PARIS (WOMENSENEWS)–In late March, 14-year-old Naima was cornered by three teen-age boys only a hundred yards from her middle school. The boys began to molest her. When she protested, they tied her with duct tape, threw her in a garbage can and tossed lighted cigarettes on top of her. She escaped a few minutes later, shaken but not seriously injured.
Last October, 17 year-old Sohane wasn’t so lucky. She was lured into a trash depot by a 19-year-old boy who had a score to settle with herboyfriend. Sohane was defiant, and so the boy doused her with gas, flicked on his lighter and burned her alive while his friends looked on.
These barbaric events took place in France, a country known as being among the most egalitarian and civilized in the world. They may be extreme examples, but they point to an increasingly common phenomenon in what are known as cites (pronounced see-tay), the massive housing projects that ring most of the country’s large cities.
An association called Federation Nationale des Maisons des Potes that aims to help girls in the cites says that the girls there are trapped between the restrictive culture of their families and the aggression of boys their own age, who verbally (and often physically) harass any of them who show signs of independence.
“There are only two types kinds of girls” in the cites, Samira Bellil writes (in French) in her book about the gang rapes she suffered as a teen-ager near Paris, published last October. “Good girls stay home, clean the house, take care of their brothers and sisters, and only go out to go to school,” writes Bellil in “Dans l’Enfer des Tournantes” (“In the Hell of the Gang Rapes.”) “Those who . . . dare to wear make-up, to go out, to smoke, quickly earn the reputation as ‘easy’ or as ‘little whores.'”
Movement to Shock, Mobilize
Tired of being labeled and harassed, a group of girls and women from the “quartiers” (another name for the destitute French suburbs) took to the streets throughout France this spring to denounce their situation. Their movement, called “Ni Putes, Ni Soumises” (“Neither Bitch nor Submissive”)–a slogan meant both to shock and to mobilize–culminated in a march through 20 French cities, a 20,000-person protest in Paris in March, and a meeting with the prime minister the same month. They’re organizing an eclectic benefit concert for next fall that will include some of France’s biggest pop, traditional and world music stars.
The movement has certainly made an impact: Posters are plastered in subway stations and on kiosks and the march made the front page of France’s major newspapers, including Le Monde and Liberation.
Unlike the United States, where many housing projects are located in the inner city, those in France sprung up in the suburbs surrounding such large cities as Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux in the 1950s and 1960s to provide low-income housing for the influx of immigrants, most of whom were from Algeria, Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa.
There has long been a high concentration of social problems in these areas, but “during the last 10 years, the worsening of the economic situation really accelerated,” says Helene Orain, a sociologist and one of the movement’s main organizers in an interview. “All of the social indicators skyrocketed in these neighborhoods,” she says, pointing to an unemployment rate that now hovers at 25 percent there–more than double that of the overall nation.
To counter these problems, many young people in the “quartiers” have turned to religion, in most cases Islam. “When you’re excluded and dominated everywhere; the victim of discrimination, poverty, etc., you start looking for your identity,” says Orain. “Religion becomes a way to feel like you’re part of a community.” And, in the fundamentalist, often distorted version of religion to which many of the youth adhere, women are inferior to men in every respect.
At the same time, violence in the housing projects turned inward. In the 1980s and early 1990s, teen-age boys burned cars and scribbled graffiti to protest against marginalization and to attract the government’s attention. Today, says Orain, boys are often belittled and discriminated against in jobs and in school, so they take out their aggression on those they can still dominate: girls.
“We’re girls, so we’re less-than-nothings,” Priscilla, 17, told Le Monde, a French newspaper, after her friend Sohane’s death. “For [the guys], it’s no big deal to hit a woman.”
Souad Benani, an activist with the Collectif des Droits des Femmes (Women’s Rights Collective, a advocacy coalition based in Paris) and the former president of Nanas Beurs, a Paris-based feminist association for Maghreb (North African immigrant) women, says that 20 years ago, women in the “quartiers” were either “closed in and had no rights” or were “considered prostitutes.” But today, she says in an interview, “they also suffer from rapes and violence.” In fact, rapes in the housing projects have gone up by between 15 percent and 20 percent every year since 1999, according to government statistics, and women’s-rights advocates estimate that unreported rapes make the figure even higher.
Pervasive Harassment on Daily Basis
The macho attitude can lead to deaths such as that of Sohane, or cases such as that of Sarah, a 15-year-old girl who was harassed and repeatedly raped by 18 teen-age boys over the course of one winter. But more minor harassment affects such girls on a daily basis.
Fadela Amara, the founder of the Neither Bitch Nor Submissive movement, told the French newspaper L’Humanite, “These women live with constant harassment: insults, hands on their butts, slaps . . . ” Members of the group say girls are subjected to a hidden system of surveillance, in which neighbors, older brothers or even other girls scrutinize them everywhere they go. Any deviance–smoking, hanging out with boys– is promptly reported back to their parents. (The family reputation is determined by the girls’ behavior.)
