Teenager’s Gang Rape Claim Inspires #MeToo Movement in Morocco
(Bloomberg) -- Khadija Ouqrou was outside her aunt’s house in the central Moroccan town of Ouled Ayad when a man dragged her off at knife-point. The teenager says she was gang-raped and abused for two months then dumped home after her father promised not to tell the police.
In a rare break with conservative mores prevalent in most Islamic countries, where families tend to hush up rape to avoid stigma, the 17-year-old insisted on pressing charges. She spoke of her ordeal on camera, leading to the arrest of 12 men.
Khadija’s decision to speak out polarized public opinion, unleashing a torrent of abuse from Moroccans who blamed her for the assault and catapulting the treatment of women to the top of the political agenda. It has also inspired Morocco’s own #MeToo movement, galvanizing activists to oppose a culture of silence that normalizes violence against women.
The hashtag “Masaktach,” meaning “I won’t be silent,” trended in its first day on Twitter and the campaigners have since created an account to promote the cause.
“Women are the weakest link in Morocco but Khadija’s case hit us very hard and deep. How she was abused, objectified and stripped of her humanity went beyond the imaginable,” said Leila Slassi, a lawyer and one of 10 women behind the movement. “Taking the issues of rape, sexual harassment and all kinds of violence endured by women in our country to social media opens the way for a new bottom-up approach.”
A Women Problem
Seven years after gender equality was enshrined in the constitution, Moroccan women have a problem.
The North African nation just 14 kilometers (9 miles) across the Mediterranean Sea from Spain ranks 119th on the United Nations Development Programme gender inequality index, down 15 spots since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In the region, only countries ravaged by conflict like Yemen, Syria, or Iraq, rank lower.
Those numbers make painful reading in Morocco, which prides itself on being a progressive powerhouse and haven of stability in a volatile region. King Mohammed VI has for years promised to improve the lives of women and authorities have amended outdated legislation to offer new protections.
In February, a law came into effect criminalizing domestic violence, forced marriage, sexual assault and harassment. Debated for years, it was passed after a series of highly-publicized assaults. In one video that went viral in 2017, a group of teenagers groped and tore the clothes off of a distraught young woman on a bus in Casablanca.
Morocco was among the first countries in the region to repeal in 2014 a law that allowed rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims. That change followed the suicide in 2012 of 16-year-old Amina al-Filali, forced to marry a man she said had abused her. The man said at the time the relationship was consensual.
Sixteen percent of parliament seats are reserved for women, who regularly exceed that quota. They are prominent in many walks of life, but remain poorly represented at senior levels of government, where few politicians see much to gain from challenging entrenched patriarchal attitudes, particularly in rural hinterlands where nearly half the population lives and illiteracy is rife.
Nouzha Skalli, ex-minister of solidarity, women, family and social development, said women’s rights had retreated with the political rise since the 2011 upheavals of Islamist parties with more traditional notions of gender roles and female chastity.
“Whoever controls parliament sets the legislative agenda,” she said. “Change is happening in our society and we must adapt our laws, and faster.”
To make an impact, the #Masaktach activists had to think big.
Their first target was Saad Lamjarred, a Moroccan pop star whose YouTube page has upwards of 6 million subscribers. Lamjarred was arrested in France in August on rape charges, one of three separate cases against him. As far back as 2010, Lamjarred was accused of raping and beating a woman during a visit to the U.S. He fled the country. The case was dropped years later when the woman stopped cooperating with investigators.
The accusations had done little to dent the 33-year-old’s popularity, however. Lamjarred received a top honor from King Mohammed in 2015, and when a French woman accused the singer of aggravated rape at a Parisian hotel the following year, Morocco’s state news agency said the monarch would cover his legal fees.
Lamjarred’s lawyer Brahim Rachidi could not be reached for comment at his practice in Casablanca. His defense team have previously said Lamjarred is innocent.
“We went after Lamjarred to make a quick and publicized impact,” said Maria Karim, an artist and one of the women behind the campaign. “Ouqrou’s tragedy is still raw and before her came countless victims of abuse and rape.”
Last year, Morocco’s public prosecution says it received 8,800 complaints of aggravated assault against women, 1,134 rape complaints and 79 sexual harassment complaints. Women’s rights activists say many more survivors never report the crime to protect family honor and avoid being blamed and shamed.
A survey published last year by gender justice group Promundo and UN Women found 63 percent of Moroccan women had faced some type of sexual harassment. Yet, 72 percent of men and 78 percent of women believed those who dressed provocatively deserved to be harassed. Seventy-one percent of men and 42 percent of women said women like the attention.
After Khadija’s case became public, the parents of some of the accused began pressuring her to drop charges. They said Khadija had a reputation as a drinker and smoker who was too fond of the opposite sex. She acted willingly, they said, and their sons were paying the price.
Police reports seen by Bloomberg show at least five suspects confessed to sex with Khadija, claiming it was consensual though she falls below the legal age of consent. One suspect confessed to abducting her.
For Khadija, physical reminders of her humiliation won’t fade even if the pain does. Her attackers drugged her, she says, and carved tattoos on her arms, leg and neck.
“My life has become worthless,” she told Chouftv in an interview in August. “They abused me a lot and I’m not forgiving them. They, too, have sisters and wouldn’t want them to be abused the way I was.”
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