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22/11/2005

So long, Marianne

Alice Schwarzer, the foremost figure in the German women's liberation movement, comments on the lack of women in the recent French riots



"They used to burn dustbins and cars – now they burn girls." These were the words of Kahina Benziane after her sister Sohane was raped, tortured and burned alive by schoolmates on October 4, 2002 in the Parisian suburb of Vitry.

Unlike her sister, who moved away and studied sociology, Sohane stayed in the neighbourhood. But she dared to live like her sister, which meant wearing makeup, going out, having a boyfriend. And she paid for this lifestyle with her life, since it meant she was not one of the "respectable girls" but one of the "putes", the whores.

Today, fils de pute, son of a whore, is the term of abuse that flies with the stones and petrol bombs hurled at police officers by young people. Or to be more precise, by boys. Girls do not figure in this "youth uprising". Stones were thrown in Paris in 1968, too. But the barricades were occupied by men and women, even if the leaders were all men. The revolt targeted authoritarian structures, but not the state as such. It was luxury shops that burned, not schools. And the war cry against the "pigs" was "CRS SS!" An inappropriate comparison, but at least a political one. Today’s equivalent is purely sexist: son of a bitch.

It is a fact: Of the six million first, second and now third-generation immigrants in France, the majority come from the Muslim states of the Maghreb, from France's former colonies Algeria and Morocco. This history does not make the present any simpler. What is striking is that the third generation – and this applies equally in Germany – are often less well integrated than their grandparents. And forty percent of these young people between 16 and 25 are unemployed. Or to be more precise, 25 percent of young men and 50 percent of young women. In social terms, then, the women have twice as much reason to protest.

Except that Muslim women do not shout in the streets. They whisper behind drawn curtains. And when they do dare to demonstrate in public, their protest is aimed not against the state, but against their own husbands and brothers. Like after the death of Sohane, when a movement was founded with the name "Ni putes ni soumises" (neither whores nor submissive - see our feature with the same name) whose demonstrations caused a considerable stir in France. On March 8, 2003, hundreds of young women from the suburbs marched through Paris and declared: "We are being suffocated by the machismo of the men in our neighbourhoods. In the name of 'tradition' they are denying us the most elementary human rights. We will not tolerate it any longer!"

Kahina and her sisters were received by Jean-Louis Debre, the president of France's National Assembly, and ex-minister and concentration camp survivor Simone Veil, a moral authority in France. And in summer of 2003, the columns of the neo-classical parliament building bore fourteen larger-than-life portraits of Kahina, Samira, Aisha and all the others. On their heads, these modern Mariannes wore the Jacobin cap, the proud symbol of the republic.

It is all the more surprising that alongside the justified focus in the French and international press on the issue of racism, the sexism or machismo of these riots has barely been touched on. In fact, for a long time now, twenty years to be precise, the suburbs have been seeing an inexorable rise in male violence. In a recent survey, 300 of the 630 problematic residential areas under observation showed typical signs of the emergence of "parallel societies" – "isolation within communities" coupled with religious and sexist fanaticism, phenomena known to go hand in hand.

The girls and women in these areas have long been living in fear. As well as being victims of violence within their own families more frequently than the average French woman, they are also at greater risk on the street. The Islamist-influenced boys and men divide women into two categories: saints and whores. The saints stay at home, the whores go out into the world. And they are made to pay. The price ranges from brutal street robberies, that affect women with striking frequency, through to what is called the 'rotonde': the form of gang rape to which Kahina’s sister Sohane was also subjected.

The current unrest is said to be the result of a two-class society that has failed to integrate the immigrants and their children. This is true. But when it gets dark and the rioting begins, there is not a single woman left on the streets. For on fiery nights like these, the "whores" are in just as much danger as the "sons of whores".

What can happen when women raise their voices is shown by the example of Senia Boucherrougui and Cherifa. Last year, the very pregnant Senia was the victim of a robbery in suburban Paris. Together with her friend Cherifa, she then founded the "Union Against Violence in Saint-Denis" and dared to organize a demonstration in her neighbourhood – against the violence of the state and against the violence of the participants' own husbands and brothers. As a result, a pamphlet appeared comparing the two women with Jacques Doriot, the mayor of Saint-Denis in the 1930s who converted from communism to fascism. "They broke a taboo", commented the Nouvel Observateur newspaper dryly. The taboo of political correctness and of "solidarity" with their "own" people at all costs.

