GOD WANTS CHILDREN TO MARRY THEIR RAPIST - FAMILIES APPROVE
MALIKA SLIMANI, ONE OF THE WOMEN INTERVIEWED IN "BREAK THE SILENCE" BY HIND BENSARI. (SCREEN SHOT VIA VIMEO)
Believe it or not, a victim marrying her rapist is a not uncommon occurrence in the Middle East and North Africa. The practice exists not due to ignorance of the violation the woman faced, but as an attempt to salvage her honor by marrying her to a man willing to accept a non-virgin - even if that very man is the one who committed the crime. The honor of a woman is defined, in parts of the region, by her chastity. If she looses her virginity, even through rape, she looses her value as marriage material. Thus the only way to "cover her honor," as the Arabic expression goes, is to marry her to the rapist. His marriage is the only price he has to pay for raping a woman, and her feelings about the union are irrelevant.
This practice is prevalent enough across the Middle East and North Africa to be mentioned in movies and in passing conversations. I remember hearing not once but several times about it when growing up in Iraq. My uncle once talked about how he helped this "poor woman" by finding her rapist and convincing him to marry her. My uncle was very proud of his behavior in helping the woman "cover her honor." This logic never made sense to me, but in truth, I don't remember protesting his actions.
The same can't be said of Hind Bensari, a young Moroccan woman who heard about rapist marriages and instead of being silent acted upon the injustice. Hind was working in the financial world when she heard about the case of 16-year-old Amina, who committed suicide for being forced to marry her rapist. The story had captured media attention in Morocco, but still no one talked about its cultural underpinnings. So Bensari decided to do something about it. She quit her job and made the documentary "475: Break the Silence" about the issue.
Her journey started with the realization that even if the raped victim had the courage to come to the police and ask for a trial, the police and the judges themselves tried to convince her to marry her rapist as a way to cover her honor - Like my uncle, they believed they were helping the victim. Bensari discovered that, often, article 475, a Moroccan law that absolved men who married the young women they slept with outside of marriage, was being used to justify the practice.
Bensari knows that rapist marriage springs from a culture of shame and honor, but also notes that ultimately Arab culture is also grounded in family values. "Surely these behaviors will not lead to happy families or right solutions to dealing with rape," she explained, when I met her in Morocco two months ago. "As a matter of fact, such practice creates damaged families and not healthy ones. And when you talk to people from that perspective they don't feel threatened or insulted, they do respond and think about it and come to the conclusion that we don't want this to carry on."
To convince victims to talk, she spent months building trust with the women and their families until they agreed to give her interviews about what happened to them. "I needed to understand more than I needed to judge. I needed to go and hear different thoughts and different perspectives than the ones I had. There are many people in Morocco and many thoughts that come with them. And [we] can't assume they [share the same] thoughts," Bensari says. But getting the film made was not easy. There was resistance from people who told her that no one will agree to speak about this, that a raped woman will never agree to speak in public, that the culture is doomed and can't change, among many other attempts to dissuade her from pursuing the film. Bensari's response was consistent: "we can change the destiny of our country, and if we don't, we have to pay the consequences for our inaction."
Eventually people started talking. A few women gave her interviews, sharing details of what had happened to them. With her meager savings, Bensari made the hour-long documentary and put a 15-minute segment on social media. Within days, tens of thousands of viewers had fueled a public debate. Bensari had the guts to bring an uncomfortable issue out of the shadows - on a tight budget and with no organizational backing or filmmaking experience - and discovered that many others had silently shared her concern. Within months, she took the film to the Moroccan parliament to initiate a debate and convinced state authorities to air the film on national TV.
The broadcast presented Bensari with another hurdle. "One key character in the movie calls me two days before the airing and tells me that she will commit suicide if I show her in the film." Bensari says, "it didn't matter that I had release forms and that the part of her was already aired on social media. It was a different story when things were aired on TV. It made it more public and whatever courage the woman had in agreeing to speak to start with disappeared as she was confronted with facing the public." Bensari cut the film one last time, made the air time, and created a national dialogue that ultimately led to the repeal of the law.
"Laws are created by people and they can be changed by people," she says, describing the mass emails she got from women who had accepted their fate and now felt acknowledged for their pain and the unjust price they'd had to pay.
The Arab world faces dark challenges today. But people like Hind Bensari restore faith in the future. When I met her, I saw a bright light in a young woman who is not willing to accept injustice—not in the name of culture or for any other reason.
Zainab Salbi is a humanitarian, author, and media commentator who has dedicated herself to women's rights and freedom. At the age of 23, she founded Women for Women International—a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. She is the author of several books including the best-selling memoir Between Two Worlds; Escape From Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World who travels around the Middle East and North Africa and files reports on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. She's developing a new talk show that will deal with similar issues. For more information on Salbi's work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.