The case of Amina Filali

At the age of 15, Amina Filali was raped by Moustapha Fellak, ten years her senior. Following the attack, Amina was forced to marry Fellak, who continued to abuse her. Five months after having been forced into marriage, she committed suicide by swallowing rat poison. The case of her tragic death caused outrage in Morocco. In January 2014, protesters succeeded in forcing the Moroccan government to abolish Article 475, the law that allowed a rapist to go unpunished if he married his under-age victim. 

The young woman is in no doubt at all: “A man cannot do anything wrong. I can’t see how we can lay any of the blame on him.”
This woman represents one of the many Moroccans who voice their opinions about rape in the documentary film 475: Break the Silence. Hind Bensari, the creative force behind the film, spent two months interviewing ordinary citizens on the streets of Casablanca to gauge public opinion about the issue of rape and about how Moroccans view the law that until January allowed a rapist to avoid punishment if he married his victim.
Hind Bensari, who was born in Morocco but who moved to London with her family at the age of thirteen, was shocked by the responses:
“People’s attitudes really stunned me. And what was most shocking of all was the fact that it was the young people who were most conservative. You’d think that young, well-educated people would have a more progressive approach, but this wasn’t my experience at all. If so many young people are leaving school with these attitudes what picture does it paint of the type of society we’re heading towards?”
The majority of Moroccans that Hind Bensari spoke with were of the opinion that it was a woman’s own fault if she is raped. They felt that the attack was probably triggered by her clothing, her behaviour or because she was walking on the street alone. And the general consensus was that the best thing for the woman was to marry her attacker, thereby avoiding the shame and becoming financially secure.

We are all Amina

The case of Amina Filali

At the age of 15, Amina Filali was raped by Moustapha Fellak, ten years her senior. Following the attack, Amina was forced to marry Fellak, who continued to abuse her. Five months after having been forced into marriage, she committed suicide by swallowing rat poison. The case of her tragic death caused outrage in Morocco. In January 2014, protesters succeeded in forcing the Moroccan government to abolish Article 475, the law that allowed a rapist to go unpunished if he married his under-age victim. 

Human rights organisations estimate that one in four women in Morocco is the victim of violence or sexually motivated attack. In six out of ten instances, the perpetrator is a man under the age of 35.
A young, unmarried woman who loses her virginity – even if it happens by rape – is seen as bringing shame to her family and can no longer be married off. Consequently, many families prefer that the woman marry her attacker. The woman is then left with something of a Hobson’s choice: either she can choose to marry the man who raped her, or face being ostracised – not merely by her family but by the entire community. As the majority of victims are under 18 years of age, it is clear that there really is only one option open to them.
This was the case with Amina Filali. Her life came to an abrupt end when she was just sixteen years old. The Moroccan teenager was the victim of a double tragedy: firstly, she was raped at knifepoint by Moustapha Fellak, three years her senior; then she was forced to marry him.  Once married, Fellak continued to rape and abuse her, and five months later in March 2012 Amina Filali committed suicide by swallowing rat poison.
This case by no means a one-off in Morocco, where until January a law known as Article 475 allowed a rapist to avoid punishment for his crime if he married his underage victim. Nevertheless, Amina’s story attracted massive media coverage in Morocco, prompting human rights organisations as well as the Moroccan public to demand better conditions for children and women. “We are all Amina” was the slogan shouted by the demonstrators who took to the streets campaign against the controversial Article 475.
The response from the Moroccan government at the time was that the article would remain as it was. As the Minister for Families, Bassima Hakkaoui, (the only woman in the government) said at the time, “Article 475 will not be abolished from one day to the other due to pressure from a protest movement.” Minister for Justice, Mustafa Ramid, went even further. He refused to accept that Amina had been raped, and he insinuated that the 16-year-old girl had voluntarily involved herself with her attacker – a reaction that victims of rape often face in Morocco.
All this time, the then-24-year-old Hind Bensari was living in London. She was employed as a business development manager at a Middle Eastern investment fund, she had a lovely flat, and she was content with her life. But Amina’s case aroused something in Hind Bensari – something more than just shock and sadness about the state of affairs in her homeland:
“When I heard about Amina, something inside me changed. I was miles away from Morocco and everything that was going on there, but nevertheless I felt a strong urge to do something,” tells Hind Bensari when KVINFO met her in Copenhagen.

