeal the law forcing victims to marry their rapists. The message to Prime Minister Benkirane; and the Ministers of Health, Justice and Solidarity, Women, Family and Social Development is:
“Since 2006, the government has been promising to pass a law to stop violence against women, but has failed to do so. As concerned global citizens, we call on you to stand with women, rescinding Article 475 and passing comprehensive legislation addressing violence against women.”
Pockets of traditionalism
Deeply traditional areas of the country are steeped in staunch conservatism that chaffs against the more cosmopolitan towns like Casablanca where attitudes to dress and culture adopt a more European approach. This wide breadth of differing views throughout the country creates a difficult political sphere.
The country has seen a fervent backlash against the ruling of Amina’s marriage and a rally of several hundred Moroccan women marched outside the country’s parliament building.
Amina’s suicide has brought together women in Morocco from across the political spectrum to rally against the law. The protesters so far have been disheartened by the lack of government response to both the protest and to Filali’s death. The Moroccan government defended the judge’s decision in Amina’s case. The governing Justice and Development party, which was elected last year, has been heavily criticised for failing to take sanctions against him or Amina’s husband.
Samia said she wasn’t surprised to see the response of Moroccan women. “Women in Morocco have been fighting for their rights for decades; people just haven’t been paying attention to them. Figures like Aicha Chenna has been one of the most prominent figures in recent years, when she opened the first centre geared solely for Moroccan women. She got a lot of support and has done unprecedented work for a specific group of women that are often looked down upon in society.”
Force for change
It appears that there is still a long way to go in reforming the law, and the hearts and minds of traditional conservatives in the country. Samia is doubtful that the case of Amina Filali will spark change.
“Firstly, Morocco’s new constitution stipulates that ratified treaties hold precedence over national law. If this was adhered to, Amina wouldn’t have been forced to marry her rapist. The updated family law from 2004 was a measure touted by the king himself. Moroccan parliament does not have the legal authority to challenge the king’s legislation. It’s his word over everyone else’s. With that being said, it’s interesting to note that he’s remained under the radar ever since Amina’s case hit international media outlets. Instead, he’s sent out ministers from the recently elected PJD to defend the law and defend the government, when the PJD was very much against the law back in 2004 to begin with.”
Though, as Samia points out, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the legal aspect of Amina’s case is just one aspect.
“There is stigma of illiteracy and widespread poverty, especially in the rural areas which, paired with this patriarchal mentality, creates unfortunate conditions for women. They don’t have agency. This needs to be addressed apolitically. Women should have access to educational facilities, be able to have economic opportunities. I think that will yield more effective results than changing the law. It’s clear some of these judges and lawyers aren’t the brightest legal experts, otherwise this situation wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”