Lifestyle & Belief

Rape Victim's Death Sparks Protest Against Marriage Law in Morocco

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Activists from various women's rights associations gather while holding placards as they protest against the suicide of Amina al-Filali, 16, who was forced to marry the man who raped her, in Rabat. (Photo: REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal)

In Morocco, a man who has sex with an under-aged girl can escape prosecution by marrying her. Some judges even allow a man accused of raping a girl to go free as long as he marries her. That's what happened in the case of 16-year-old Amina Filali.

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Her family says she was raped by a local man. Amina's father, Lahcen Filali, said the prosecutor offered marriage as a way to restore his daughter's honor. Filali said he agreed to it, and so did his daughter's accused rapist.

"The only reason he married her is because the prosecutor told them 'now just go get married'," said Filali.

He hoped the marriage would work out, Filali said, after the wedding, the abuse continued. Filali said his daughter daughter's husband frequently beat her.

On March 10th, Amina killed herself by swallowing rat poison. Filali said his daughter's husband made her life unbearable.

"I mean someone who raped you, and tortured you, she could not get used to being with him," he said.

The husband's family disputes Filali's version of what happened. But one thing is certain —Amina's suicide has caused a furor in Morocco. It's sparked demonstrations, with human rights and women's rights activists saying Morocco's laws are outdated and barbaric.

Activists pressed for legal reforms at a recent meeting in Casablanca with Morocco's Family Minister, Bassima Hakkaoui, the only woman in the new Islamist government.

Hakkaoui told the crowd that she'd always demanded harsher punishment for rapists and she expressed confidence that the laws can be changed to satisfy everyone.

But so far nothing has happened. Stephanie Willman Bordat, Maghreb Regional Director for Global Rights, an NGO that advocates for women's rights in the region, said she's frustrated by all the promises.

"The Moroccan government has actually been promising a violence against women law since 2006, and we still don't have that law," she said. "The Moroccan justice minister has been working on penal code reforms quite substantively for years now, but that whole process stopped with the elections."

A new Islamist government was elected last fall, with a promise of more transparency, an end to corruption, and more economic development. The government also said that it wouldn't impose its conservative religious beliefs on the general public. Morocco is a Muslim country, but drinking alcohol, for instance, is permitted there. Still, Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid has suggested that the public is more comfortable with a socially conservative approach.

He's said that most Moroccan families don't want to change existing laws; they want the option of allowing marriages to underage girls to protect family honor. But whether Moroccan society is ready for reform doesn't matter, according to Khadija Riyadi, the head of Morocco's Association for Human Rights.

"Laws help to change mentalities. We don't wait for mentalities to change on their own," Riyadi said. "We must do something to change mentalities."

There have been some reforms. A revision to the family code in 2004 gave women more rights and protections, including raising the legal age for marriage from 15 to 18. The Islamic party that's now leading Morocco's government fiercely opposed that change, and many conservative male judges have continued to allow underage marriages, like the one between 16-year-old Amina Filali and her alleged rapist.

The fundamental problem, according to Stephanie Willman Bordat, is that violence against women isn't taken seriously in Morocco. She points to the country's domestic violence laws.

"The police are not authorized to go into a home or the scene of a domestic dispute unless there's imminent of threat of death. In order to bring a criminal complaint for domestic violence you have to have a medical certificate of incapacity of 21 days or more, which is a very high threshold to meet," she said.

Now all eyes on Morocco's new Islamist government to see what it will do about laws affecting women now that the case of Amina Filali has become an international cause celebre.

Aida Alami contributed to this story.

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