Moroccan law – a legacy from France occupation

Bensari began reading everything she could about Amina Filali’s case, and she quickly discovered that there was something terribly wrong with the Moroccan legal system – and that Amina’s story was far from unique. Two months after Amina’s tragic death, 15-year-old Safae from Tangiers attempted suicide for the second time. Like Amina, she had been forced to marry the man who had raped her. Four months later, Chaimae – at just 11 years of age – killed herself after having been raped. And in November 2013, 16-year-old Amina Tamari committed suicide whilst her family were preparing for her wedding where she would be forced to marry the man who raped her.
Bensari discovered that the contentious Article 475 had absolutely nothing to do with Islam, as she otherwise had suspected. On the contrary, the law had been passed down from the time when Morocco was a French protectorate, between 1912 and North African independence in 1956. The law was first abolished in France in 1994.
“First, I was under the impression that the law was something to do with Islam. But when I began to study Islamic law and speak with different experts, I discovered that we’d actually inherited the law from France. This made me realise that it wouldn’t take the whole world to change things. Europe had changed quickly – it’s not that long ago that women and men didn’t have the same rights here. I was prompted to act.”
Hind Bensari decided to make a documentary film on the subject, the primary voices in which would be those of ordinary Moroccans:
“I didn’t want the debate to be led by experts and opinion-makers; what I did want to do, however, was to show what the men and women on the streets think about women and about how women should be treated.”
Once Bensari had collected enough money through crowd-surfing to produce the film, she gave up her job in London and moved back to live with her parents in Casablanca, where 475: Break the Silence was filmed.

Misconseptions of rape

The questions to which Bensari wanted to find the answers included ‘How have we reached a situation where we encourage these marriages?’, and ‘How is it possible that a law that is at odds with Moroccan legal tradition has been so readily accepted by a society that prides itself on putting family values above all else?’.
She discovered no clear answer. However, she did uncover a number of factors that contribute to providing an answer. Firstly, the absence of any sexual education in schools serves to foster a huge number of misconceptions as to what sex is and, not least, what rape is.
“Many of the people I spoke to saw no difference in extra-marital sex and rape. I was often asked: ‘when you say ‘rape’, do you mean rape with or without violence?’,” explains Hind Bensari
Or as one middle-aged man in the film puts it: “There are to scenarios with rape: the first is that the woman wants to be raped so she can become a prostitute. When she eventually marries, she then knows how to satisfy her husband.”
Statements like these show that there is an extreme lack of basic knowledge about sex and rape in Morocco.
“In schools, children are not taught about sexuality, reproduction or birth control; these are not things people talk about. This gives rise to all of these ridiculous ideas about what intercourse actually is. And no politicians dare to go near the subject because it raises the moral question of whether or not these are things we should be teaching our children,” tells Bensari.
The fact that the economic situation has been forcing people to put off marriage until later has not made the situation any better. A man is expected to be able to support his wife, so for the 18% of young Moroccan men between the ages of 14 and 24 who are currently unemployed marriage is not an option.
In Morocco, sex outside marriage is forbidden. It is for this reason that many Moroccan women refrain from reporting a rape as it the woman who bears the burden of proof in rape cases. It is the woman who must prove that she has been raped, not the man who must prove that he is innocent. A widely held misconception is that if a woman reports a rape it is because she has been caught having extra-marital sexual relations. Many believe that the woman – to preserve her reputation – reports the man who she has voluntarily gone to bed with to the police.
Hind Bensari believes that such false accusations do occur. Perhaps the woman holds out prospects of marriage and reports her lover for rape in order to hold him to his promise. However, she doubts very much that such cases represent the majority of rape allegations, although she regrets that these false cases not only cast doubt on any woman who reports a rape but also make it harder to convict the man in real cases of rape.

