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Morocco feminist says change must come after teen girl's suicide

March 15, 2012 |  4:11 pm

Moroccowomen

The name "Amina" has become a rallying cry for Moroccan feminists after the suicide of a 16-year-old girl who was reportedly forced to marry her rapist. Activists say the tragic death of Amina Filali should be a wake-up call to end a law that allows some rapists to dodge punishment if they marry their victims.

One of those activists is Fatima Outaleb, who sits on the board of directors of Union de L'Action Feminine, an organization in the Moroccan city of Rabat aimed at stopping discrimination against women. She is also in charge of a shelter that helps women victimized by domestic violence, rape, incest and other forms of abuse. 

The Times interviewed Outaleb about how the suicide has spurred new calls for change.

Why do you think this sad incident, in particular, mobilized people?

I don’t think that anyone who sees a young girl of 16 years, killing herself, cannot react. It has been a while that we have been urging the government to ban Article 475 in the penal code. It legitimatizes impunity. Just think of a perpetrator who is supposed to be punished and go to jail, instead he can marry that girl?  But the government is still debating it.

The case of that girl has made us react, all of us, maybe except for some people who still interpret this on a religious basis. But I think there is a general agreement that this is a gross violation of children’s rights, in the name of honor, I don’t know what, to put a girl in the hands of her perpetrator.

I’ve read arguments that the law is only enforced with the consent of the victim.

How can we think that an underage girl, a 16-, 14-, 13-year-old girl can consent or not? It’s unbelievable. It should not exist. Even if the girl consents, this should not be allowed for. Rape is rape.

The family code still allows a judge to contract a marriage, even of a young girl, even though the legal age is 18. There are alarming figures from the Ministry of Justice: In 2007, there were 37,000 early marriages that were contracted. It was the same for girls in 2008.

Morocco is really seen as a leader in the region when it comes to women’s rights. There were reforms in 2004 to the family laws, for instance. How far did they go, and what else needs to be done?

We cannot deny that Morocco has launched a process of changing its legal framework and its judiciary machine. But there are some gaps, such as letting judges contract early marriages.

Legal guardianship is still in the hands of the man. I am a professor, but I cannot sign anything related to my child. If I want to move my daughter from school to school, I need my husband’s permission because he is the one who is the guardian of the family.

There is also a gap between the old laws which have been adopted so far and the legal procedures to implement them. For example, a woman has the right to divorce her husband [within] six months [after the petition is filed]. But because the legal procedures have not been amended to conform with the law, we still have women who cannot get their divorce because their husband should be informed officially. And if you don’t inform him officially through the post office or a letter, you cannot get your rights.

The constitution has come with very, very progressive amendments in favor of women. Article 19 urges the government to work for the implementation of parity, that men and women should have equal opportunities in all institutions, 50/50. But then how to implement them? If we’ve have been struggling since 2004 to implement the family law, then we will need a lot of time to implement the constitution.

We have got some laws. But the case of this girl came to tell us that "Hey girls, you have to move. You have to voice your concerns and make things change effectively on the ground."

If the laws are not being enforced, what needs to be done to change that?

We know that in Morocco when women are united, it pays. The problem is that there is a crisis of leadership among the women’s movement. Each group wants to take the lead on different issues.

Believe me, if it was the Islamists or the conservatives, you can find all strands uniting, coming together to speak the same language and claim the same rights. But women are divided and the left has been divided.They don’t want to follow this NGO or that NGO.

We have to say, there is no compromise. The law should be adopted now. No excuses. We have to mobilize youth, the [anti-government] February 20 movement, even though we don’t agree with some of their slogans. Enough conferences and seminars. We have to go to people and work on the ground. I’m not calling for a street movement; I'm calling for genuine strategy to create change. We shouldn’t need a girl to die to move.

How have these problems impacted you as a woman in Morocco?

I am one of four sisters. My father, though he was illiterate, was very open-minded. He really encouraged us to go to school. Since I was very small, I have always refused to clean the socks of my brothers. They used to go to play football and they threw their things for us girls to clean. And this I hated. I was very good at school and one of my brothers was not good and I said, "Why should I clean their stuff? Is it because I’m a girl?"

It’s not that I don’t like men. I like men and most of all I like my father. You just reacted aggressively against injustice they try to impose on you as a girl. I was happiest at certain times between the '80s, beginning of the '90s. The atmosphere was positive for acknowledging women as full citizens. But now I’m just frustrated.  I’m scared for my daughters, for our rights as women.

My daughter has asked me, "Mom, can we go to the nightclub? Will the conservative government prevent us from going to the beach?" Fortunately it’s not the case now. But I’m not sure about tomorrow. [Morocco has its first conservative Islamist-led government.]

Just read the comments on our online newspapers. When the issue of this girl came up, you rarely saw sympathy. All you read is, "What do they want? They want to be like Western girls? They want to be single mothers?" You just feel that they hate women. People used to be very tolerant. There are young people who are brainwashed, holding very regressive, frustrating language. This is very alarming.

I’m surprised to hear you say that because Morocco is seen as a leader on these issues.

Morocco is still the leader or in a leading position with regard to the reforms made so far. But there are some obstacles. Public opinion, that’s the big problem. Sincerely speaking, the king on many occasions has been more courageous than all those political parties and other decision-makers.

Do you think this suicide will cause things to change?

If we don’t react now and press the penal code changes, I think we will never do that.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Hamida, second from left, the sister of Amina Filali, who committed suicide last week, looks at Fouzia Assouli, right, president of Morocco's Democratic League for Women's Rights during a sit-in protest Wednesday outside the court that approved the marriage. Credit: Abdelhak Senna / AFP/Getty Images

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