Fight for women's rights in North Africa

Submitted by Matthew on 11 April, 2012 - 7:52

On 10 March 16-year-old Amina Filali killed herself by swallowing rat poison.

Amina had been badly beaten during a forced marriage to Mustapha Kellak, a man who had raped her. Although there have been some limited legal improvement in the position of women in Morocco, the state still allows a rapist to marry an underage victim as a way of avoiding prosecution. The law — known as Article 475 — says a “kidnapper” of a minor can marry his victim so that dishonour is not brought on her family.

Legislation designed to outlaw all forms of violence against women, planned since 2006, has yet to appear.

Amina’s parents say a local court pressured them to accept the marriage. They are from a backward, conservative rural area.

On 17 March several hundred women’s rights activists demonstrated in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, demanding that the man who raped Amina be jailed and that Article 475 be abolished. Outrage continued after the Al-Massae newspaper invited the rapist to discuss the matter at a conference in Casablanca.

Eric Goldstein from Human Rights Watch says that many other barriers to equality persist in the Moroccan legal code, including a provision that makes it a crime to give refuge to married women who have escaped their husbands.

Another article in the code makes sex outside of marriage a crime. If a woman reports a rape, and she doesn’t prove her case, she is then admitting to sex outside marriage, opening up the possibility of prosecution.

Women’s rights in Morocco are becoming a battleground between liberals and the left, and the Islamists who have been brought to power in the wake of the Arab Spring.

To head off a revolution, the King made concessions and allowed the formation of a government led by the Islamist Justice and Development Party. Bassima Hakkaoui, minister of women and the family — and the only woman among the 29 ministers in the government — acknowledged that there was a “real problem” and called for a debate on changing the law. But Hakkaoui also claimed that Amina Filali had consented to the marriage.

And Justice Minister El Mostafa Ramid denied Amina Filali had been raped.

17-year-old Layla Belmahi, a founder of a women’s rights group denounced the Minister:

“He was talking about it like it was something that was normal, that the only thing that really shocked him was the fact that she killed herself.

“The problem wasn’t the fact that she killed herself. It was that she was forced to marry her rapist.”

Two Tunisian bloggers, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, have been given long prison sentences after they posted a cartoon of Muhammad on Facebook.

Ghazi Beji is still being looked for by police, while Jabeur Mejri faces seven years in jail.

On Sunday 25 March 10,000 marched in the capital, Tunis, demanding the country introduce Islamic sharia law. The ultra-conservative Salafists are pressing the leading party in the government, Ennahda, a somewhat milder Islamist party, to make the changes. Some marchers demanded a war on Jews – alarming Tunisia’s Jews, a 1500 minority among a population of ten million.

Also last month, Salafist students at Manouba University on the outskirts of Tunis fought secular students and burnt the Tunisian flag.

Last year, Salafists protested outside Nessma TV when it screened the French-Iranian film Persepolis. They also attacked a cinema that was showing “Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre,” (“No God, No Master”), a film by secularist filmmaker Nadia al-Fani. Some Salafists were jailed.

Ennahda, which won 41% of the seats in the constituent assembly elected last October, declares that the new constitution will not base Tunisia’s law on sharia.

The Islamists have not gone uncontested. A large march took place in Tunis to celebrate International Women’s day.

On Monday 9 April 2000 protesters marching from the nearby headquarters of the main trade union federation, the UGTT, which has been at the forefront of opposition to the Islamist-led government, fought riot police at the interior ministry on Bourguiba Avenue.

On Saturday 7 April the police had attacked and dispersed a march by jobless workers in central Tunis and the unions were demanding their right to protest.