NEITHER WHORE NOR SUBMISSIVE

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breakingsilenceBreaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices From the Ghetto
By Fadela Amara
University of California Press, 2006
ISBN-13: 978-0520246218
ISBN-10: 0520246217
RRP – $US34.95 hb

Reviewed by Ida Lichter

This small volume is packed with first-hand information on a threat that has the Western world on edge: sexist violence associated with immigrant communities.

Various pundits have offered views on this pressing issue but none more compelling than Fadela Amara’s observations and personal experience as a child of poor Algerian immigrants in France, and later as an exemplary human rights defender.

The Evian accords of 1962 offered French citizenship for Algerians born in the colony prior to independence if they applied for naturalisation. Many first generation North African immigrants hoped to return to their home country but most remained and, by 1990, formed 39.1 per cent of the foreign population.

Amara’s father had left his hometown of Aït Yussef, in 1955, looking for construction work in France. His wife, married at sixteen, and 22 years younger, bore six boys and four girls. They were a typical North African immigrant family, in which the father was provider and patriarch. Among the children, seniority and gender determined the social structure. While sisters were assigned housework, the oldest brother had all the privileges. As a second-generation immigrant born in 1964, Amara recalled growing up in an environment of latent anti-Arab discrimination, yet proud of French republican values.

The family lived in Herbet, a housing project in Clermont-Ferrand, a district of the Auvergne. Previously a shantytown, the estate provided low-cost housing for 150 families, predominantly Algerian immigrants. Estates such as Herbet were situated in the suburbs, also known as banlieues, a term that became synonymous with poor working class communities. As a consequence of French colonisation, dozens of banlieues were allocated to house Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians. These neighbourhoods often degenerated into ghettos and no-go zones.

Immigrants encountered prejudice and social marginalisation within the wider French society. In 1973, racist attacks led the Algerian government to suspend emigration of workers. The first protest march “for equality and against racism” was organised by the second generation of immigrants in 1983. Known as the Beur March, the young beurs and beurettes campaigned for public recognition. Consequently, foreign workers were granted ten-year residence and work permits by the Mitterand government.

The anti-racist SOS Racisme organisation arose, supported by the Socialist Party. However, it failed to satisfy the aspirations of many North African youths. Lack of social supports, together with economic decline, led to a void soon filled by Islamist groups that promised new purpose and identity. Although professing non-violence, the Islamists aimed to impose their theocratic ideology on society.

Spearheaded by Muslim Brotherhood preachers in the mid 1990s, their “basement imams” spread a resurgent Islam characterised by extremism, sexism, anti-Semitism and fear of Westernisation. For women, it brought retreat into patriarchal oppression. Those who did not conform to Islamic precepts, such as dress code, risked summary punishment.

In the belief that the Islamist imams brought social stability, local authorities handed them privileged status as community representatives. At the same time, they snubbed reformers such as Amara, who was battling the sexism espoused by the imams.

Initially, Amara was stirred to action when her five-year-old brother was run over by a drunken driver. The police arrived and harassed her mother, who was hysterical with shock. When Amara screamed at one of the policemen, he started shouting insults about “dirty Arabs”. Later that night, her brother died and the incident soured the relationship between police and residents of the estate.

Aged seventeen, Amara organised a “civic march” to encourage youth to vote. She joined SOS Racisme, and the National Federation of Solidarity Houses that went on to establish almost 300 neighbourhood associations to assist women. Becoming an activist did not sit well with North African parents, so women who joined dissident movements often did so in secret. Nevertheless, around this time, a little freedom seemed possible for second-generation women in the banlieues.

Changes in attitudes began to emerge in the 1990s when girls from Clermont-Ferrand came to the local Solidarity House complaining about growing oppression by males. They were tired of fighting for freedom at home; many were forced to turn nearly all of their salary over to the family, and violence on the estate had increased during a period of unemployment.

Fathers who lost their jobs also lost power within the family and the eldest sons took over. These young men assumed authority in the housing estates and vicious protection of their sisters’ virginity. Women became increasingly scrutinised and subjugated; sexual mixing outside the family was forbidden, and there was pressure for girls to remain at home, rather than continue their education. Talk of sexuality had always been a taboo subject in the banlieues and virginity was mandatory. Now, fathers who believed their daughters had sinned demanded a certificate of virginity, and some doctors gave false documents so that girls would avoid violent retribution at home.

Power in the hands of the oldest brother was extended to other young men. Their control over women intensified, and by the mid 1990s, boys had imposed a ban on girls’ dress and makeup. With mounting violence, albeit by a minority of young men, girls were running away from home and in need of shelters. Machismo was prevalent and gay men were hounded. When men were in a group, male sexual frustrations found free expression. Any soft or romantic feelings for a girl would vanish, leaving aggression to surface. Within a few years, any previous moves towards sexual equality had been crushed.

