In the process of shooting and editing the latest documentary I directed, 475, I came to realize that what I was seeing and hearing was far different from the information I had ingested from the media earlier last year. I initially set out to make the documentary with preconceived notions on what exactly happened to Amina Filali, these tended to fall along the lines of what I learned from the media.
However, while in Larache, the film crew found itself in a crisis. What we found in Amina Filali's household made us question our preconceived, media-made ideas. The film's premise had completely fallen apart: Amina wasn't forced to marry her rapist, article 475 doesn't say anything about forcing girls to marry their rapist, and finally-- the father of the young girl wasn't who he appeared to be.
Although I would have liked to critique the media's coverage in more depth in the film, there was no space for that and I decided to lightly touch on it in the beginning. I am writing now in order to give a more in-depth critique of the western media's approach to the Amina Filali affair, and the consequences of their orientalist and dishonest journalism. ---
“Marrying your rapist: A new low in women’s rights in Morocco” read a Washington Post headline displaying a photo of the most conservatively dressed women at the protest. The article went on, focusing on Amina’s brutal treatment and at one point drawing a far-fetched parallel:
"Certainly Morocco is not alone in limiting women’s personal freedoms and imposing draconian sentences on those who dare to defy them. In nearby Saudi Arabia, women are still banned from driving automobiles, lest it “spell the end of virginity” And in Iran, a woman who was convicted of adultery two years ago is still slated for execution, although whether she will die by stoning or hanging remains unresolved.’"
Saudi Arabia is not ‘nearby’ but is five to six countries to the east and is as far away from Morocco as the state of Maine is from Portugal, or Paris from Moscow. Iran on the other hand, is a country with a different religion, a different language, and a different culture. In addition, Iran is a Theocracy while Saudi Arabia is a Wahabi fundamentalist monarchy with a history and culture of its own. Moroccans can barely even understand Saudi Arabic.
Lumping Morocco with these two very different countries, whose women’s rights violations are incomparable to those in Morocco, speaks to the orientalist rhetoric of this Washington Post article which places Morocco in the middle of what this article portrays as a a homogenous block of barbarous Muslim countries who abuse their women.
BBC, CNN and the Huffington post joined the Washington Post, focusing more on what they claimed was a law that allowed rapists to avoid prison, on the details of the beatings she received and on statements made by her family showing their intentions to save their honor.
These articles tend to hint that the phenomenon of marrying a victim to her rapist as one that is exclusive to ‘the Middle East.’ According to the Huffington Post, “in many parts of the Middle East, there is a tradition whereby a rapist can escape prosecution if he marries his victim, thereby restoring her honor.” The Huffington Post, in an attempt to reinforce the image of a region that consists of a monolithic block of people and subtly point its finger at Islam, seems to be oblivious to the fact that Morocco is actually not considered a part of the Middle East.
These articles seemed to have also forgotten that such laws exist in many other countries in the world that do not fall in the MENA region. Ironically, they also seem to have forgotten that article 475 was imported from France, when Morocco was subjected to French Napoleonic code law during their colonization of our country.
In their coverage of the affair, the media seemed to have skipped past many facts and occurrences which would probably have lessened their sensationalist appeal to a western audience who has come to expect barbaric behavior from Muslims and the plethora of ethnicities which they ignorantly view as being all "Arab". Loubna Hanna-Skalli, Moroccan feminist and professor at American University, commented on the media’s coverage in an article published in Jadaliyya:
The simplistic coverage of Amina’s case by some international media outlets has resurrected the same old neo-orientalist script: “here goes again Islam, subjugating its own women; and, here is another case where the helpless victims need our rescue...The word “patriarchy” was never brought up...It has rarely, if ever, been used by the international media that has given great visibility to this case. Patriarchy has been both overlooked and undermined as a force shaping laws and attitudes towards this rape case. The erasure was simply disturbing...Islam has been equated as a matter of course to one article of the penal code (475). In the process, this has erased the entire history of both patriarchal monopoly over religious texts (irrespective of religions) and an entire history of Muslim women’s struggles to exercise their right to ijtihad (critically reflect on and reformulate religious texts) and reclaim their rights under Muslim law. The equation of one religion (Islam) to the misogynistic 475 article of the penal code is as naïve as the condemnation of another religion (Christianity) for approving of the molestation of its children by some Catholic priests. ” (Loubna Skalli, Jadaliyya)
In addition, the majority of headlines which claimed Amina was forced to marry were simply not true. According to state officials, her parents and the family of the alleged rapist, Amina had chosen to marry her rapist. Of course further examination will reveal that although she was not forced, her social conditioning as a young village girl in conservative rural Morocco led her to accept the marriage through the paradigm of patriarchy and not Islam nor tradition.
Although some articles clarified that article 475 does not actually force rape victims to their rapists, many articles claimed that it did-- as if Moroccan civil society would not have reacted to a law that explicitly says: ‘in case of rape, a girl must marry her rapist!’
What the western media's coverage was missing was the fact that the law did not actually state that victims must marry their rapists, but that it was an interpretation of the law that allowed the Amina Filali tragedy to occur, and that this interpretation was only prominent in rural Morocco. The media failed to report that it was rare for this law to be applied in a way that forced victims to marry their rapists and that most cases of rape ended in forced marriage outside of the legal realm as a result of patriarchy.
The mainstream media’s focus on the legal aspect of the issue and not it’s source (patriarchy) explains civil society’s (their petitions' and protests') inherently flawed focus on article 475 as a law and hence facilitated the Moroccan government’s dismissal of protests by simply replying that the law does not include such a clause (which is true).
We can then conclude that the media’s orientalist rhetoric and irresponsible journalism is indirectly responsible for aiding the Islamist government in their avoidance of taking any meaningful action against the widespread presence of sexual violence in Morocco, leading to a situation where the law came to be abolished but the root of the problem still remains and rape culture continues to exist.
Hence, patriarchy, the one thing that facilitated the series of crimes against Amina Filali, was not addressed. It was patriarchal mentality that pushed Amina to choose to marry her rapist, it was patriarchy that allowed the judge to interpret the law in such a heinous way, it was patriarchy that allowed Prime Minister Benkirane to dismiss the fact that there was a rape, it was patriarchy that permitted the minister of Justice to assume that rape can not happen in a consensual relationship.