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.