Amina Filali committed suicide by swallowing rat poison in March 2012. She was 16 years old. Her desperate act showed the depth of her pain and despair: she must have felt that nobody was there to help her.
We soon learned that Amina had been raped in her small Moroccan town, by a man she was then forced to marry. Imagine being married to your rapist, to be forced to see that person all the time – it would be devastating.
He married her because Moroccan law allows rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victim, if she is aged under 18.
Amina’s death caused an outcry in Morocco and throughout the region. What shocked people most was that this marriage was sanctioned by law, as well as by a judge who authorized it. It revealed that the state was complicit in covering up a rape. And instead of protecting her as the victim of a crime, the law victimized Amina a second time.
This kind of legislation doesn’t just exist in Morocco, but also in Algeria and Tunisia.
SHAME IS A POWERFUL FORCE
This legal environment prevents women and girls from reporting rape. A victim is not considered as a survivor of a grave act of violence.
Amina’s story resonated with another case in Tunisia, where a young woman complained to the police about being raped by two police officers, and ended up being charged herself for “indecency”.
Women and girls who suffer sexual violence are seen as the problem. The accusation is always: what have you done to bring this on yourself? Unbelievably, in Morocco the punishment for rapists is also different depending on whether the victim was a virgin or not.
In conservative societies, there is this misplaced idea that women and girls can bring their family into disrepute and that the value of a girl or a young woman lies in her virginity. People will try to hide a rape and might arrange a marriage as a way to prevent shame on the family.
It is as if the rape is not about violence against a girl or a woman, but about her worth. She could be seen as a family commodity in a culture where getting married and having children is presented as a woman’s main goal in life. The underlying assumption of the law is that to get married, a woman must be a virgin. If she is raped, she is damaged goods.
In a patriarchal society, marrying a woman off to her rapist could also be seen as a way of protecting the victim, preserving her “honour”. The underlying idea is that it’s better to be married than to be an outcast.
SOCIETY IS READY FOR CHANGE
Amina’s desperate act, and the outcry that followed, finally exposed this ugly reality. It can no longer be swept under the carpet: it needs to be confronted and the law brought into line with the society we live in.
Women’s rights are often labelled by people in the region who oppose them as a Western concept. Remarkably, Amina’s family stood with her and joined the street protests sparked by her death. They are not from the capital, and are not well educated.
This shows that Moroccan society is ready for change. But that doesn’t mean that its leaders are. The Moroccan authorities quickly announced that they would change the law that allowed Amina’s rapist to marry her, but it hasn’t happened yet. How many more Aminas have we had since her suicide?
WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
Rape is one of the most extreme forms of violence against women and girls. The state has a responsibility to make sure that the law, the police and the justice system are there to protect women.
And we have a responsibility to remember Amina. We can do that by making sure that no other woman or girl is forced to follow her tragic path. Rapists need to know that there is no way to escape prison. And victims need to be supported, rather than stigmatized.
Women and men across North Africa are fighting against discriminatory laws. International solidarity through Amnesty’s forthcoming My Body My Rights campaign will be crucial for supporting their struggle.
For example, when reports emerged about forced “virginity tests” in Egypt, women were accused of lying, of trying to tarnish the image of the army. One woman told us that an Amnesty press release, publicly stating that she had been sexually assaulted, made her feel able to walk with her head held high again. Suddenly, she was seen as a survivor of an act of violence.
If we can push outdated laws and ideas of shame into the history books, we can prevent another story like Amina’s.