Sexual assault raises difficult questions

Harrowing gang rape in Morocco brings questions of culture and legislation into focus

FILE -- In this April 22, 2017 file photo, a veiled woman with her daughter, center, rides a bicycle past white wedding dresses displayed by the Lebanese NGO Abaad, to protest against article 522 in the Lebanese penal code that stipulates that a rapist is absolved of his crime if he marries his victim, on the Beirut corniche, Lebanon. Parliament repealed the law Wednesday Aug. 16, 2017, which had been in place since the 1940s, and follows years of campaigning by women's rights advocates. Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have canceled similar "marry the rapist" clauses over the years, and Jordan's parliament recently repealed a similar law. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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Protests took place in Morocco on Wednesday with activists expressing horror and sorrow at the recent violent sexual assault of a woman on public transport. Widely circulated video footage of the bus attack has caused outrage on social media and has led to the arrest of several suspects. A police investigation is ongoing but anger continues to simmer, particularly at the passive passengers on the bus who did not intervene to help the woman and prevent this brutal act.

The incident arrives at a challenging time for Morocco. As our columnist Alan Philps writes on these pages today, Morocco has been a cornerstone of stability in North Africa for years, but that image has been undermined by the Barcelona attacks last week. And while it is true to say that the whole world struggles with incidents of sexual violence, when these assaults do happen, they inevitably bring that country's society, culture and its legislation into sharp focus.

The details of this awful attack bear some comparison to the grievous sexual assault of a 23-year-old medical student in India in December 2012. That incident provoked widespread introspection and anger among Indian society, although many argue that, five years on, the worst practices of some predatory men in India persist. A similar process appears to be underway in Morocco today, but it must be stressed that this is a problem that many countries and, indeed, the world struggles with. So how do we address these issues?

Read more:

> Overcoming inequality can defeat violence

>Jordan parliament repeals 'marry the rapist' clause

Violence in such cases is fed by gender inequality, cultural taboos and social passiveness towards harassment, that leave the door open to rape in all its forms, exploitation and human trafficking. Everyone has a role to play, to put an end to gender discrimination.

Outdated laws that are in violation of the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women should be amended. Legislators in Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan have recently repealed laws that allow rapists to avoid criminal prosecution by marrying their victims. To build on this positive momentum, these laws must be enforced. Several countries, Tunisia included, have enforced a legal duty to assist a person in distress. Passiveness should not be an option and where there is no legal duty to rescue, there is a moral and ethical duty and responsibility to help or inform authorities.

Social amnesia and ignorance on the part of civil society should be met with a discourse of empowerment. Empowering young girls and women to know their rights and educating young boys, tomorrow's men, will help them empower those around them, and prevent them from falling into the macho-man stereotype. This is a role educational institutions must fill, to change a prevalent mindset and prepare future generations to counter gender-based violence in all its forms.

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Also read: 

> The force is female: India's women cops take a stand

> India's shocking rape cases highlight social inequality and lack of care for victims