The suicide of a Moroccan teen who was forced to marry her rapist has sparked outraged calls for reform, but the weight of tradition and the inertia of the justice system can make change slow here.
Amina Al Filali, a 16-year-old girl from the northern village of Larache, drank rat poison last month after the man who raped her forced her to marry him under an article of the penal code that authorises a rapist to wed his victim to escape prosecution.
Victims’ parents often agree to the unions because the loss of a woman’s virginity outside marriage is considered a dishonour to her family.
The suicide sent shockwaves through Morocco, sparking protests and calls for reform, including from the country’s women and families minister, Bassima Hakkaoui, the only female cabinet member.
“A rapist’s place is in prison,” she told parliament Tuesday.
But she has not called for the repeal of the law — penal code article 475 — or the amendment of other articles activists have criticised.
“We need to rigorously study this situation, and consider increasing the penalties in the context of reforming the article. We cannot ignore this tragedy,” government spokesman Mustapha El Khelfi said after the suicide.
Under Moroccan law, rape is punishable by five to 10 years in prison — or between 10 and 20 years if the victim is a minor, which also entails a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams (18-45 euros, $23-59).
If the rapist marries his victim he cannot be pursued legally unless she manages to obtain a divorce.
But under the family code, a judge’s decision authorising such a marriage cannot be reversed.
Global activist group Avaaz launched an online petition demanding reform that has been signed by nearly 800,000 people — nearing its target of one million.
The petition calls for “a comprehensive law to stop violence against women, including repeal of Article 475”.
But on issues of women’s rights and sexuality, change is not easy in Morocco.
“To change the law on such sensitive questions in a very traditional society, there would need to be an implicit signal from the king,” a gynecologist in Rabat told AFP, asking not to be identified.
Hakkaoui, the women and families minister, has called for the creation of support centres where victims can report rape, and for harsher penalties.
“If the number of rape cases increases in a society, you have to increase the penalty,” she said, adding that government has begun discussing the matter.
In March, Hakkaoui had downplayed the events leading up to Amina Al Filali’s suicide.
“Even if a marriage in circumstances similar to Amina’s is doomed to fail,” she said, “we can’t forget the nature of our society. In other words, bear in mind the families and the victim’s circle, whether she is a minor or not.”
But her more recent remarks have given activists a glimmer of hope that reform may be possible.
“I think the minister is on the right path to undertake a dialogue with the women’s movement,” Fouzia Assouli, president of the Federation of the Democratic League of Women’s Rights, told AFP.
“We are waiting for bills that will translate into the adoption of a framework law against all forms of violence against women, a reworking of the criminal code, not just the repeal of article 475.”
[Photo of Hamida (R) and Souad, the sister and mother of Amina Al Filali who committed suicide via AFP Photo/Abdelhak Senna]