December 11, 2017

Public honour – Private horror

Public honour – Private horror

This was written for the Church Times in March 2012

The dramatic suicide of 16 year old Amina Filali who drank rat poison rather than suffer ongoing brutality, has rightly brought Moroccan law under the world’s spotlight. Article 475 of that country’s penal code has been aptly described as ‘an embarrassment to Morocco’s international image of modernity and democracy.’  Yet it is much more than that. It is a process which condones injustice to women and allows rape to go unpunished.

Amina Filali was, by all accounts, a contented Moroccan teenager, until, aged 15, she was accosted on the street and raped. Afraid to tell her parents for two months, she might still have expected that when she did report it, the law would afford her some justice and protection from further violation. It did not. Court officials invoked Article 475, compounding the offence by recommending the family preserve their honour by marrying her off to the rapist. Extraordinarily, it did not seem to matter that she was under-age or anxious about this arrangement. Or that the violator refused until he faced the alternative possibility- up to 20 years in prison for raping a minor. Unfortunately, violent rapists who attack young girls are unlikely to make good husbands, and this one was no exception. After enduring five months of his prolonged beatings, with little family support, Amina took what felt like the only way out of unremitting misery. If witnesses can be believed, her final moments symbolise the horror of the whole story. They claim her husband was so outraged, that as she lay dying he dragged her through the streets by her hair.

Sexual violence to women is not unique to that country, but occurs everywhere. A survey this week by the social network, Mumsnet, disclosed that 10% of women in Britain had been raped, although most did not report the attack. This wall of silence is even more marked in Morocco. In 2009 the UN revealed the reported rate of rape in Morocco was only 3.6 per 100,000 women. That is hardly surprising, when one of the consequences of disclosure might be that she has to marry her rapist. A government study last year, found that around a quarter of all Moroccan women had actually been sexually assaulted. It seems that Article 475 effectively shields the violator.

In a patriarchal culture, however, it is not difficult to understand the reasoning behind this legal provision. For, sexual relations between men and women are very unequal. A woman’s loss of virginity dishonours her family, even if she has been the victim of rape, and they are unlikely then to find her a husband. The solution is all very reminiscent of the requirement in Deuteronomy 22 28-29 – that a man who violates a woman must be forced to marry her. A woman’s sexuality belongs to her husband, and such a man has already laid claim to it.

It is safer for women when legal provisions reflect later biblical teaching on sexuality and marital relations. For there is not the same endorsement of patriarchal practices in the Gospels and Epistles. In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, St Paul radically insists on mutuality and equality in marital sexuality. The woman is not the property of her husband, but each partner has the same ‘authority’ over the body of the other. (1 Corinthians 7  4).  The implications of this are enormous. Sexual relationships are to be shaped by mutual rights, respect, care, honour and love. And whilst laws alone can never prevent violence to women, or guarantee their safety, provisions grounded in these principles are surely a more compelling place to start.

Cambridge

March 2012

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