Monday, March 26, 2012

Article 475: Morocco's Shame

Article 475 Killed Me

By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more.

~ Albert Camus

Morocco casts itself as one of the more modernized countries in the Muslim world. They proudly rewrote portions of their Constitution in 2011, reflecting a more modern governance and improved rights for women. According to Al Jazeera, a government study published last year found that about 25% of all women in Morocco had been sexually assaulted at least once in their lives. Look around you. Imagine that one out of every four women you see or meet has been raped... at least once. I find the statistic, gathered by a government, in an Islamic country in which rape is tantamount to ruination and therefore likely to be significantly underreported, to be stunning.

My introduction to Morocco came at age 16, when I traveled there with friends of my father, for a high school graduation present. "See the world," my father said, putting his money behind that idea. My introduction to Moroccan men came on the Royal Maroc flight to Casablanca, when, in the dark of night, as I padded my way past mostly sleeping passengers toward the lavatory, an older man, older even than my father, pinched my butt so hard that it left me bruised. I was a blonde-haired American girl. Likely already a slut and clearly available for touching. But, at the time, at the tender age of 16, I was so stunned (and it hurt!) that I didn't lash out and tell him off, making a ruckus that might awaken the sleeping passengers around us. Instead, I silently turned, in shock, to look at the amused brown eyes and white hair and salt-and-pepper beard, unrepentant, confident to the point of even looking as if I ought to be flattered. I scurried away and, after using the lavatory, walked back to my seat on the other side, walking though the flight attendant's area to cross back to my aisle. 

I was puzzled by Morocco because it was beautiful but by turns sheltering of women and dismissive of them. Yet, back then in the late 1970's, I was treated kindly by men on more than one occasion, once in particular where I really had a scare and a kindly shop owner in Marrakech had his wife sit with me, while I drank a mint tea, and then escorted me back to my hotel, speaking in a mixture of French and broken English, telling me about his daughters who were close in age to me. I came away from my weeks there with a sense of the mysticism of Arabic culture and an appreciation for the culture of their culture, that overrode that ugly start of my trip on my flight there. In grad school, I had a friend who was Moroccan. She was delighted that I knew and liked her country, including the high Atlas region that was then less traveled in comparison to glitzy destinations like Marrakech, that I loved the food, culture and architecture. She  encouraged me to go back to visit the 'new' Morocco. When I returned, it was literally decades after my first trip. The country felt different, more modern, in some ways more open, in others less sheltering. But I loved it. No commercial cities like Casablanca and Tanger on this trip! No, this time I travelled with my stepmother and her cousin, riding camels, sleeping under the stars in Merzouga, exploring the wondrous Fès El-Bali, traveling to Ifrane, Midelt, Erfound, hiking to Rissani, craving rock climbing gear at the Todra Gorge, on the way to Ouarzazate, reveling in the gardens at La Roserie in Ouirgane and finally traveling back to Marrakech, where I warmly remembered that kind shop owner from long ago. The city, even in its oldest areas, had changed so much (all the traffic lights!!!) that I couldn't find that shop even if I tried. Our guide on all our hikes was... astonishingly... a woman. One of, at that time, the only female licensed guides in Morocco. She did a lot of guide work for the Western diplomatic services in Morocco and was very modern. Fluent in Arabic, English and French, she had a degree in English Literature, was married, had a daughter, and not long after our trip gave birth to a second child. She personified modern Morocco for me, ironically, since she was from Fès, one of Morocco's oldest and most beautiful cities. She was a lovely person, who I'm not naming here only because I refuse to even enter her name in the same post as Article 475. My plans to return to Morocco were derailed by 9/11 and my not wishing to cause difficulty to her, her family, etc. since she'd offered that I could visit their home, and by my later health problems and then adoption of my youngest, who was a handful. In any case, Morocco the second time left an indelible impression on me. The food, the colors, the marvelous people... 

I tell you all of these things because I want to stress the fact that I really love Morocco, and have thought often of going back there, if the world settles down just a bit. There is so much beauty and goodness there and it's not like I went in thinking that it was an easy country for women. Literally from the start, at age 16, I could see it wasn't. But I love the country. And that's why it is so utterly depressing to me that Article 475, in Morocco's penal code not just exists but was defended last week by the Moroccan Minister of Justice, Mustapha Ramid.  Ramid even went so far as to say that Amina had willingly had sex with her rapist and that she had not refused to be married to him, so all this furor was basically about nothing other than a consensual sexual relationship that ended in marriage and suicide. No. Really? Outrage filled the internet in Morocco. Twitter and Facebook burst forth with it, spilling out into the world in the form of justifiable ire and reprehensible accusations. About the justifiable ire: women and men wrote harsh objections to the idea that Amina had consented to any aspect of her fate, especially since it was almost universally acknowledged, by her parents who saw her afterwards and most of all, including by rapist Mustafa  Fallaq (aka Mustapha Kellaq), who had admitted that he had sex illegally with a minor of 15 after he was informed of his rights under Article 475. In fact, to me, the very fact that Article 475 was invoked at all indicates this was rape, does it not? 

