News of Amina al-Filali’s suicide continues to create a seismic reaction everywhere around the world. Even in Singapore where I am currently on a teaching assignment, local newspapers reported on the tragedy. Twitterverse is abuzz with feeds under the hashtag #RIPAmina . The 16-year old teen that took her own life after she was forced to marry her rapist has become a symbol for resistance against anti-women laws in Morocco. Several sit-ins took place in Morocco denouncing the “marry rapist” law and calling for a ban on the law. The government has pledged that the law will be amended. But the law itself is not the only issue, but a general attitude towards rape, domestic violence and women status in Morocco.
According to article 475 of Morocco’s penal code, a rapist or abductor can be exempted from all criminal charges if they marry their minor rape victims. The law stipulates that the guardians of the victim have to consent to the marriage with the court approval. This is a triple tragedy: Amina was victimized twice by her aggressor and an archaic penal code, her family, concerned by an ignorant cultural shame of rape and pressure from the public prosecutor conceded to her marriage to the rapist who robbed her out of her childhood; and the court system did not exercise its oversight authority to veto such a grave injustice.
The panoply of injustices that befell Amina has rightfully sparked a national debate on women’s rights and status of women in the kingdom. Despite the much vaunted mudawanna (family code) reforms of 2004, which among other, raised the age of marriage from 15 to 18, placed limitations on the practice of polygamy and gave women the right to petition the court for divorce, women in Morocco continue to struggle for equal and fair social, economic and political opportunities.
Women suffer from a high rate of illiteracy (58% among females) nearing in some cases 90 percent among girls in rural areas and disproportionate rate of unemployment as they struggle against gender bias. More importantly, women are victims of cultural and traditional prejudices in divorce, rape and sexual harassment. Laws reflect prevailing attitudes of a society, and in a society that often blames women for the crimes of their rapists, where those crimes are even reported, article 475 is an unjust attempt to keep the lid on a crime commonly understood to be against social chastity.
The law should not have even existed in the books. Minors should unequivocally benefit from the protection of the state. Not even parents, who may succumb to societal and traditional pressure, should have the final say as Amina’s case tragically shows. What kind of society are we, if we cannot protect our most vulnerable? What does it say about our moral fabric if we remand a victim to their culprit?Morocco’s laws and justice system are in dire need for reform, much like the whole structure of political system. Increased pressure from women’s rights groups such as the Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM) and the Union Action Féminine (UAF) is key to the renewal of public debate on the place of women in society. In the past, these groups articulated new discourses of women’s rights and human rights, and adopted a ‘self-limiting framework’ that is independent of political parties. With all their success ahead of the 2004 family code reforms, the infamous 475 law slipped through the cracks with the stipulation that the courts will exercise its authority judiciously and in favor of the weak and victim.
The case of Amina is a reminder that the kingdom long touted as a beacon for Arab progress still loiters under the brunt of archaic laws and a corrupt justice system. The sweeping reforms of 2004 are constantly challenged by tradition. It is time we fully empowered the existing laws that give women full citizenship rights, physical integrity, access to work, ownership and legal equality. It is also time we discarded all of he anti-women legislation like article 475.