Explore More »

Taking a Stand: Women’s Voices in the Suburbs

 

On October 4, 2002, 17-year-old Sohane Benziane was burned alive in Vitry-sur-Seine, a town just outside of Paris, comprised mainly of public housing projects. A local gang member doused the girl, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, with gasoline and set her ablaze in the basement of an apartment complex. She managed to escape her captor, and her death was witnessed by dozens of students and friends coming out of class in a nearby school. When Sohane’s alleged murderer later returned with police to the scene to reenact the crime, young men from the complex greeted him with cheers. In April 2006, the accused, Jamal Derrar, was sentenced to 25 years in prison. As he left the courtroom, Derrar’s father shouted at the victim’s friends, “Some are imprisoned, some are outside. But you will all pay!” 

The Birth of a Movement

Sohane’s death ignited a new feminist movement in the predominantly Muslim and overwhelmingly immigrant housing projects of suburban Paris. In response to this and other similar attacks, activists organized commissions, meetings and finally a march through France called “The March of Women from the Projects against Ghettos and for Equality” (Marche des femmes des quartiers contre les ghettos et pour l’égalité). The title of the manifesto published before the march had a striking slogan, “Neither Whores, nor Submissive” (Ni Putes, Ni Soumises). According to Samira Bellil, the author of In Gang Rape Hell, a book about life in the housing projects that also inspired the movement, “There are only two types of girls (in the housing projects). 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’.” 

The women’s march through France began on February 1, 2003 in Vitry-sur-Seine with seven participants, traveled through 23 cities and towns, and arrived in Paris on March 8 with 30,000 demonstrators. Their petition, “A Call for a New Feminist Fight,” received 65,000 signatures. The new feminist fight had caught the attention of a nation.

The Disadvantaged French Suburbs 

These events did not happened out of the blue; in order to understand the strength of the new feminist movement in the suburbs, one must also understand the particularities of their French context. France has a long history of accepting immigrants, most recently in the years after World War II, during France’s “Thirty Glorious Years” of economic boom, when there was a high demand for labor that could not be fulfilled by the French population alone. Many of these immigrants came from France’s colonies in Northern Africa: Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. Due to the overwhelming numbers and rapid arrival of the immigrants, the French government began constructing apartment projects outside the major cities in which to house them. These suburban housing complexes quickly began overflowing with immigrants, who brought with them the religion, language and culture of their homeland. Since the economic downturn in the 1970s, conditions in the suburban housing projects have worsened with increasing unemployment and governmental neglect, creating the “ghetto phenomenon.”  

In the past thirty years, the condition of suburban women in particular has dramatically deteriorated. Women and men in the suburbs no longer interact on equal terms as they used to, and women often complain that there is an atmosphere of machismo in the suburbs; the community is male dominated, and women have little input about what goes on in their neighborhoods. The men are able to pressure women and girls into wearing certain clothing, and many women feel uncomfortable voicing their opinions publicly for fear of reprisal. In extreme cases, girls are subjected to forced marriages, physical violence, gang rapes and feminine genital mutilation.

Islam is often cited as the cause for these sexist behaviors. The advocates of the “clash of civilizations” theory like to stress the gap between Islamic and patriarchal values brought by the immigrants from North Africa and the French secularist values. Others, while denouncing Islamism as a cause of violence and sexism in the suburbs, are careful to point out the difference between the Islamist’s extremist interpretation of the Koran and the Koran’s actual precepts, which can be interpreted as protecting the rights of women. For example, Caroline Fourest, a French essayist, argues that reactionary traditions among Muslim men create machismo and can lead to violence. According to Fourest, fundamentalists want to trap women in an inferior role by violating their rights.

