Elkhalfi Meryem, 24, comes from a poor and conservative Muslim family in a village in Morocco. The inhabitants of her village depend mostly on agriculture and traditional handicrafts for a livelihood.
In her village, it was not uncommon for girls to be kept at home, instead of being sent to school. Many—including Meryam’s family— hold the patriarchal view that a woman’s place was confined to the home. “My brother, in particular, had extremely conservative beliefs. He told me that the place for girls was at home, as housewives, serving their husbands and children,” she narrated to a translator, who helped write her journal.
Therefore, Meryam’s family did not allow her to complete her studies. But Meryam refused to accept her family’s decision to limit her role to a homemaker. Instead, she wanted to become a breadwinner. “I decided to go against the traditions of my family, seeking out opportunities to work so that I could support myself and my family,” she said.
Meryam found a job as an agricultural worker in a farm. Sexual violence, however, would ruin her simple dreams.
One day while returning home from work, one of Meryam’s co-workers offered to take her home on his motorcycle. “Although I initially refused, he insisted and I eventually agreed. After a while, though, I noticed that he went in an unusual direction. Here was the beginning of my nightmare,” she narrated.
When Meryam questioned her co-worker about the direction he was driving, he said that he was just going to drop by a friend’s house first. “With my usual innocence and naivete, I believed him without hesitation. But when he began to exit the town, I started to feel unsafe. After a while, I found myself alone with him in the middle of the forest,” she said.
Her worst fears were confirmed. “You will accept willingly or I’ll kill you,” Meryam’s co-worker told her. Meryam tried to defend herself. But she was raped in the forest. “I lost my virginity and my innocence forever,” she said.
“Afterwards, the rapist said to me in a threatening voice, if you try to complain to the police or tell anyone I’ll kill you. I was abandoned in the forest resigned to my fate, not knowing what to do or who to tell,” she said. Meryam suffered in silent anguish and told no one of the crime.
A month after the incident, Meryam realised she had not had her period and was pregnant. She went hysterical, and decided to leave her family’s home. “I headed towards Marrakech in search of a refuge and a way to abort the foetus. No one in my family knew my secret, except my sister,” she narrated.
At Marrakech city, Meryam filed a complaint with the police. But she was eventually forced to abandon the case. “I felt that I had no tangible evidence to start the prosecution process. I didn’t know the laws,” she said.
Under the 2015 revised penal code of Morocco, women are permitted abortions when their life is in danger, and in cases of rape, incest, and birth defects. However, the amendments haven’t come into force as the parliament is yet to vote on it unanimously. In Moroccan law, rape falls under the section of the Criminal Code that deals with “crimes against morality.”
This means that the law on rape is meant to protect “public morality,” instead of the individual. It has been widely criticised as not protecting the rights of women, through discriminatory standards such as stiffer penalties for the rape of a virgin compared to a non-virgin; and enabling rapists to marry their underage victims in order to preserve the “honour” of the family. Thus, rape victims are often stigmatised, with the burden of proof of the crime placed on their shoulders.
Fearing that she would be unable to prove the rape in courts, Meryam began to look for illegal means to have an abortion. “But the treatments and services offered by practitioners were too expensive and inaccessible for a woman in my financial situation like me. My first months in Marrakech were infernal, with my wavering between whether to have an abortion or to keep the baby. Finally, I took a step back and decided to look for an alternative,” she related.
Meryam decided to seek the help of the Association Marocaine de Planification Familiale (AMPF). The group took charge of her health, providing her with counseling and medical care. “Little by little, I began to overcome my nightmare, thanks to AMPF who supported me,” she said.
In the end, she decided to have the baby. Her daughter is now over a year old.
Sadly, Meryam is still suffering from poverty and gender oppression. She works as a domestic worker, but is sometimes forced to supplement her income as a sex worker. She has lost touch with her family and friends in the village. Only her daughter keeps her happy. “I am now living a harmonious life with my little daughter, who is my warm refuge,” Meryam said optimistically, despite life’s continuing hardships.