Before the riots broke out, cars were mostly being set alight in Paris' formerly communist "Red Belt", which is increasingly becoming Islamist green. Now cars are burning across the country, and so are schools. The reasons are unemployment, insufficient integration – and constant agitation by Islamists since the mid-1980s. This time, they do not appear to be on the front line with the marauding gangs of youths, but they were the trailblazers – and they will reap the benefits.

In Germany too, sociologists warn of the danger of young men in mainly Muslim neighbourhoods coming adrift. From representative long-term studies by the Hanover-based criminologist Christian Pfeiffer, we know that in this country, half of all crimes by minors are committed by just six percent of the delinquents. This hard core includes one in ten Turkish youths, but only one in 33 German youths. Fittingly, 25 percent of Turkish boys condone violence (compared with four percent of German boys) – but only five percent of Turkish girls.

Levels of violence are three times higher in Turkish families than in German families, the culprits are men, their victims women and children. But the girls identify with their victim mothers, the boys with their aggressor fathers (even if they themselves are among his victims). And as long as these facts are silenced in the name of some naive claim of racism, we will not get to the root of the problem.

For how is a boy to learn respect for those around him or for the representatives of the state when he learns from an early age to despise those closest to him – his own mother, sister, girlfriend? Worse still, these boys are convinced that only a violent man is a real man. Violence is the core of male dominance in the ghettos. Violence is cool. Violence is the key attribute of a "manly" identity – most keenly required in times when manliness is shaken and uncertain.

The siren's song of violence is being sung by many voices from Paris to Berlin: by traditional patriarchs from cultures entirely unaffected by the Enlightenment or feminism; by criminals who exploit the hopelessness of these boys; and by the Islamists operating in the heart of Europe's major cities. To these lost young men, they promise a new, proud identity, including seventy virgins in heaven – at the price of subjugating their own womenfolk and combating the unbelievers.

In recent years, it really seemed as if France had recognized this problem. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, himself born to immigrants (as the son of a Hungarian aristocrat father and a Jewish Greek mother), pursued a proactive integration policy aimed at breaking the secret power of the Islamists and at drawing Muslims out of parallel societies. As a man with an iron hand and a rough way with words, the popular "Sarko" has deservedly fallen into discredit. But the question remains as to whether the wave of disapproval unleashed on the ambitious would-be president by the spokespersons of the suburbs is not also aimed at the politician who has to date been the most determined and most effective opponent of the Islamists in France.

The situation in Germany is not quite as drastic as in France. But in Germany too, sympathy with the fundamentalists and jihadists is increasing inexorably, especially among young men. Soon, the new government will have to act where the old one failed to. In an interview, the designated interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble has called neglecting the "young people" from Turkey and the former Soviet Union "our biggest mistake", adding that this lost generation must be given access to language classes, education and work as an urgent priority. This is true. But we must also no longer turn a blind eye to the double two-class system: that separating Germans and immigrants on the one hand and, on the other, that separating the men and women within the immigrant communities.

If we really want to get to grips with the problem of burning cars, then we must also tackle the problem of burning girls (read: honour killings). If we want to break the rule of the godfathers within the mafia-like structures, then we must also call into question the limitless authority of the patriarchs within families (read: different cultures, different rules). And at least as urgent as language classes are some classes in democracy – with reference to Article 3 Paragraph 2 of Germany’s constitution, the Basic Law: "Woman and men shall have equal rights."

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The article originally appeared in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on November 17, 2005.

Alice Schwarzer, born in 1942, is Germany's best-known feminist. She studied sociology and psychology in Paris, and became active in the women's movement at first in France and then in Germany. In 1971 she started the "Ich habe abgetrieben" (I've had an abortion) action (published on June 6, 1971 in Stern magazine), which initiated a widespread campaign against paragraph 218 of the German Basic Law, and ushered in a new era in the German women's movement. In 1977 she founded Emma magazine, where she is still editor in chief.

Translation: Nicholas Grindell.

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