(WNN) Rabat, MOROCCO, NORTH AFRICA: Women’s rights defenders in Morocco are closer than ever to a major victory as the government plans to change a law that has allowed rapists to avoid jail time by marrying their victim. In spite of policy improvement, activists in the region point out that there is still alot of work to be done in the area of women’s rights in the North African nation.
In a case that caught the eye of the global public in March 2012 Amina Filali, a 16-year-old Moroccan woman, was forced by Morocco’s court system to marry her 23-year-old rapist. After the coersive marriage Filali ended her life by swallowing rat poison. She died suddenly in the Moroccan streets of Larache after ingesting her poison while standing next to her husband. The incident, while not the first of its kind in the region, prompted other women to report their own cases of marital abuse spurring a public outcry over the controversial Moroccan penal code called: Article 475.
It was this nefarious law that allowed Amina Filali’s rapist to not only become her husband, but also to avoid jail time.
“The legal age of marriage [in Morocco] is 18 years, but parents may secure a waiver from a judge for underage marriage.,” says the U.S. Department of State. But the law can be pushed to the side when a family works to get a court waiver from a judge. This legal loophole encourages problems and the great suffering of girls under child marriage in the region.
“The greatest victim in Morocco is not only measured by her gender, but also by her marital status, and her class,” said Al Jazeera news in a recent analysis of Filali’s case.
Women and girls from Moroccan society who have reported sexual assault have been forced to marry their rapists for fear of scandal and shame, especially those who come from families who struggle with little-to-no opportunities, outlines Khadija Alaoui – Editor in Chief of Modern Family (Famille Actuelle), a popular magazine in Morocco.
According to Alaoui, an unmarried woman without a hymen is too often viewed in parts of Moroccan society as a “Shame that could not be washed away.”
“This emphasis on virginity for brides ‘at all costs’ at any age is part of the complex series of laws, like Article 475, that only ends up harming women. Today’s Moroccan society is changing though. Women are increasingly aware of the harm done to them by forcing them to live with a person who assaulted them physically and often sexually,” says Alauoi.
While Morocco is one of the more liberal of the Muslim nations, the deeply rooted concept of ‘honor’ in the family can create a system of fear for women who are under a constant threat of violence in the home with little protection for them. Reporting crime is a challenge. Morocco’s legal system is based on Islamic laws, along with the inclusion of French and Spanish civil laws. The legal Family Code, known in the region as ‘Moudawana’ follows the Maliki School of Law which defines the status of women under Islamic society.
In the region the Family Code was reformed for the better in 2004. Working to establish equality for spouses some forms of greater freedom were given to women. But the improvement of the laws did not bring enough improvement. Equality of the sexes is still out of reach for women in Morocco who are still considered inferior to men.
“Article 475, as bad as it is, is only the tip of the iceberg in Morocco’s failure to protect women and girls from violence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch in a recent March 23, 2013 statement. “Despite reforms in Morocco’s 2004 family code, girls and women are far from being protected under the law when they are the victims of violence.”
A proposal to delete Article 475 by Morocco’s parliament, the Moroccan House of Counsellors, has been made. In their efforts they have been joined by Ms. Bassima Hakkaoui, Morocco’s Minister of Solidarity, Women and the Family, and one of the first female parliamentary members currently working for Morocco’s government. Mr. Mustafa el-Khalfi, government spokesman as Morocco’s Communication Minister, is also leading the push to help women. Along with el-Khalfi activists working within the region, on-the-ground organizations like KARAMAH – Muslim Women Lawyers For Human Rights are also working on issues of domestic violence in Morocco.
The people demand change – Vestiges of a forgotten revolution
Just over two years ago the world watched as the citizens of Arab nations took over the streets of their communities to demand economic, social and political freedom. The protests, violence and political changes that took place dominated the local media.
But the full extent of the revolutions and their consequences for women remain unclear.
Fed up with what they called ‘an autocratic and patriarchal society’ and inspired by their North African neighbors in Tunisia and Libya, Moroccans, and perhaps most significantly, Moroccan women demanded constitutional change. Calls for increased gender equality and human rights were heard on the streets. The demands also overwhelmed social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
As a result of the February 20th Movement, and the revolutions that came after, new changes to Morocco’s constitution were made. Significantly Article 19 was added stipulating once again the equality of the sexes.
But according to Dr. Asma Lamrabet, who is also the Director of the Women’s Center of Feminine Studies in Islam, “Laws have changed but attitudes have not.” Dr. Lamrabet is also a Doctor of Hemotology at Rabat’s Children’s Hospital. In a recent one-on-one interview with WNN – Women News Network Dr. Lamrabet shared her insights.
