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03/08/2005

Neither whores nor submissive

Young Muslim women in the working class suburbs of France have two choices: slut or servant. Fadela Amara is trying to offer them a third option: respect. By Rebecca Hillauer

Fadela Amara has a mission. One sees it in the intensity of her eyes and feels it in the passion of her speech. A good two years ago, the daughter of an Algerian immigrant family in Paris, she founded the organisation "Ni putes ni soumises". This is also the title of her book, which won the "Prix du Livre Politique" of the French national assembly last year. In the book, Fadela Amara tells in a simple and direct style the story of her fight against the growing violence and social disintegration in France's suburbs.

Reading Amara's book, one understands quickly the gravity of the situation. On October 4, 2002 in Vitry-sur-Seine, a satellite town of Paris, 18 year old Sohane Benziane, the daughter of Kabyle immigrants, was burned alive. The perpetrators were two men her age of North African descent. They lured the girl, who refused to submit to the "norms of the neighbourhood", into a cellar. While one kept watch outside, the other poured gas over Sohane and set her on fire with a lighter.

This horrible deed was a catalyst for Fadela Amara. A few days later, she along with 2000 other men and women took part in a silent march. Then she organised gatherings at which girls and women could speak openly about violence in their districts. In February 2003 she initiated a "March of Women from the Suburbs". It went through a total of 23 cities and drew the nation's attention to the particular repression of the "girls of the city". Today "Ni putes ni soumises" has more than 6000 members and 60 local committees. The organisation encourages young women and men in the suburbs to act against ghettoisation and the suppression of women, and to support equal opportunity and rights. Fadela Amara wants to break the law of silence which has masked the violence of the suburbs, mafia-style.

The petite woman with the narrow face and the little pig-tail grew up in a suburban housing development in Clermont-Ferrand, a working class city in the South. "We thought at the time that the French republic was going to give us immigrant children a chance as well." Freedom, equality, fraternity – France's founding principles – are still seminal terms for the 40 year old. Like many daughters of immigrant parents, she didn't enjoy equal rights as she grew up in the 1980s either, but the common commitment to anti-racism movement brought the sexes closer together. The number of forced marriages decreased and the number of female Muslim students increased. Since the economic crisis of the 1990s, however, the clocks have started ticking backwards again.

Fathers in immigrant families don't only lose their jobs when they're unemployed. They lose their authority in the family. This position is then occupied by their eldest sons who, although they may not be able to find legal employment, can provide for the family through their work in "parallel economies": car theft and drug dealing. With the authority they inherit, they are able to impose their conservative notions of religion and morality onto their social surroundings. Their spiritual nourishment comes from the Islamic fundamentalists, whose influence in the suburbs continues to rise.

For girls in the neighbourhood the message is: take on traditional female roles, dress chastely, don't go out and most importantly, remain a virgin until you marry. This unwritten law doesn't only apply to Muslim girls. The north African young men, although they constitute a minority, command the non-Islamic populations in the suburbs as well: African immigrants and lower class French.

In her book, Fadela Amara describes precisely what effect this moral pressure has on the girls. And how much courage they need to stand up to their moral guard dogs by wearing make-up, for example, or a skirt. In the suburbs, both represent an act of rebellion. Many girls dress intentionally unattractively or wear a veil, for fear of reprisals.

"The veil symbolises submission to male dominance," Fadela Amara explains. For this reason, she supports Chirac's hard line of banning the veil in schools. The veil says "I am not available" and should, in principle, buy the women some peace. But what results is a confirmation of the fatal alternative presented in the provocative name "Ni putes ni soumises"; either a woman gives in to her traditional role, or she is considered a whore and fair game.

A common punishment for girls who rebel, in the worst case, is the so-called "tournante" – gang rape. Samira Bellil was the first to describe this phenomena in her book "Dans l'enfer des tournantes" (in gang-rape hell). She had been the victim of three gang rapes before she found the courage, after psychotherapeutic treatment, to tell her story. Samira Bellil was also patron of "Ni putes ni soumises" until she died last year at 31 of stomach cancer. (Here an obituary from the Guardian.)

Bellil's book and Amara's activites have woken up politicians. In various cities, emergency hotlines and hostels have been set up for women and girls forced to flee their neighbourhoods. In police stations, specialised workers are being trained to deal with "migrants' problems". But Fadela Amara believes that these measures address only the symptoms of the grievances; to eliminate the roots of the problem, steps have to be taken against mass unemployment and the ghettoising of the suburbs. But the author does not hold political forces responsible. In her book, she is very critical of the way many immigrants bring up their children.

"In Muslim immigrant families, the sons are treated like kings. They are not just preferred over the girls, they are spoilt and coddled." The crux is that when these young men encounter resistance beyond the family for the first time - when they don't get into university or college, for example - they react helplessly and destructively. They compensate for their fury and inferiority complexes with machismo and violence against those who are socially and physically weaker – girls in particular.

"In the suburbs, sexual education takes place through porn videos – how can these boys not have a twisted image of women?" Amara asks. She demands better sexual education in schools. The boys should learn values: how to deal with the opposite sex respectfully. To this purpose, Amara published a "How to respect" guide that's designed to fit into a trouser pocket. Her colleagues take these into the schools and discuss with students their notions of marriage, virginity, forced marriage, circumcision, tenderness and love.
Amara emphasises that this is the difference between those who talk about cultural relativism and her organisation, which is aimed at achieving universal human rights. "An exaggerated tolerance of supposed cultural differences which results in the maintenance of archaic traditions - that's just not acceptable."

Fadela Amara: "Ni putes ni soumises". La Decouverte, Paris 2004. 168 pg., 6 Euros.

Samira Bellil: "Dans l'enfer des tournantes". Gallimard, Paris 2003. 280 pg., 3,50 Euros.


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Rebecca Hillauer is a freelance radio and print journalist resident in Germany. She has published an Encyclopedia of Arab Women Filmmakers.

This article was originally published in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on July 18, 2005.

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