For others, the particular condition of women in the suburbs cannot be reduced to the influence of fundamentalism, but comes from social causes. According to French sociologist Hugues Lagrange, gender problems in the suburbs reveal a crisis of masculinity among young male inhabitants. Suburban boys face extreme barriers to success in education and employment. Due to cultural norms, their interaction with their female peers is often strained and restricted. Their inability to assert themselves socially and economically leads the young men fulfill their masculinity through sexist violence, and by imposing moral order on women and girls. Therefore, Lagrange points out that if this phenomenon is to be interpreted as an extension of radical Islam, we must keep in mind that the religion is manipulated only by a small number. Lagrange also insists that sexist behavior does not occur among the majority of suburban males, but that it occurs more frequently in the suburbs than in the rest of France.

 

A Radical Response: Neither Whores, Nor Submissive! 

There was undoubtedly a great need for a feminist movement to address the issues of inequality in the suburbs, and the death of Sohane Benziane provided just the impetus that the movement needed to gain speed. The great success of the Ni Putes, Ni Soumises manifesto, march, and petition resulted in the creation of a new organization of the same name, founded by feminist activist Fadela Amara in 2003. According to Amara, in the manifesto Ni Putes, Ni Soumises, “the murder of Sohane constituted the turning point, but we had already realized how serious the situation was, and we had started to react long before (that event).” Three years after its birth, Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) claims 10,000 members, has received international media attention, and the criticism and praise of a nation. Although only one of many feminist organizations to have emanated from Sohane’s death, NPNS remains in the media spotlight and at the forefront of the suburban feminist movement. 

NPNS has three main goals: achieving equality between women and men, stopping domestic violence, and fighting discrimination against women. Practically, the organization provides psychological support and counseling for female victims of violence, assistance and rights awareness for women who are going through judicial processes, and an emergency hotline for victims of violence. NPNS has also waged a widespread information communication campaign, including national print and television advertisements to raise awareness about women’s issues. Volunteers also visit schools to talk about respect and distribute the organization’s “Respect Guide,” which features basic information on gender violence, sexuality, and traditions. 

From its very beginning, NPNS has had a very large audience, particularly in the political arena. On the day their march arrived in Paris in 2003, organizers were called to a special meeting with Prime Minister Raffarin to air their complaints. Since then, government officials have received the organization on several other occasions, and unofficially recognize the group as representative of the women from the suburbs. NPNS has cooperated on a project with the Education Department, and has conducted a governmentally supported poster campaign on Marianne, the ‘Uncle Sam’ of the French republic. Indeed, on July 14th 2003 – the French national day –, fourteen giant posters of suburban women from different ethnic origins wearing Marianne’s distinctive revolutionary Phrygian hat were posted on the columns of the French National Assembly. This campaign was aimed at “showing the diversity of the Republic” .  NPNS strongly supports the traditional French republican values, helping to align them more closely with the national political powers and government officials. 

NPNS’s close relationship to the French socialist party and the media attention that they have received has resulted in several harsh criticisms of their methods and goals. Among these criticisms is that the organization has become disconnected from the suburbs and the women that it was originally meant to serve. NPNS, whose founding members are predominantly of North African descent, is also blamed for stigmatizing the men of the suburbs, contributing to the stereotype that all suburban men are violent criminals. NPNS lives in the media spotlight, and in doing so, cannot avoid having critics. However, according to NPNS administrative manager Anne-Charlotte Jelty, NPNS actively seeks to work with men, and values the ideal of mixité, that men and women should live and work together. Although NPNS is the most well known organization to have come out of the feminist movement of 2003, it is by no means the only one. Hundreds of other, smaller, organizations have sprung up in recent years, some in partnership with NPNS, others in opposition. Among these organizations are two groups who agreed to talk with us about their work. Both organizations are located in the Parisian suburbs, one in Garges and Sarcelles, VETO, and another in Pantin, Femmes Médiatrices Socio-culturelles (Female Socio-Cultural Mediators).

