The third and last film I saw at British Film Week was a documentary made by the British film-maker Deborah Perkin, called Bastards. It follows the stories of a number of women supported by the remarkable Casablanca women’s charity Solidarité Féminine, in their quests to establish through the courts the legitimacy – or if not the legitimacy, at least the paternity – of their children. As Deborah puts it on the film’s website, “illegitimate children in Morocco are outcasts, non-people, bastards … but recent legal reforms give single mothers the right to register their children, either alone, or by persuading the father to recognize the child in court. Registration on the state birth register means access to education and health care, and a respectable position in society.”
It isn’t easy, but it’s possible, and although the situation has got a bit better since the 2004 Moudawana reform, it is still a pretty dire fate to be the mother of an illegitimate child in Morocco. “In the Arab world, it’s a taboo to talk about the single mother, and in Morocco we are confronting society and encouraging the mothers to stand up and say ‘I’m a mother and I’m proud to take care of my baby.”’ says Aïcha Ech-Channa, president and founder of Solidarité Féminine.
Deborah came over to show the film at Beni M’Sik’s Faculty of Letters, a notable centre of film work, and there was a large, invitation-only audience for what was the film’s first outing in Morocco. It tells the story of two women. One is a rather splendid, loud and spirited woman called Fatiha, who spent many years as the mistress of a married taxi-driver. He dumped her when she became pregnant, leaving her with a small child and no roof or income, and her urgent quest is to prove paternity and to extract some kind of support for herself and her daughter.
The other is a young woman called Rabha El-Haimer, who was married at 14 in a traditional wedding in the presence of an imam – a wedding that was well-witnessed, but left no documentary footprint, and was never registered. Rabha was sent off to her husband’s family in Casablanca, abused and beaten and – once pregnant – sent back to her own family in the country, as a reject, the marriage brusquely denied. This left her and her daughter Salma as social outcasts, entirely dependent on the goodwill of her family. Rabha sought help and found it in a remarkable group of women running Solidarité Féminine; and they set about assembling evidence, witnesses and statements, and taking her case to court.
We see her going back and back to small town courtrooms where rough-and-ready and often uncompromising but (if we can judge from the film) generally not unkindly justice is administered. We see the unalloyed nastiness of her husband’s family, her father-in-law spewing vicious insults to camera with carefree bile. There are endless disappointments, procrastinations, lies and delays – but in the end Rabha wins her case, and her daughter Salma is declared legitimate. Fatiha wins her case too – DNA tests are quite clear about the taxi-driver’s paternity – but at the time the film was finished she had still received no financial support. And Rabha’s victory was being appealed in the Supreme Court.
The film ends with Rabha’s first appeal court victory. The cinema audience cheered and clapped and rose to their feet in delight. A rather diffident Rabha, who had, unknown to them, been sitting in the audience throughout the film, came up onto the stage with Deborah and the film’s researcher, and Soumia Idman, the splendid woman from Solidarité Féminine who had supported her case throughout. They talked and answered questions, and the discussion went on long after I had had to jump back into the car and head for Rabat. As I drove back up the motorway I thought with admiration about the sheer grit of women like Rabha who will stop at nothing to assert their children’s rights in a paternalistic and frequently misogynistic society.
Quite how engrained this misogyny, and the prejudice against illegitimate children, are, was sadly emphasized for me by what Fatiha the taxi-driver’s mistress had to say bitterly about her former lover: “Bastard,” she repeated several times, “he’s a bastard.”
The next night Deborah and Rabha, her enchanting daughter Salma, and the film’s researcher all came to supper at our home in Rabat. Rabha told us more of a very difficult but inspiring story. Salma is at school at last, doing well; and her mother is learning to read. A more ordinary, more charming little family – despite the difficult challenges they still face – it is hard to imagine. But she is one of many: there are apparently some 6,500 illegitimate babies born each year in Morocco, and each little family faces a version of the same brick wall, and the same struggle to surmount it.