PARIS — Fadela Amara — feminist, anti-racism campaigner, political activist, Muslim — is spearheading a new French revolution.
Battling against the "machismo" in France's bleak, heavily Muslim suburbs, Amara, the president of Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives), has defied the conspiracy of silence surrounding the extreme acts of violence perpetrated against young minority women in the ghettos and is offering them a third option: respect.
“Our problem today is that a lot of the girls in the suburbs ... they think the station of women is dictated by the men or boys of the quartier (neighborhood),” Amara said during a recent interview in the organization’s sparsely decorated headquarters in eastern Paris.Posters from the group's recent campaigns, showcasing the multiethnic face of France, as well as a Che Guevara print, adorned her office.
Many immigrants and their descendents in France’s housing projects have refused to accept this country’s way of life, clinging to conservative, often paternalistic cultures that do not translate in the France of today.
With the added burden of high unemployment and discrimination, some young males in the ghettos, often of Muslim heritage, direct their aggression inward, acting as self-appointed morals cops and guardians of their families’ honor, said Amara, the daughter of Algerian immigrants who was raised in a housing project in central France.
The group’s name is provocative — and intentionally so. “Not whores” is aimed at young thugs who refer to all women except their mothers as whores, while “not submissives” is directed at intellectuals, politicians and other observers to alert them that merely because these women are oppressed, it does not mean they are simply passive.
“The movement Ni Putes Ni Soumises is like a return to the classic feminist movement of the 1970s. The only problem left, the last (challenge) of the feminist movement, is political parity,” she said.
Women in France only obtained the right to vote and hold office in 1944, later than most Western European countries. As recently as 1993, women made up just 6 percent of the National Assembly. Although the situation has improved, only around 12 percent of the current National Assembly is female, one of the lowest percentages in Europe.
“We use that term [parity], but that term comes as somewhat of a shock for ... some feminists. To say that — asking for parity in politics — is like asking for a sale at Hermes. It’s like a dream at this time in terms of national politics,” Amara said.
“So, for now we are ... concerned with fundamental liberties — more practical matters — like the right to dress how you want, the right to study, the right to choose your companion. The basic, practical issues ... in terms of being a woman,” she said.
Teenage girls in the projects are often caught between their families’ restrictive culture and the aggression of boys their own age. The consequences — sexual harassment, forced marriage and, in some cases, gang rape and murder — are real, the stories heart-wrenching.
In her 2002 book "Dans l'Enfer des Tournantes" (In the Hell of the Gang Rapes), Samira Bellil stunned France by detailing her struggle in the housing projects and, more pointedly, her own experience of gang rape.
“There are only two types of girls” in the housing projects, Bellil, who died of stomach cancer in 2004 at the age of 33, wrote. “Good girls stay home, clean the house, take care of their brothers and sisters, and only go out to go to school. Those who … dare to wear make-up, to go out, or to smoke, quickly earn the reputation as ‘easy’ or as ‘little whores’.”
Sohanne Benziane, a 19-year-old Muslim girl from Vitry-sur-Seine, a southeastern suburb of Paris, was burned alive in her housing project’s trash area in 2002 for refusing the advances of a local thug. The alleged murderer, who in April was sentenced to 25 years in prison, was cheered by youths on the estate when he returned with police to reenact the crime.
The horrifying details of Benziane’s death shocked France and helped lead to the formation of Ni Putes Ni Soumises.
Ni Putes Ni Soumises boasts 6,000 members plus many more volunteers and dozens of local branches.
Fighting against 'basement Islam'
Amara has been active in voicing the need to combat the spread of “basement Islam,” a term coined by current Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to denote an unregulated, fundamentalist version of the religion that does not "see the light of day."
In 2004, the government deported an Algerian cleric, Abdelkader Bouziane, after he was convicted of publicly justifying beating an adulterous wife in the southeastern city of Lyon.
“I consider, in the case of Muslim women, Islam must adapt itself to modernity,” said Amara.
Amara is firmly opposed to the wearing of the veil in public schools, a stance that has generated friction among activist Muslim organizations, some of whom see the headscarf as an issue of identity. Some French feminists also back the wearing of the veil.
“You must consider, the veil, for me, is not a religious symbol. It is a symbol of the submission of women in a patriarchal society with a tribal function. … The veil is what creates the separation of the sexes and draws the line that separates equality of rights,” Amara said.
An English translation of Amara’s book, “Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from The Ghetto,” was published this spring. It was awarded the prize for “Best Political Book for 2004” by a French National Assembly Jury.
Challenge to the state
By focusing on the secular values of France, Ni Putes Ni Soumises challenges the political leadership of France to live up to the state’s ideals.
The main pillars of the movement are the concepts of laïcité (neutrality, or a kind of staunch secularism), egalité (equality) and mixité (the concept of the sexes living together, or "mixing").
“It is actually consistent with the history of the French feminist movement. Where it diverges is its focus on women in lower-class neighborhoods,” said Laura Levine Frader, chair of the history department at Northeastern University and an expert on race and gender in France.
“Ni Putes Ni Soumises takes the expression of feminism one stop further … by addressing the very, very real concerns about violence and power and the submission to masculine authority in the poor neighborhoods,” said Frader, the co-editor with Herrick Chapman of the recently published “Race in France: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Politics of Difference.”
Ni Putes has had success in pressuring President Jacques Chirac’s government. In 2003, the administration funded the creation of shelters for young women who fled their families or were otherwise victims of male violence.
More recently, the government has facilitated the distribution of a guide to schools and community centers in the ghettos promoting respect and communication among teenagers. It is meant to fill the gap in sex education that is not occurring at home.
“We fight against the archaic traditions and we fight for the law,” said Charlotte, a 26-year-old activist with Ni Putes Ni Soumises.
“Women of Arab origin should have the same rights to act freely in French society as everyone else, and not be forced to stay home or have restrictions. Everywhere in the world we think that women should have the right to emancipation, even if some say that is an ethnocentric concept,” she said. (She spoke on condition her second name be not used.)
With government statistics showing an increase of between 15 and 20 percent in the number of reported rapes in the housing projects every year since 1999, Amara, Charlotte and the rest of Ni Putes Ni Soumises have their work cut out for them.
Special correspondent Karim Baouz contributed to this report.