Poster from SlutWalk Morocco

What does it mean when any man interested in any girl who is not interested in him, can simply rape her and then claim her? How can any modern society function that way? The answer? It can't. I find myself being shocked to agree with a number of points in an article on Patriot Post (yes, you are reading that right, people!) by Arnold Ahlert. I've asked myself again and again: How can this be law in the Morocco I know? The Morocco in which I personally know splendid, well-educated, independent women who live under this law with their daughters? (Almost as upsetting was what's been going on the Amina Facebook page Nous Sommes Tous Amina Filali, but I'll get to that later.) 

With demonstrations in the streets of Tanger, and on the steps of the Parliament in Rabat, the government seemed split in their reaction. The sole woman in the Islamist government is Bassima Hakkaoui and not surprisingly, Ms. Hakkaoui has very vocally called for a debate about the penal code as relates to rape and underage marriage, which continues, even as Minister Ramid acknowledges, to be a serious problem in rural areas. (The official minimum age for marriage in Morocco is 18 and a recent survey shows that 1 in 8 rural Moroccans between the ages of 15 and 18 are married.) In an apparent case of hindsight is 20/20, Amina's father Lahcen Filali now claims that Amina was forced to marry by the court against his wishes, and furthermore, that he now believes that his daughter was murdered by the Fallaq family.

Whether Amina was murdered or committed suicide is, in the long run, simply irrelevant at this point. She's dead and the degree to which Mustafa Fallaq has gotten away with being the causative factor in her death may never be determined. Here's what matters: A 16 year old girl is dead after paying a price for being the rape victim of a man ten years older than she (he raped her, he married her to escape prosecution, then he beat her, he dragged her by her hair, through the streets as she was dying) and for being the victim of a government that has no conscience (Women and Family Minister Bassima Hakkaoui, aside), in continuing to allow the penal code's utterly barbaric Article 475 to be followed. 

Women should not live in fear of being raped but even less should they live in fear of being forced to spend the rest of their lives with their rapist. Men should not feel that the easy way to get a woman you want but who might be beyond your reach in terms of class, economic standing or whatever, is to just rape her to get her. That is certainly the message that Article 475 sends to men, and to the families of women and girls who fall victim to rape. It is simply no way to live in a modern Arab world. And yet, according to an article I read over the weekend in Le Monde, there is not a lot of impetus or clarity on the issue of eliminating Article 475 from Morocco's penal code. 

If the Moroccan Parliament doesn't grow a conscience on this issue, then women, and not just Moroccan women, are going to have to speak loudly to help them find one. 

Don't let the issue of Article 475, and Amina's horrible fate, fall by the wayside and off your radar, readers. You can sign an international petition with Avaaz here, follow updates on the RIPAmina tumblr pages here, and although there has been a rather nasty debate on Facebook about rape, blame, honor, surgical reparation of hymens and all manner of Islamist ludicrousness/outrageousness that was deflecting attention from the real issue here, you can still follow some of the action on the ground in Morocco at Nous Sommes Tous Amina Filali here. To fight the blaming of rape victims, please join your nearest SlutWalk movement (Facebook Group). You can support the courageous (and fed up!) women of SlutWalk Morocco on Facebook, here. And keep track of video footage of the demonstrations before the parliament buildings in Rabat. Check out GlobalGirl Media's channel on Vimeo:

Finally, I direct readers to a moving and courageous post (not a blog but a testimony), Ce n'est pas de votre faute/ It's not your fault... by Houda Lamqaddam. (If you read it from within Chrome browser, you can easily translate it from the French if you need to...) As Houda says, 

"Vous n’êtes pas une exception, vous n’êtes pas seule au monde. Et dans le monde que j’aurais inventé, vous n’auriez plus jamais eu à l’être. Ce n'est pas de votre faute."
"You are not an exception, you are not alone in the world. And in the world I would have invented, you never would have been. It's not your fault."
That is the message that Amina Filali should have gotten from her family, her police, her neighbors, her community and from the judge handling her case.

She didn't.

16 year old Amina Filali

© Bright Nepenthe, 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment