31/08/2018 17:59 BST | Updated 31/08/2018 17:59 BST

Harrowing Account Of Tortured And Forcibly Tattooed Teen Grips Morocco

The shocking case, in a nation where violence against women is widespread but largely ignored, has sparked a public outcry.

STRINGER via Getty Images
Teenager Khadija shows tattoos as she sits in the village of Oulad Ayad, in the Beni Mellal region of Morocco.

MOROCCO — The story of a 17-year-old girl allegedly kidnapped, raped, and tattooed by a group of men in Morocco, has sparked outrage and criticism across the country.

The young woman, identified as Khadija, appeared on local television last week covered in crude tattoos and cigarette burns. She said the markings, which included swastikas, was the work of men who had abducted her from a relative’s house and held her captive for two months, torturing her and attacking her.

The interview set off a wave of outrage and calls for an end to violence against women in the country. More than 75,000 people signed a petition demanding action that invoked the teenager’s name ‘We are all Khadija’, and the case trended on social media. Authorities took 12 men into custody this week in connection with the case as support for Khadija and her family continued to flow in from around the country and abroad.

However, in a conservative country where rape victims often face backlash or are blamed for their ordeals, the parents of some of her alleged torturers have been on a campaign to tarnish her credibility.

They’ve taken aim at her reputation in what Khadija’s neighbour described to HuffPost Maghreb as a coordinated effort to discredit her.

The mother of one suspect told local media that Khadija smokes, drinks, “swims in the river,” has dated drug dealers and even puts cigarettes out on her own hands.

Parroting similar accusations, another suspect’s mother told Morocco’s Chouf TV that Khadija “wanders the streets, is always asking boys to give her alcohol, cigarettes, drugs … and then, she goes and accuses innocent people.”

Others have questioned why she wasn’t reported missing, accused her of prostitution and fabricating the entire ordeal.

These accusations have shocked those close to Khadija, according to Youssef, one of her neighbours.

“If she was really prostituting herself, she would not be living in such mediocre conditions,” Youssef told HuffPost Maghreb.

AP Photo/Mosaab Elsham
A street sign outside the town of Oulad Ayad near Beni Melal central Morocco where a 17-year-old Moroccan girl told police she was gang-raped forcibly tattooed and held against her will for two months.

Khadija’s father, Mohammed, has also come to his daughter’s defence. “I understand why they are reacting the way they are,” he told HuffPost Maghreb. “Those are their children. I do not want to hurt anyone, but justice must be done and I can not accuse anyone falsely.”

Okorro also pointed out that authorities released two of the 14 men they initially took into custody after Khadija said they were not among her captors.

“If she was just making this story up and wanted to make problems, she would not have absolved them,” Youssef, her neighbor, points out.

In an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press, her mother said she fainted when she saw her daughter’s body.

“I was caught off guard when those criminals brought my daughter and I saw her in this condition. I fainted ... I collapsed, seeing her like that, the tattoos, the burns, her honor lost,” the mother said, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect the family’s privacy, who she referred to only by her first name, Khadija.

“Why did they do this to my child? Are they beasts? Will my daughter ever return to the way she was?” the mother asked, speaking from her home in the town of Oulad Ayad, near Beni Mellal, in central Morocco, a rural region rife with poverty and high rates of illiteracy and unemployment.

AP Photo/Mosaab Elshamy

Locals rally

In Morocco, violence against women remains widespread and a largely taboo subject.

A 2016 survey by UN Women carried out in the Moroccan capital, Rabat, and in some neighbouring cities found that 41 percent of the men surveyed believe that financial support justified marital rape.

Over 50% reported having been emotionally abusive to their wives, and 15% acknowledged using physical violence against women.

The survey, conducted in 2016 and released in February, found that 62% of the men interviewed believe women must tolerate violence to preserve family unity.

In an article titled “We are all Khadija,” Moroccan author and filmmaker Abdellah Taïa, criticized what he called Morocco’s rape culture and called on the government and King Mohammed VI to intervene. It was signed by dozens of Moroccan intellectuals, the Associated Press reported.

“We will move on. A new source of collective excitement. Nothing will be done,” he wrote. “And as always, it is women who pay the price of all the dysfunctions of a society that still does not want to grow.”

AP Photo/Mosaab Elshamy
Ibrahim Hashane, the lawyer of a 17-year-old Moroccan girl who told police she was gang-raped, forcibly tattooed and held against her will for two months.

With the ruling pending, local and international organizations, doctors, lawyers, and concerned citizens have rushed to help Khadija.

Psychologists have offered to treat her and dermatologists have offered to help remove the tattoos.

Local organizations arranged for Khadija to get blood tests, and a representative from the Health Ministry covered the cost of her hospitization, her father said.

“Today, Khadija smiles again, her health is stable,” her father said. “Thanks to the support of the associations and all the people who came to see us, she’s regained hope.”

Twelve suspects are in custody in the alleged kidnapping and rape, and three are still at large, according to Ibrahim Hashane, a volunteer lawyer who is pressing the case. He said that an examining judge had ordered an investigation and a hearing was scheduled for September 6.

This article has been translated from HuffPost Maghreb. With files from the Associated Press