First and foremost, the girls are judged by their clothes, which, according to the code of the cites, are expected to cover up their bodies. Most girls drape themselves in baggy athletic jackets and track pants.
“When I go visit my friend in the quartier, I really feel the difference,” says Violette, 18, who participated in the Paris march. “Once I arrived at her apartment dressed in a skirt. She said ‘no, no, you have to change, you can’t go out like that here.’ It really shocked me.” Her friend, 17 year-old Sophie, concurs: “If you’re dressed too much like a woman, it doesn’t go over well.” Those who don’t conform are harassed, called “prostitutes” and “whores.” So girls dress conservatively and make complicated detours to avoid walking in front of groups of boys.
Wearing Veil in Self-Defense
Some even resort to wearing a veil–not necessarily because of their Muslim beliefs, but as a way to protect themselves, says Orain. The right to wear a veil to school, meanwhile, is a matter of huge controversy in France, a country that prides itself on the strict separation of church and state. Legislators have introduced a bill to forbid the practice, while civil-rights advocates argue that any attempt to outlaw it is an infringement on freedom of expression and a direct assault on Muslim traditions. For their part, many feminists–including members of Neither Bitch Nor Submissive–insist that the veil is an unacceptable symbol of submission.
Under these conditions, relationships between boys and girls are either hidden or nonexistent. Girls who do have boyfriends only see them outside the neighborhood, far from the watchful eyes of the “guardian brothers.” Those who are suspected to have sexual contact with a boy (a major offense in a culture where sex before marriage is forbidden) instantly ruin their reputation.
“There are rules in the cites,” says Julianne, 17, who lives in a quartier outside of Paris, in an interview during the march. “A man who has a bunch of girlfriends is a legend. A women who has a bunch of boyfriends is a slut.” According to Orain, the sociologist and activist, chastity is so important that some parents ask a gynecologist to testify to their daughters’ virginity and some girls undergo operations to stitch up their hymens.
Faced with the double-edged danger of becoming victims or of losing their reputations, many girls are banned (or ban themselves) from going out at all. Eric Debarbieux, an educational science professor at the University of Bordeaux in Southern France, wrote in a study on youth violence that small acts of aggression in the quartiers “lead to daily oppression, causing the victims to isolate themselves, to feel powerless and anguished, and to abandon public spaces.” Hence, say the movement’s organizers, the girls are more likely to give up their education and succumb to forced marriages imposed by their parents. They become submissive, silent, and resigned to their fate.
Movement Seeks Protective Measures
The goal of the Neither Bitch nor Submissive movement is to show these girls and young women an alternative and call attention to their condition. It began two years ago through an association called Federation Nationale des Maisons des Potes (Houses of Friends), a national network based in Paris that helps young people in France’s impoverished neighborhoods. Spurred by Fadela Amara, the organization’s president, who grew up in a cite, the group’s leaders met with women and girls in cites throughout the country in 2001. In 2002, they circulated a “manifesto” outlining their goals:
“We are the women of the quartiers who have decided to no longer be silent in face of the injustices with which we live, and to reject the idea that in the name of a ‘tradition’ or of a ‘religion’ or simply of violence, we are condemned to suffer.”
The group immediately went about creating “vigilance committees” in each of France’s 95 governmental sectors to help women to create anti-violence programs and aid the victims of violence or harassment. They also forged partnerships with such local associations as family planning groups and battered women’s shelters. They also called for sexual education as early as elementary school, courses on gender equality and women’s rights and more co-ed after-school programs, as well as wider availability of counseling and medical services.
The movement took on a new dimension with the death of Sohane in early October. Sohane’s older sister, 22-year-old Kahina, has become a fervent spokesperson for the cause.
“We need a collective wake-up call,” she told Maison des Potes’ newsletter in December. “But we need all the players in French society, the public leaders, to help us . . . Then we might be able to turn the norm upside down, to change people’s mentalities.”
This spring, as the marchers took on France’s major cities, change seemed to be on the horizon. The movement’s leaders met with France’s prime minister to present five proposals, including shelters for victims of physical and sexual abuse, and a “guide of respect” to be distributed in middle and high schools. All the proposals were accepted, and 50 apartments have already been reserved throughout France for women in crisis. The concert next September is expected to raise thousands of dollars to help fund the other measures. The challenge now, the advocates say, is to keep up momentum.
“The law of silence has started to crack,” says Orain, “and girls are beginning to talk, to say, ‘That’s enough! We can’t take it anymore.'”
Kimberly Conniff Taber is a freelance writer and editor based in Paris.
For more information:
Macite femmes–Ni Putes, ni Soumises!
Neither Bitch Nor Submissive, A Women March Against Ghettos, for Equality: