LONDON -- The timing couldn’t have been more tragically ironic. As women the world over gathered last week to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, women in Morocco gathered to protest the death of a 16 year-old girl who took her life after being forced to marry her rapist.
The women’s rights activists were there on behalf of Amina al-Filali, a teenager from the small town of Larache, near Tangiers, who died the previous Saturday after drinking a lethal amount of rat poison. Amina committed suicide following what her father described as a series of brutal beatings by her husband, whom local authorities had pressured her to marry after he allegedly raped her. Witnesses say her husband became so outraged when she drank the poison he dragged her down the street by her hair. She died shortly afterwards.
The Moroccan penal code was updated in 2004 to give women greater rights. But in the case of rape, the burden of proof is often on the victim to prove that she was attacked or risk prosecution for debauchery. While rape is punishable by five to 10 years in prison under Moroccan law, it rises to between 10 and 20 years if the victim is a minor. But a rapist can marry an underage victim in order to preserve the honor of the woman's family.
According to the victim’s mother, who claims that she found her daughter lying in the forest following the initial sexual assault at knifepoint: “"I had to marry her to him, because I couldn't allow my daughter to have no future and stay unmarried." Apparently, the local court concurred, and pressured the victim’s father to consent to the marriage despite his own misgivings.
Abdelaziz Nouaydi, who runs the Adala Association for legal reform in Morocco, maintains that Amina’s situation is rare, because a judge can recommend marriage only in the case of agreement by the victim and both families. But Fouzia Assouli, president of Democratic League for Women’s Rights, disagreed, claiming that such arrangements are “a recurring phenomenon” in her country, which is why activists have demanded a repeal of Article 475, the law that “allows the rapist to escape justice.”
On Saturday some 200 women gathered outside the Moroccan parliament to protest the law. One banner, written in Arabic, Amazigh (a Berber language) and French read: “Women’s Dignity. End Sexual Harassment.” A Facebook page called We Are All Amina Filali has also been launched with more than 2,200 members.
Woman’s Rights activist Abadila Maaelaynine wrote on the social network site Twitter: "Amina, 16, was triply violated, by her rapist, by tradition, and by Article 475 of the Moroccan law."
Certainly Morocco is not alone in limiting women’s personal freedoms and imposing draconian sentences on those who dare to defy them. In nearby Saudi Arabia, women are still banned from driving automobiles, lest it “spell the end of virginity.” And in Iran, a woman who was convicted of adultery two years ago is still slated for execution, although whether she will die by stoning or hanging remains unresolved.
But it would be a mistake to write this story off as just one more instance of the harsh treatment of women in the Arab world. As my colleague Lori Stahl noted just a few days back, even in America, reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act has become a matter of partisan debate.
I’m not trying to equate what just happened in Morocco to anything that’s currently going in the U.S. But we would all do well to take note of the sort of egregious injustice inflicted on girls like Amina and re-assess whether we really want to be fighting over something as basic and non-controversial as The Violence Against Women Act.
To quote Hillary Clinton as she marked the occasion of International Women’s Day last week: “Let us mark this day by finding ways to ensure women and girls' access to education, health care, jobs, and credit, and to protect their right to live free from violence.”