At a meeting of National Federation chapters, organised by Amara in 2002, a new association was created to break the silence about violence against women in the banlieues. The Beurs might have seemed an obvious choice to lead this campaign, but the men in the organisation were not interested in women’s equality.

The new group, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) – Neither Whore Nor Submissive – was named to shock. Its manifesto condemned the pervasive silence regarding sexism, violence, gang rapes, forced marriage, and the brothers who became self-appointed moral police.

NPNS was committed to breaking sexual taboos and defeating the persecution of women. Demands included basic rights to sex and civic education, emergency shelters, mixed sex activities, new child-care centres, a voluntary job program and so on. But their message of female empowerment contravened Islamic leaders’ definition of “women’s chastity as the basis of communal identity… social and political order”.

The stimulus for a major push in the form of a national march was driven by stories of violence involving two young women from the banlieues. Sohane Benziane, aged 18, had been burned alive by a gang leader in the cellar of a housing estate in Vitry-sur–Seine, a suburb of Paris. With courage and
determination, her sister spoke out to raise public attention regarding the violence.

Samira Bellil, another young woman, wrote from personal experience in her book, Dans l’enfer des tournantes. She described serial gang rapes that began when she was 14, after her boyfriend handed her over to some of his friends. The first night, they beat and raped her continually but she decided not to file a report, fearing the dishonour it could bring to her family. Possible reprisals were also a concern. These included burned apartments, threats to younger sisters or honour crimes to expunge family shame. The gang rapes continued, as Bellil’s attackers felt free to abuse her at any time. When one of them dragged her off a train by the hair, the other passengers chose to pay no attention.

Eventually, she decided to prosecute, and although one of the rapists was found guilty and sentenced to eight years in prison, Bellil met rejection by family and friends. After years in foster homes, on the street, and addicted to drugs, she found psychological help. Her book aimed to lift the silence on the tournantes, or gang rapes that had become commonplace. These mob sex attacks were usually directed against independent-minded girls, who used makeup or wore Western clothes.

The young men of the banlieues had a mantra, “all women are whores except my mother.” Those words and the ordeals of Benziane and Bellil spurred Amara to organise a five-week march for women’s rights in 2003. Her “tour de France” included 23 cities and ended on International Women’s Day with a rally of 30,000 people in Paris. Due to the large number of requests following the march, many new NPNS committees were established throughout France.

The marchers’ main opposition came from Islamists who heckled and accused them of maligning Islam and Muslim men. A number of militant leftists and feminists also tried to silence debate with calls for “rights to difference” and accusations of neocolonialism.

Amara believed that forced marriage, female genital mutilation and headscarves in secular French schools had no place in the republic. This stand set her against ideas of cultural relativism held by the French feminist movement, and eventually, she removed NPNS from the Comité National des Femmes, a major group of women’s rights organisations.

In her memoir, Breaking the Silence, Amara analyses the development of violent misogyny in the estates, citing specific contributing factors: social injustice based on prejudice against ethnic minorities, and cultural traditions that lionized boys. Treated as kings in the home, young men had no status in the outside community. According to Amara, their anger at exclusion led men of the third generation to renounce the values of the republic and unleash their exasperation on the women in their midst. The ensuing violence was aggravated by state neglect and Islamic fundamentalism.

Her recommendations include improved housing, a government challenge to Islamist ideology, and a commitment to secular republican values by the Muslim community. She spoke up for the rights of homosexuals and castigated the militant “soldiers of green fascism” who donned the headscarf as a symbol of freedom.

In contrast to the third generation of immigrants, Amara’s second generation had fought against the hijab as a symbol of restriction. In 2003, a ban on wearing the Islamic veil or other religious items in public schools came into force in the wake of the Stasi commission on laïcité, or French secularism. The commission made 25 recommendations, which included urban renewal schemes, but President Chirac chose to act only on the banning of religious symbols.

In 2007, and still a member of the Socialist party, Amara became Secretary of State for Urban Policies in the UMP government of French Prime Minister François Fillon. After leaving the government, she was appointed Inspector General for Social Affairs in 2011. Her message on violence against women remains relevant and powerful. Of course, sexual attacks are not the only type of aggression in the banlieues, and gang rapes are not limited to poor neighbourhoods. All asylum seekers are not sexual predators, but many were raised in a culture that favours males, demands sexual segregation, defines women by their chastity, and punishes loss of virginity.

In the United Arab Emirates, victims of rape can be imprisoned and flogged under laws that outlaw zina (sex outside marriage), flouting human rights laws already ratified by the UAE. Similar prohibitions against zina exist in Iran, Afghanistan, Morocco and other Muslim majority countries. In spite of existing penalties for rape, the practice of marrying a victim to her rapist is found throughout the Middle East and North Africa. This custom restores her honour and absolves the assailant.