Grassroots Work: VETO and Femmes Médiatrices

VETO was founded in 2004, just after the birth of NPNS, in Garges Les Gonesses, one of the poorest suburbs of Paris, where immigrants of 63 different ethnic groups all live together. The organization’s main goal is to reduce extremism and create dialogue between the city’s religious and ethnic communities by encouraging public debate and political participation. With the motto, “freeing speech,” VETO hopes to be a source of reflection and the stimulant for political and cultural activity in the city. Their main activities include organizing lectures and debates, which are usually attended by between 100 to 300 guests, and handing out fliers at community events with information about the association. VETO is a civic activism organization that deals with feminist issues, but does not make them the main focus of its work. However, the majority of VETO members and organizers are women, which gives them a particularly opinionated view of the work of NPNS. Their main criticism is that NPNS blames men for the problems that occur in the suburbs, stigmatizing those neighborhoods and the men living there. Moreover, they don’t think the actions of NPNS are relevant for the people they are meant to target. According to Mekkia Amar, a VETO association activist, NPNS is “unfeminist” because they emphasize the clash between the genders, rather than finding ways to reduce it. By doing so, they alienate suburban men from their cause.

Although there are many groups like VETO, who disagree with the work of NPNS, there are also some who collaborate with NPNS. The Femmes Médiatrices Socio-culturelles de Pantin, a mediation organization that seeks to fight against all forms of exclusion, was founded in 1988, and participated in the creation of the NPNS movement in 2003. They seek to establish networks between suburban families and inform them of how French state institutions work. The group also organizes awareness campaigns on feminine genital mutilation (FGM) – an issue among the large Sub-Saharan immigrant population of Pantin, where FGM is often considered a ‘traditional practice’ –, health issues, and children’s education, and offers literacy classes. They consider themselves a grassroots organization, with their goals and programs coming directly from the desires and demands of the community. Unlike the previous two young organizations, Femmes médiatrices has been working for nearly twenty years in Pantin, a city on the outskirts of Paris that is a mix of middle class and poorer immigrants.

Differing Views on Women’s Issues

NPNS, VETO, and Femmes médiatrices are pursuing similar goals, so why don’t they agree on the issues? For NPNS, the situation of suburban women appears the most dire; women in the suburbs are often the victims of geographic isolation, are subjected to archaic practices such as forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and honor crimes, and are surrounded by an increasingly fundamentalist religious atmosphere. According to Anne-Charlotte, “there is a law of silence among suburban women,” and girls and boys are mixing less frequently than they used to. The gap between girls and boys in the cités represents a growing phenomenon that has also been documented in the work of scholars such as Hugues Lagrange and Stéphane Beaud. Both sociologists point to the absence of ordinary interactions between genders as a source of machismo and sexist violence. Marie-Clementine Bendo, the director of Femmes médiatrices, admits the existence of problems in the suburbs, like polygamy and domestic violence, but also counters that women are now more eager to know their rights and to resist male domination. As a result, men are now becoming more aware of women’s rights. 

VETO takes a much less aggressive stance on the problems facing women: some do face pressure from men to conform, but only a minority. The problem is not nearly as overwhelming as NPNS makes it seem. In fact, suburban women are more likely than men to complete their basic education, attend university, and move out of the suburbs. This emphasis on study may occur because girls see education as a way to gain respect and leave the suburbs – studying is not valorized the same way among young men, who often face pressure to begin working as young as possible. Others attribute it to the extra time girls have to study because they are not allowed to leave their homes as often as boys. Although VETO Mekkia Amar asserts that suburban women have an advantage over men in education and employment, she does not deny that, as a woman, it can be difficult to stand up for yourself in the suburbs: “I am a good Muslim (and a nice woman), but that is no reason not to speak up.” 

The Inspiration behind the Movement

The feminist movement was strong in the 1970s, and today Simone Veil, the woman politician who passed the law on the right to abort in 1975, is highly respected. Abortion and contraception have also now become part of French everyday life without being questioned. Still, feminism is not always well perceived in France. The term evokes negative characteristics, such as futile activism or the hatred and rejection of all men. Therefore, few modern French women claim to be feminist – even if they call for more equality or for the respect of women’s rights. 