We are violated every day

On top of all of this comes the widely held point of view in Morocco that rape is not a serious crime.
“Something I realised during the recording and which saddened me deeply was the fact that Moroccans don’t have the same view of rape as I do. In my eyes, rape is one of the worst things a woman can be exposed to. But in Morocco, the general attitude is that rape is something that can happen but isn’t the end of the world,” tells Hind Bensari.
Towards the end of Bensari’s film 475: Break the Silence, a man makes a very telling statement:
“We’re all being raped. They’re violating our rights every day.”
For Hind Bensari, this statement was a true eye-opener:
“He wasn’t the only one who said this, but he put it so clearly. It’s an opinion that because peoples rights are being violated all the time, the rape of a woman is little different. When life gets tough, treating people badly – often those with a lower status – becomes a pitiful consequence of a person’s own misery,” tells Bensari, who believes that Moroccans are living in the belief that things cannot change.
“If a woman is beaten by her husband, it’s no big deal. So people will say ‘be patient; everything will work itself out in the end’.”
According to Bensari, this apathetic attitude towards violence is founded in a general lack of faith in society. Corruption and bribery of court judges and policemen are commonplace, and it is a well-known fact that a person’s social status determines the severity of punishment if caught committing a crime.
“So, a big part of it has to do with social status and class.”

Insufficient legislation

When Hind Bensari was living in London, she was far removed from the debate in Morocco, and when she started work on the film she feared that she may be overreacting: perhaps things were not so serious after all? But when she visited the women’s shelters in Morocco whilst filming 475: Break the Silence, she was left in no doubt:
“When I saw how these shelters were full of women who had been beaten, raped, abandoned and left with nowhere to go – when I witnessed the scale of the trauma – I was convinced that what I was doing was right. We need to act and create a better society.”
When the film was completed by April 2013, Hind Bensari launched on the Internet where it could be streamed free of charge. By the end of the year, the partly state-run television channel 2M chose to broadcast it. It broke all national records, drawing in an audience of 2.6 million Moroccans. Following increased pressure on the Moroccan government from both the media and the public, a unanimous parliament voted to abolish Article 475 so that men who rape underage girls no longer can avoid punishment by marrying their victim. Amina Filali became a symbol of the women’s rights movement in Morocco, and the repeal of the law became a victory for the liberal voice of the country.
But if you ask Hind Bensari, this change to the law is by no means enough.
“In 2004 marriage to a minor was made illegal in Morocco – but the law included a clause saying that a judge could make an exception and give dispensation. Since this law was introduced, even more marriages to underage girls have been taking place than before. So having adequate laws is all well and good; but if society doesn’t recognise them, nothing will ever change.”
In the wake of the repeal of Article 475, Hind Bensari was in Marrakech to show her film. Whilst there, she toured the streets to gauge people’s reactions to the abolishment of the law.
“Most people had no idea that the law had been changed. And when they heard it, the majority expressed the view that it was not an appropriate solution.”
When a woman is raped, she and her family will still be face dishonour, and with the abolition of the law there is no longer a way for them to regain their lost honour.

Instruments for change

What it basically comes down to is the issue of how women are regarded. According to Hind Bensari, the fact that a woman’s value is defined by the status of her hymen is representative of a society where keeping face and living up to authoritarian ideals about how people should live their lives is seen as more important than an individual’s well-being and fundamental rights.
“Blindly respecting authority or tradition, rather than considering what is in fact right or wrong, is a cornerstone of every conservative society. But behind the façade, nothing is as rose-tinted as it appears.”
She does not judge the Moroccan people for trying to live up to the norms, but wants to use her film to show that there are other ways – and that there is room for change:

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“Preserving your virtue as a woman equates to ensuring your survival in the local community. People don’t possess the tools to allow them to contemplate change or think independently as they’re not taught these things and don’t see others doing them. But the Internet and TV have given us platforms for change, and I want to show the Moroccan people that things can be different.”
It annoys Hind Bensari when she meets people who tell her that she has made a film about a women’s issue:
“Rape in Morocco isn’t a women’s problem; it’s a society problem. And I haven’t made a film about women – I’ve made a film about Morocco.”
Bensari believes that both men and women are responsible for changing the status quo. However, there remains a desperate need for more male leadership in the struggle for equality between the sexes – not least because getting involved in the debate about women’s conditions is not considered to be masculine. And in her eyes this is not just a problem in Morocco but it is a universal problem.
Despite this, she remains hopeful:
“Change doesn’t just happen from one day to the next. But what I’ve seen whilst working on my film is that it is in fact possible to have an open debate about this. And the more communication there is, the more people can develop their attitudes and think alternatively. As long as the debate is open, everyone has something to say. And we really do need to sort this out.”