The Moroccan rape victim who refused to stay silent
Members of a "dangerous gang" had kidnapped and held 17-year-old Khadija Okkarou for two months, raping and torturing her.
In a video posted online, she showed what appeared to be scars from cigarette burns and tattoos carved into parts of her body.
"I will never forgive them. They have destroyed me," she had said at the time.
The accused 12 men, aged between 19 and 29, were arrested and are being tried on several charges including human trafficking, rape, kidnapping and forming an organised gang.
After already having been adjourned twice previously, the date for the hearing finally had been set for July 9. However, it was adjourned yet again, further delaying justice and the victim's chances to move on with her life.
The case had shocked and appalled many Moroccans, especially women.
At the centre of it all, the victim, Khadija Okkarou, a courageous young woman, had decided to speak out.
Traumatised and terrified, disbelieved and shamed by some in her village of Oulad Ayyad in rural central Morocco, the young woman bravely went public with her ordeal.
|Khadija's case is a reminder of how endemic violence against women is in the North African kingdom, and how the problem has been largely ignored by the media, authorities and society as a whole.|
In an interview with local network Chouf TV, she described what had happened to her, displaying to the camera her scars, cigarette burns and tattoos the men had carved into parts of her body.
In the aftermath of the teenager's public testimony, Moroccans had been outraged, triggering a wave of solidarity on social media, with more than a 100,000 signing a petition demanding medical and psychological care for her.
To many Moroccans, Khadija's case is a reminder of how endemic violence against women is in the North African kingdom, and how the problem has been largely ignored by the media, authorities and society as a whole.
According to the Ministry of Family's statistics, 54.4 percent of women in the country have suffered verbal abuse and physical violence this year alone, a considerable increase from the 40 percent in 2018.
Abuse against women on social media is also rife, with 13.4 percent saying that they had been victims.
"We live in a society which is not only patriarchal, as many other societies are unfortunately, but one that is more conservative and religious, intensely misogynist and sexist," says Ibtissame Betty Lachgar, a clinical psychologist, human rights activist and co-founder of Mali Movement (Mouvement alternatif pour les libertés individuelles.)
In September 2018, only weeks after details of Khadija Okkarou's plight emerged, a new law to protect women from "acts considered forms of harassment, aggression, sexual exploitation or ill treatment" took effect.
The law was hailed by family minister Bassima Hakkaoui of the co-ruling Islamist PJD party as "one of the most important texts" to strengthen and for further equality for women.
|54.4% of women in the country have suffered verbal abuse and physical violence this year alone, a considerable increase from the 40% in 2018|
However, Lachgar argues, the new law falls short of protecting women from other forms of domestic violence, such as marital rape.
"It is still rape." she adds. "The Islamist government is giving licence to rape. Women belong to men and men are in control of women's body and sexuality."
And Lachgar is not alone in her criticism. Former women's minister Nouzha Skalli too deems the law inadequate, arguing that it fails to take into account "international definitions" of violence against women, highlighting the example of marital rape not being criminalised under the new legislation.
On 7 September 2018, the same day this law took effect, a young woman, Oumaima Requas, lodged a complaint against three men for alleged sexual harassment.
"As an activist, I have always been outraged by sexual harassment against women, and I impatiently waited for this kind of legislation. So when I myself was a victim of harassment, I did not hesitate to file a complaint to see if the law will be really applied," Oumaima later told the media.
Requas, however, was vilified, criticised and subjected to ridicule on social media, with many blaming her appearance and outfit, following a similar rationale that incited social media users to accuse Okkarou of lying and living a "depraved" lifestyle.
|Khadija displays tattoos as she sits in the village of Oulad Ayad, in the Beni Mellal region, on August 21 2018|
Khadija Okkarou, whilst still traumatised from the aftermaths of her ordeal, had called on Moroccan girls and women, who may suffer or have suffered violence or sexual harassment, to be brave and stay strong in defiance against the stigma that society attaches to victims of sexual violence and abuse.
As happens to nearly all victims of sexual violence in Morocco, attempts to smear the young woman's character and to question the veracity of her account of the crime, had started almost immediately.
Predominantly on social media, but also in mainstream media which reported such comments from individuals in her village as well as from family members of some of the accused.
|In any case, every time a woman is a victim of rape, unfortunately the situation is turned around, and the victim becomes guilty and not the rapist|
"When women have a certain lifestyle, they are discredited," says Lachgar.
"So, for example, in Khadija's case, the fact that a girl went out at night, which could be for multiple reasons: she might have had some worries, etc, but she went out, be it to supposedly smoke or drink.
"And well, no matter what she does, it was inevitably her fault. In any case, every time a woman is a victim of rape, unfortunately the situation is turned around, and the victim becomes guilty and not the rapist."
Morocco is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the country has come a long way in recent years. But bringing domestic laws into line with international conventions and translate them into practice is still far from realised.
This together with a predominantly conservative society clinging to sexist traditions and values is an obstacle that delays combatting violence against women and entrenches the stigma they face.
As Ibtissame Lachgar puts it: "It is very difficult to fight against this culture of rape, and it is very complicated in Morocco especially to be able to complain when a woman is the victim of rape."
However, Moroccan women are starting to speak out and fighting back such as young women like Khadija Okkarou.
With such fundamental changes in modern communication, widespread access to social media and information, other victims will eventually follow her example and refuse to be silenced, whatever will happen to the trial and regardless of its outcome.
Mustapha El Bouabi is a journalist at The New Arab.