For some Muslim girls living in a free, secular society, as in France, many patriarchal traditions became unacceptable, and they were less inclined to stay at home, tolerate male domination, eschew romantic love and accept an arranged, or forced, marriage.

Amara contends that the patriarchy, combined with a breakdown of family roles, unemployment, social exclusion, and Islamist influence, brought about the gang rapes that plagued the banlieues. But the phenomenon is not confined to these neighbourhoods.

Large gangs of men thought to be asylum seekers, and recently dubbed “Rapefugees,” descended on girls during the 2016 New Year celebrations in the German city of Cologne. Local police received about 800 complaints, many alleging sexual assault. Some of the women who testified said they were terrified for their lives, particularly as police protection appeared to be absent. Similar assaults were reported in other German cities; also in Salzburg, Zurich and Helsinki.

The political elite of the European Union will need to tackle the surge in sexual attacks and avoid the neglect and paralysis that has led to ineffective border control of asylum seekers, characterised by a majority of lone young males, unsupervised by family.

Allegedly, sex attacks are an “everyday event” in some German refugee registration centres. Brutal sex assaults have been documented in the UK, Sweden, Norway, Holland, Belgium, and Australia. Many of the perpetrators believed that women who did not fit their mould of female modesty and morals were fair game for abuse.

Even Islamic dress does not always afford protection, as attested by women in Egypt, where sexual harassment and group assaults, known as taharrush gamea, are notorious. In attacks similar to those in Cologne, women described being surrounded by a “circle of hell.” In the past, Egypt had no laws that defined sexual harassment and women were often blamed by the police when they sought assistance, but after an escalation of incidents following the Arab Spring uprising, new legislation was introduced to criminalise unwanted sexual advances.

In her book, Amara highlights the neglect and ill-advised approach of French authorities as important contributing factors in perpetuating the violence in the banlieues. In particular, she deplores the decision to accredit Islamists as spokesmen of the neighbourhoods in the belief they would bring stability. Such a policy was particularly misguided in view of Algeria’s prevalent civil war (1991 – 2002), in which violent Islamist groups were targeting women for gang rapes and sexual slavery. The French government would have had intimate knowledge of the war between the Algerian government and Islamist factions, a battle for government control that claimed over 100,000 lives.

Today, some Islamist groups, mostly non-violent, operate freely in the West. Acceptance of Islamist-leaning NGOs such as the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been a staple of the United States Administration. At President Obama’s recent State of the Union address, members of CAIR were present, while activists from organisations such as the Muslim Reform Movement were overlooked.

To some extent, Western leaders’ hands are tied. Apart from the strictures of cultural relativism and its expression in political correctness, there are valid fears of civil unrest, self-defence vigilantes, ascendance of far right parties, and concerns about jeopardising cooperation with Muslim communities, deemed essential for surveillance. Furthermore, community leaders are not always representative and may tend to Islamist views.

There have also been moves to tighten laws against denigration of ethnic groups. Such a law found Swedish Democrat politician Michael Hess guilty of incitement to racial hatred when he associated Islamic culture with rape. If freedom of speech is being curtailed, there is little incentive for those who might wish to speak out.

Conforming to the principle of cultural relativism, the global feminist movement has not generally spoken out to denounce Islamist sexism. In that context, feminist abandonment of women in the banlieues had been denounced by NPNS.

Today, the debate concerning relativism versus universalism remains unresolved, and the case for universal human rights embodied by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) needs reaffirmation. Moreover, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, an Islamic response to the UDHR, upholds Sharia law as the source of reference. This protocol was adopted by member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference in 1990.

Despite feminist adherence to relativism, it is possible that attitudes might be changing. Anna Schwarzer, German feminist and editor of Emma.de magazine, has suggested that political Islamists might have provoked and coordinated the recent New Year sexual assaults in Europe. Franco-Egyptian feminist, Serenade Chafik, maintains that the mob attacks serve as an Islamist weapon of war to intimidate women and force them out of the public space, whilst exposing Western men as helpless. Chafik believes Islamist incitement by religious authorities is legitimising a sexual jihad in the West as part of a “new strategy of destabilisation.”

Such views are rare in feminist circles and Amara was never so forthright. However, she was a trailblazer for dissidents prepared to speak out and act as stimuli for change in a deep-rooted, archaic patriarchy, chafed by confrontation with modernity.

Mustering the grassroots within her society, Amara offered France – the faltering wellspring of modern human rights – a model that challenged barbaric misogyny. In the process, she shamed the Republic, confronted Islamist enemies of secular government and civil society, and survived to tell the tale.

Dr Ida Lichter is a psychiatrist and writer in the UK and Australia. She is the author of Muslim Women Reformers: Inspiring Voices Against Oppression, published by Prometheus Books.