Head dangling and tears rolling down her face, I outstretch my arm to console hers — smeheelee. She looks me in the eyes and leans forward, her wet cheek presses against my right one, then the left one. Our eyes meet once more before she nods her head into a bow. Droplets weld in her eyes, and I can feel her pain — the pain of losing her daughter who committed suicide after an unwanted to marriage to her rapist.
Today was the 13th Annual Tribunal Hearing sponsored by l’Union de l’Action Feminine. This year’s focus was “Stop the Infanticide of Our Children.” The tribunal was a space for victims to voice their sufferings, a place to listen to their testimonies, and an opportunity to raise awareness and change the mentality of Moroccan society – the one that these feminists argue enhances crimes and injustices by not respecting the childhood of young girls.
Considering the waves of change that have spread across the Middle East since the Arab Spring, this tribunal was held in the context the new 2011 Moroccan constitution, which promises parity, justice and non-discrimination. These feminists, however, believe the application of these constitutional decrees is inadequate.
“This is not neutral tribunal. It’s a tribunal on the side of the victims; it’s on the side of legality, justice, equality, women’s rights and citizenship to women as human beings.”
These were the words of the UAF President and tribunal mediators who passionately opened the hearing — in Darija. I relied on my new friend Fatima Outaleb, director of the UAF, and some French-speaking audience members next to me, for translation.
From the rural village of Laracheto the urban capital of Rabat, the diverse range of testimonies illustrated how the rape of minors touches every corner of Morocco — and is tearing apart families and forever altering the futures of these young girls nationwide.
Article 475 of Morocco’s penal code allows for rapists to escape persecution by marrying their victims — on one condition. The family of the victim must agree. While this applies to women of all ages, it is common among minors like Aminia Filali, the 16-year-old who committed suicide last month after seeking an escape from a forced marriage to her rapist. Her parents testified on their daughter’s behalf.
While Amina’s father recounted the story of Amina’s kidnapping and rape, and their pursuit of finding her. Only after a formal testimony did her mother interject – wailing for justice and pleading that the man who “killed” her daughter go to jail.
The problem lies not only in the laws that legitimate the marriage of rape victims to their rapists, but also in the culture that doesn’t perceive childhood as something worth protecting. Rather, the advocates at this tribunal believe society presents young girls who are victims of rape as sacrifices to their perpetrators. They believe society banishes the raped girl by taking away her youth, by shorting her education and then by legitimating her marriage to her rapist.
The UAF and other feminist organizations, along with the men and women who came to the tribunal in solidarity, believe that this is a crime against humanity. They believe this tribunal should inspire victims to bring their cases to international courts, not just national ones.
A strong demonstration of this will was the testimony of Esma, a mother whose 13-year-old daughter was raped and nearly forced into an unwanted marriage. After she brought her daughter’s case to court, the judge gave the perpetrator one choice: marry the victim or go to jail. Esma considered marrying her daughter to the 21-year-old man. She thought it would be less shameful to say that her daughter was married and/or divorced, than to acknowledge her loss of virginity. But after her daughter tried killing herself, Esma intervened. Unfortunately, her daughter’s rapits still roams freely; he was never jailed.
“You are all parents. I’m a mother who is burning, suffering, speaking on behalf of my daughter who lost her future. He is not punished.”
Hands clapped. Feet stomped. And the room chanted a response to her cry: “The victims are here. Where is the justice?”
In a society where virginity is sacrilegious, discriminatory laws and articles like 475 of the penal code and Article 20 of the Moudawana (which permits a judge to overrule Article 19, which forbids marriage under 18, in certain “situations”) still exist. They do not recognize the rights of a woman as equal to those of a man, or the rights of a child.
But with the global attention given to Amina Filali’s death and a critical and building pressure on the new government to respond, feminist groups like the UAF, civil society actors and other NGOs are beginning to create more space for public debate and opportunities for raising awareness — and lifting spirits.
Ending the event on an optimistic note, 475 hands tightly clasped 475 balloons, which symbolized the lost lives of young victims of rape and forced marriage, and released them into the sky, promising to keep up the fight for their freedom by demanding the reform of Article 475.