Rabat, Morocco – A new law in Morocco criminalising violence towards women has divided opinion, with some observers applauding the legislation as progress while critics claim some women would still be left at risk.
Until recently, women were vulnerable to various types of violence in private and public spheres, including rape, sexual harassment and domestic abuse.
Much of this abuse had gone unreported, with such incidents considered private matters and not criminal.
In a bill approved by parliament on February 14 after years of debate among political parties, civil and women’s rights groups, the new law defines violence against women as “any act based on gender discrimination that entails physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm to a woman. It also criminalises cyber harassment and forced marriage”.
The new law imposes tougher penalties on perpetrators, including prison terms ranging from one month to five years and fines from $200 to $1,000.
The law, however, does not explicitly outlaw marital rape or spousal violence and does not provide a precise definition of domestic violence.
Bassima Hakkaoui, minister of Family, Solidarity, Equality and Social Development, praised the bill as defining “all kinds of violence against women, offers preventive and protection measures and increases penalties for people who commit violent acts against women.”
Human Rights Watch said the law includes positive provisions, but leaves women at risk of being abused in a marriage.
“The law allows for protection orders that prohibit an accused person from contacting, approaching, or communicating with the victim,” the rights group said. “But these can only be issued during a criminal prosecution or after a criminal conviction. Moreover, the orders can be cancelled if spouses reconcile which will only add more pressure on women to drop such orders.”
In 2009, in a survey of 8,300 women, 62.8 percent said they had been subject to psychological, physical, sexual or economical violence, according to High Planning Commission (HCP), an independent government statistical institution.
The main problem of the new law is the way it defines abuses. Articles of the law lack clarity and are not as precise as international norms.
Miloud Kaouass, professor of Islamic studies at Ibn Tofail University in the city of Kenitra, applauded the law, but stressed the importance of raising awareness for such a move to be effective.
“The law is good but we need to enhance the importance of moral values and manners among our youths both in school and at home. As long as we get away from ethics, morality and manners, violence and harassment against women would never stop.
“Teaching our youth Islamic values will also help. Islam considers even looks with some kind of sexual attraction as harassment,” Kaouass told Al Jazeera.
Kaouass claimed it would be difficult for the new law to address claims of violence by married women against husbands, saying loopholes in the legislation could lead to false accusations.
“A relationship between a husband and wife is supposed to be based on love and consent. In the case of a married couple, it is difficult to differentiate if the relationship was with or without consent,” he said.
Hayat Ndichi, a member of the Aspiration Feminine NGO, said the law lacks clarity, which in turn would not deter molestation or limit violence.
“The main problem of the new law is the way it defines abuses. Articles of the law lack clarity and are not as precise as international norms. This means opening the door for many legal loopholes and interpretations,” she told Al Jazeera, adding conjugal rape had been ignored.
However, she praised the bill for getting tough on perpetrators and including cybercrimes.
‘I didn’t know what to do. I was so afraid’
Fatima Zahra, a 17-year-old journalism student, said proving violence against women could be challenging.
“If you don’t have evidence that someone did something bad to you, you can’t prove it and police can’t prove it as well. So how the law would be implemented?” she said.
“When a man harasses you, he knows you can do nothing about it. Because you will be afraid of those people who are around who will think that you are the reason because you attracted him.
“The problem is always you. This is why there are many places where I can’t wear whatever I want, especially if I am alone,” she told Al Jazeera.
I got into a taxi, which is supposed to be a safe place. He started to feel my leg with his hand. I didn't know what to do. I was so afraid.
Sarah, a 22-year-old university student, remembers with bitterness one of many incidents where harassment went beyond words.
“I don’t know from where some men get the nerve to … start touching you.
“I remember once, I was in my first year of high school and I got into a taxi, which is supposed to be a safe place. He started to feel my leg with his hand. I didn’t know what to do. I was so afraid,” she told Al Jazeera.
Maha Naami has contributed reporting to this piece.