On 18 March several hundred campaigners, led by the Democratic League for Women’s Rights, demonstrated outside Morocco’s parliament against a law which led 16-year old Amina Filali to kill herself.
Article 475 of Morocco’s penal code allows rapists to marry the woman they rape, if she is a minor, to avoid prosecution and “restore her virtue”.
After months in a violent marriage to a man who sexually assaulted her when she was 15, Amina took rat poison on 10 March. Protesters, including her parents, held signs saying, “The law has killed Amina”. Protests on the streets have been matched by an online campaign to have the law repealed.
It has been argued that there has been a move towards legal equality in Morocco. King Muhammed VI introduced reforms raising the minimum age of marriage for women from 15 to 18; abolishing a wife’s duty of obedience; her property no longer automatically becomes her husband’s; custody of children is no longer the man’s right; and divorce must now go through a court hearing and be by mutual consent. 10% of seats in the lower house of the Moroccan parliament are also reserved for women.
These “legal equalities” are, of course, limited — 10% is hardly representative, and women are confined to one section of parliament. Divorce by mutual consent is also far from ideal: women should be able to divorce their husband without their agreement.
Amina’s case highlights the laws which have been left untouched but also the limitations of legal reform in striving for equality. Unless society creates an environment where laws defending and promoting equality can be exercised, they are little use.
In Britain, where any number of laws “guarantee” equality, a woman reporting rape still faces victim-blaming and disbelief, alongside an ongoing decline in a conviction rate — the worst in Europe.
The hashtag #Ididnotreport trended on Twitter recently as women explained their experiences and why they did not feel they could report experiences of rape — highlighting a lack of faith in the system and a fear of being blamed. Meanwhile, in 2010 an investigation into the way the police handle, or mishandle, cases of sexual assault was shelved due to funding cuts!
What chance do women have, then, in a society where sex before marriage is unacceptable, and brings “dishonour” to women and their families, even if they are raped?
Last year around 25% of Moroccan women were sexually assaulted, at least once — they faced the choice of keeping their attack secret or possibly being forced to marry the man who raped them. As a result Morocco has one of the lowest rates of reporting of rape internationally — at just 3.6 cases per 100,000 women in 2009.
Under pressure from campaigners Morocco’s Ministry of Justice has issued a statement saying the judge did not violate any court procedures. They claim Amina had the opportunity during four court hearings to state her refusal to marriage, and also suggested that Amina had given consent to the sexual assault.
Just over two weeks ago Morocco celebrated International Women’s Day — with United Nations Women’s Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, visiting and commending them “on the gains that have been made”.
The “theme” of this year’s International Women’s Day was “Empower Rural Women — End Poverty and Hunger”. Amina Filali was from a small rural town in the north of Morocco.
In celebrating the “Moroccan Constitution, which establishes the principle of equality between men and women in all spheres” neither the UN nor Morocco’s government are empowering Amina or women like her. Quite the opposite: they are betraying them.