By Charley Locke
On March 10th, Amina Filali, a sixteen year old from the town of Larache in northern Morocco, committed suicide after marrying her rapist, Mustapha Kellak, a year ago.
This case has sparked protests throughout Morocco, a country that prides itself on a combination of progressive women’s rights and traditional Islamic beliefs. Indeed, in large part due to increased activism from Moroccan women’s rights organizations, King Mohammed VI and the Moroccan parliament approved vast changes to the mudawana, or Moroccan family code, in 2004. The reform, which asserts that “women are men’s sisters before the law,” rather than lifelong minors, made strides in asserting women’s rights and opened the door to further political changes by altering a text written by Ulama, Islamic religious authorities, and based heavily on traditional Maliki law. Yet despite the recent changes to the mudawana, which include granting women the ability to file for divorce, necessitating a judge’s consent for marriage under eighteen, and requiring that women fill 10% of the seats in Moroccan parliament, women’s rights activists still clearly have a long struggle ahead. This is evidenced in Article 475 of Morocco’s penal code, which allows rapists to marry their victims to escape prosecution, stating that “if the minor who was tricked or kidnapped has reached puberty and married the person who tricked or kidnapped her, then he cannot be pursued through the court,” and in some cases, such as Filali’s, “if the victim refused to marry him, then her father or guardian has the right to force her.”
Particularly in smaller towns and villages like Larache, Filali’s home, a woman losing her virginity before marriage can bring shame to her family and ruin her prospects of marriage. (In areas without access to secondary education, marriage often serves as the only available option for female independence from the parents’ home.) Defenders of Article 475 argue that in communities which place such high value on female virginity, the law gives women who have been raped an opportunity for marriage and a family.
Yet victims, who legally must agree to the marriage themselves, often only do so under pressure from others. In Filali’s case, both her parents and court officials urged her to marry her rapist in order to avoid scandal and protect her reputation. Her mother, Zahra Mallim, who had insisted on her daughter’s marriage after finding her assaulted in a nearby forest, explained, “I had to marry her to him, because I couldn’t allow my daughter to have no future and stay unmarried.” Yet Filali’s future became increasingly bleak within her marriage, as her rapist and husband “mistreated her, beating her and leaving her starving with no food,” leading to Filali’s suicide a few weeks ago.
The reaction from Moroccans has been overwhelmingly negative, and has strengthened the feminist call for reform. Fouzia Assouli, the president of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, described Article 475 as a law that “allows the rapist to escape justice,” arguing that “we must change the penal code,” and Moroccan women have staged protests throughout major cities calling for an end to the law, as well as through social media, including the Facebook page “We Are All Amina Filali.”
Yet the struggle for women’s rights in Morocco is clearly ongoing. As Taieb Belghazi, a professor of cultural studies and the Director of the Centre d’Etudes Doctorales, Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences in Rabat, explains, “this is a widely accepted thing, that it is shameful to carry on resisting and fighting and being a member of society after the experience of rape.” In a society where Filali’s mother felt that marriage to her rapist was her daughter’s best chance at a happy future, where a woman “is not conceived as someone who is entitled to the right to dispose of her body the way she wants,” changes in women’s rights will necessitate changes in Moroccan mentality. As Belghazi explains, “people who adhere to patriarchal modes of thinking are not going to let go just because others are outraged by the situation, and it’s going to take some time for that attitude to change.”
Charley Locke ’14 is currently studying abroad in Morocco and blogs for the Globalist Notebook on topics related to North Africa.