“Women’s associations have mobilized en masse to fight the law, which requires the marriage of the victim with the aggressor [in order that the rapist escape jail time]… …It was also easier to change the law in the context of today thanks to the new constitution, which states equality and the fight against all forms of discrimination against women [in Article 19],” said Dr. Lamrabet to WNN.
The revolution continues – Demands for change to the Moroccan Family Code
Demands for change in Morocco as the most politically stable country in North Africa has been a work in progress. According to independent human rights and freedom watchdog group Freedom House, Section 336 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CPP) was repealed in 2002. It required a woman wishing to bring a complaint against her husband to obtain authorization from the courts.
Despite this progress, Moroccan human rights defenders continue to challenge other ‘unfair’ provisions in Morocco’s Penal Code. Article 488 gives harsher punishments, twice the number of years in jail, for the rape of a virgin as opposed to a non-virgin. For those women who are virgins the punishment for the rapist is 10 to 20 years in prison. For those who are not virgins the sentence is five to 10 years.
Not all sexual assault has women and girls as its victims. Because of this activists in Morocco are now working to change the definition of rape so it is considered gender-neutral. Changing laws to stop sexual coercion is also on the table. This type of coercion doesn’t always include sexual assault, but does include psychological abuse and often domestic physical violence.
“The question of women in Islam has long been seen from within the framework of one of two extreme viewpoints: the one bound by a strict conservative Islamic approach, the other by ethnocentric and Islamophobic Western conceptions,” said Dr. Asma Lamrabet in a 2012 editorial written for KARAMAH.
“‘Islam has granted women full rights … It has honoured women … It has protected them…’ This is the discourse favoured by many Muslims, very often sincere, but whose reasoning remains, nonetheless, very weak…,” added Dr. Lamrabet. “…An evident anachronism is noticeable between this discourse and the reality of Muslim daily life that both wishes and claims to be respectful of Islamic values, and yet where one can justify the worst types of discrimination against women. From honour killings and forced marriages to a retrograde jurisdiction that maintains women in the status of a minor for life, the list of abuses is long and unfortunately, remains legitimised by a particular reading of Islam,” she continued.
Five months ago Moroccan born filmmaker Hindi Bensari chose to release a documentary short called “475 : break the Silence” in order to reach the vast numbers of Moroccans who cannot read and write and engage them on this sensitive issue. She also was working to raise money for her film through the crowdsourcing site called INDIEGOGO, as well as call on the international web community to express their support.
“Your contribution will help me release this documentary as well as launch a public campaign that will lobby for the creation of a free line that victims of rape and violence can call for help” said Bensari about her project.
Civil society activists organized a sit-in in front of the parliament in Rabat, Morocco to protest against the penal code that allows a rapist to marry his victim as a way of avoiding prosecution. This story has been created by GlobalGirl Media reporter Nada Rifki. This 6:42 min March 27, 2012 video is a production of GlobalGirl Media with Institut Specialise du Cinema et l’Audiovisuel.
For more information on this topic:
“Child Marriage Fact Sheet,” Equality Now, August 2011;
“Moroccan Family Code: Text of the Moudawana,” Global Rights Partners for Justice, August 2005;
“Morocco: Towards an ‘Islamic State Feminism’,” Sciences po / Ceri, January 2013;
“Reforming Marriage Contract Procedures to Promote Womens’ Human Rights,” Global Rights Partners for Justice, March 2012;
“Executive Summary – Morocco,” U.S. Department of State, June 2012.
Additional information for this story has been supplied by KARAMAH, UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency, Famille Actuelle and Human Rights Watch.
In 2012 WNN human rights journalist and correspondent in Europe, Carli Pierson, worked as a legal intern at the Geneva headquarters of the International non-governmental organization International Bridges to Justice. She recently received her Juris Doctorate, with honors and a concentration in international law from Nova Southeastern University’s Shepard Broad Law center in May 2012. While in law school she worked for the U.S. Attorney General’s Office of Statewide Prosecution and for Senior Federal Judge John L. Kane. Prior to law school Carli worked as a broadcast news writer for WSVN in Miami, as an intern at CNN’s Chicago Bureau. She was also an intern producer and co-host for Radio Islam, the United State’s first call-in news radio show produced exclusively by Muslims for a wider audience.
(Additional editing by Lys Anzia of WNN – Women News Network).
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