The case of Amina El Filali created huge controversy in Morocco after the teenager forced to marry her rapist committed suicide. Following the scandal, the Islamist government announced a possible revision of the rape law. However, recent declarations show that officials may have changed their mind as Raïssa Ioussouf reports.
Married and living in the house of the man who raped her, Amina El Filali, 16, drank rat poison after being severely beaten by her husband. The young girl from Larache in North Morocco died on the 10th of March, two days after the celebration of women’s day.
Amina’s story sparked an important mobilization from feminists groups campaigning for the abolition of article 475. That provision of the penal code states that an attacker of a minor can escape prosecution if he marries his victim. Mustafa Fallaq, Amina’s rapist, only agreed to the marriage to avoid being sentenced for his crime.
Women’s rights groups have denounced the practice that allows a victim to marry her attacker to preserve the honour of the woman’s family. In Morocco, it’s still unacceptable to lose your virginity outside marriage whatever the reason. Therefore, families are often advised to take that option by court officials.
Filali’s father declared to AFP during a sit-in in Larache “I didn’t want to go see the judge to marry them. But my wife forced me. She told me it was necessary so that people would stop making fun of us, and silence the shame.”
‘Amina is my Bouazizi’
Amina is certainly not the only teenager forced into marriage after being raped but her story created unprecedented media attention and public outrage.
Houda Belabd, an Egyptian journalist working for the website Yabiladies says “Amina is the first case of its kind who managed to mobilize feminists and human rights activists from all over the world. Now, rape cases in Morocco that took place right after Filali’s case benefited from a different sort of vision and attention.”
In an article entitled ‘Amina is my Bouazizi’, Moroccan blogger Medhi B. Idrissi compares the teenage girl to the street vendor in Tunisia that set himself on fire to protest against police abuse. Mohammed Bouazizi is credited to be the catalyst for the revolution that overthrew Ben Ali.
Medhi writes: “Bouazizi might’ve started a political revolution; But Amina has triggered the awakening of the long sleeping humanitarian in me. Thousands of girls like her are spread above our ground, most of them silenced by force and threat.”
Has Amina’s desperate act changed the condition for women in Morocco in the same way Bouazizi transformed Tunisia? Her death certainly shed light on the work of militants groups who have been advocating the abolition of article 475 for years.
Feminists groups: the fight for change
Beyond a revision of this provision, activists for women’s rights are now hoping to achieve deeper reforms in Morocco.
“In the short term we want to change the law that gives permission to the judge to marry the rapist to their victims,” said Houda Chaloun, organizer of the RIP Amina campaign. “In the long term we completely want to change the penal procedure which is very discriminatory towards women on rape cases mainly but also on the violence against women, on the marriage and so on…”
The feminists want to modify a country that cultivates a modern image but is still lagging behind in the area of gender equality. The new constitution that was adopted in July 2011 forbids any form of discrimination and yet fails to apply this principle. When it comes to inheritance, a woman only gets half of a man’s share.
The example of the Arab Spring probably encouraged militants groups to ask for more change, but such ambition could be counterproductive, thinks the Moroccan blogger using the pseudonym IBN Kakfa.
The internet user and legal advisor also believes that those who fight for a better condition of women and minors should be more specific and focus on sexual crimes and assault on children before turning their attention to other subjects.
“If you also discuss the age of marriage and marital rape, people could say you raised Amina’s case in order to change family laws in general. If you try to reach a too wide target you risk loosing everything.”
A backtracking government
The improvement of women’s condition in Morocco and the modification of the legal system require the support of political power. However, the Islamist government seems reluctant to amend the controversial article 475.
Initially though, the emotion generated by Amina’s case forced ministers officials to announce a revision of the rape law. “We can’t ignore what happened, one of the things we are looking for is to toughen the sentence for rape,” declared the Moroccan communications minister Mustapha el-Khalfi to Al Jazeera.
The only female member of the government, Bassima Hakkaoui, Minister of Solidarity, Woman, Family and Social Development recognised that the law was a “real problem” and suggested a debate to modify the text.
But those encouraging declarations may have been just a way of defusing the unrest. The Minister of Justice, Mustapha Ramid now casts doubt that Amina was raped and Bassima Hakkaoui backtracked on her previous declaration.
She declared to the website Yabiladies that “the article 475 of the penal code will not be repealed overnight because of pressure from international public opinion. Sometimes, the marriage of a victim to her rapist is not necessarily a real prejudice.”
Strangleholds of society
With such positions, it is not surprising that the minister did not support the propositions of reform made by the NGOs. “She was very clear that she will not take the project herself for the law at the government stage,” deplores Houda Chaloun, organizer of the RIP Amina campaign.
“Her arguments were that society still want to marry young girls and even victims to their rapists and that we need to follow how the society behaves. I am completely against this statement; I think that the law should reform the society,” added the activist. 41,098 acts of underage girl’s marriage were concluded in 2010, up 23.59% over 2009.
Beyond the legal aspect, Amina’s story highlights the morals of a country that holds a very traditional perception of women. Experts explain that article 475 is actually about non violent ‘abduction’.
“The history behind comes from ancient French law and was reserved for people seducing minors away from the parents in order to marry them. The article is not about rape but it has been misinterpreted, that’s the strange thing about it,” analysed legal advisor Ibn Kafka. “If you read the law the way it should be read, that case should have never risen. So it’s society, it’s the mentality.”
Amina’s rapist is free and probably nobody will be jailed for what happened to her, but the shock caused by her suicide certainly shook Moroccan mentalities.
“The mobilization is less important than at the beginning of the case for the simple reason that the message has been heard, or almost heard. Yet, the rape of a young Moroccan girl aged 16 from a town near Larache has driven her to kill herself like Filali,” said Houda Belabd, journalist for the website Yabiladies.
“The teenager ended her life because her family wanted her to marry her rapist ‘to chase away the shame’ like the people from the countryside inMoroccokeep saying. A great effort in the area of awareness is needed.”