By Abderrahim El Ouali
(Casablanca, MOROCCO) - The widespread practice of marrying minors continues to be one of the most incendiary legal and political issues in Morocco today, causing open confrontations between hard-line Islamists and moderates throughout the country.
Speaking on national television last month, Mohammed Abdenabawi, an official of the Ministry of Justice, declared that 30,000 minor girls are married every year – roughly 10 percent of the 300,000 marriages recorded every year in this country of 32 million inhabitants.
The phenomenon is widespread, the consequences for young women and girls severe, and the efforts of civil society sustained, though maintaining momentum against a tide of cultural and religious conservatism is challenging.
A campaign to gather one million signatures to forbid the marriage of minors is already in progress, sparked by the death of Amina Filali, a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide by taking rat poison in March after being forced to marry her rapist due to an interpretation of Moroccan law; the rapist was allowed to avoid prosecution by marrying his victim.
Supposedly to protect family and female "honour", a court evoked legislation in the penal and family codes to force Filali to marry the man 10 years older than she who forced her, at knifepoint, to submit to him.
Both the court case and Filali’s suicide opened the floodgates to a deluge of public debate and activism around the issue, which had hitherto been a taboo topic in traditional Moroccan society.
Despite being a member of the political opposition and one of the lead organizers of the campaign to ban marriage of minors, Rhmani sees his involvement in activism first and foremost from his perspective as the father of a 14-year-old daughter.
"Before being a politician, I am a father. We cannot be indifferent to what is happening around us," he explained.
Activists, rights groups and members of the opposition have been clamoring for the abolition of article 475 of the Moroccan penal code, which allows rapists to get off scott-free if they agree to marry their victims; as well as articles 20 and 21 of the family code, which allows the marriage of minor girls.
But the root of the problem runs deep, and will require more systemic change than the abolition of one or two laws
"The culprit is archaic jurisprudence implemented by ignoramuses," Chakib Khettou, a citizen of Casablanca, told IPS, referring to the Muslim law allowing the marriage of girls older than nine years, according to traditional law.
Back in 2008, Sheik Mohamed El Maghrawi, a well-known Moroccan Muslim scholar, published a Fatwa reiterating families’ right to marry off their daughters over the age of nine. His position provoked a major scandal but the scholar suffered no consequences.
However, opposition to this particular reading of Sharia’a law has become widespread.
Ahmed Faridi, a teacher who holds a licence degree in Sharia’a law, told to IPS, "Nothing in the Quran allows marrying a nine-year-old girl," he explained. Even if it turns out that the Prophet of Islam himself had married a minor girl, "he is in that case an exception and cannot be a rule," Faridi stressed.
Minister of Justice and Liberties, Mustapha Erramid, is not as moderate as some of the activists pushing for the marriage ban.
In a national televised address last March, the Minister said, "The marriage of minor girls is not forbidden by the law."
A lawyer by trade, Erramid is "tolerant" towards the amendment of article 475 of the penal code, but refused to speak about the amendment of articles 20 and 21 of the family code.
The Islamist Minister hinted that demonstrations similar to those held against the National Plan for Women’s Integration in Development, enacted under the socialist government of Abderrahmane Youssoufi in 1999, were not far off.
Back then, thousands of Islamists hailing from the ruling Justice and Development Party (PJD) took to the streets of Casablanca against Youssoufi’s plan to include women in political and economic development, which they judged as "incompatible" with Sharia’a because it forbade polygamy and fixed the minimum age of marriage for women at 18 years old.
Still, current members of parliament are not too worried that today’s activism will see such a vehement reaction by conservatives.
"A national debate on this subject is at present necessary to amend the penal code and the code of the family. A legislative initiative is already being taken by the socialist group in parliament to guarantee more protection to minor girls," Rhmani said.
The second chamber of parliament held a meeting on the subject last week. The president of the chamber, Mohamed Cheikh Biadilah, said the proposed amendments should be viewed in "the spirit of the new constitution", adopted during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, which "commits the State to guarantee the social and economic rights of the family" and "to protect minors (regardless) of their family or social position" and "forbids any shape of discrimination based on gender."
Biadilah also said, "The legislative power has the obligation to intervene every time it notices that a law has become incompatible with the development of the society."
"All the laws that go against the dignity of women must be amended or even abolished", said the president of the Chamber of Councilors in Moroccan parliament.
--This article originally appeared in InterPress Service