However, in the suburbs, most of the women involved in associations that we interviewed admitted that feminist ideology was at least partly involved in their motivation to be activists. The feminist influence is particularly strong among NPNS members, whose original petition called for a “new feminist movement”. Anne-Charlotte told us that her mother was a part of the 1970s movement, and that she is thankful for all the benefits they obtained for successive generations. She believes that suburban girls should also profit from these advantages, such as contraception and the freedom to make choices about their own bodies. Femmes Médiatrices also claims inspiration from these previous movements, and Marie-Clementine stressed the influence of her role-model, the famous 1970s feminist activist and lawyer Gisele Halimi, in shaping her ideas. The women from VETO also stressed the personal importance of women’s rights. VETO member Samira Kherouaa explained that she used to consider herself a feminist, but only because she felt concerned by women’s issues, not because she identified with the traditional feminist ideology. Interestingly, she told us, “I found harmony with Islam because this religion allows you to establish space for both man and woman, with the idea that men and women are meant to live together [even if] it is in the nature of Man to commit injustices.”

The feminist legacy alone is not a satisfactory explanation of why women in general are more involved in civic or social organizations than their male counterparts. At first, it can seem surprising that, despite the pressures experienced by suburban women, most of the members of the associations we studied are women. NPNS and Femmes Médiatrices deal almost exclusively with women’s issues, easily explaining their female membership – but even in the case of VETO, whose goals are broader, women still represent the majority. Mekkia believes that women are simply usually more concerned than men by socio-cultural issues. A male VETO member noted that suburban girls typically study longer than boys, and as students, they have more time to participate in civic activities. Marie-Clementine Bendo gave a similar response: most immigrant women of the older generation are housewives. Hence, they have more spare time, and tend to go out more often. She also added that women, unlike men, are more likely to share their problems with others and to ask for advice.

But what motivates these women? It is interesting to note that each of the women we interviewed has a very personal reason for being involved, often linked to an event in their lives. Marie-Clementine, 50 years old and with a long history of activism, explained that she started to care about immigrant problems and inequalities in 1975, after seeing an African woman on a Paris street carrying a young child not dressed for the cold, despite the very low temperature. Although she was only in high school, this situation revolted her and forced her to take action. Fadela Amara, in her book, also linked her early awareness to a personal shock. A drunk driver killed her younger brother, and the police insulted her family and adopted a racist behavior instead of providing them support. For the younger generation of activists, an event like the death of Sohane must have represented a similar shock.

What next?

While surfing the internet, we discovered “by chance” terrible news. On May 26, 2006, in Vitry, a 20 year old girl named Datou was murdered by her ex-fiancé, who slit her throat and then attempted to commit suicide. Sound familiar? This event was not reported in the press. It finally appeared on some internet blogs, thanks to a letter calling for a silent march that was distributed by the association Collectif Masculin-Feminin of Vitry, a group created after Sohane’s death. Datou’s family refused the support of NPNS, because according to one of her sisters, they “have spread too many clichés about the town of Vitry” . Some believe that Datou’s murder was simply an isolated “crime of passion,” but it is only one of many recent violent acts that continue to affect women in the suburbs. 

Five months earlier, on November 13th, in Neuilly-sur-Marne, another suburb of Paris, Shérazade, 18, was burned alive by a man in the middle of a street. The reason? She had refused his “insistent advances”. Shérazade escaped death, but 60 percent of her body was burned. A silent march was organized as well, this time supported by NPNS. 

Although there is some dissent between the different movements, they all point out that these tragic events are too easily considered “crimes of passion”, while this term usually hides their true nature: sexist crimes. Has nothing changed since Sohane’s death, despite the huge mobilization? 

The Future of the New Suburban Movement

The difference between Sohane’s death and these more recent crimes is that, although the crimes themselves did not receive media attention, the support of existing organizations, often in the form of marches, has gained coverage and sparked debate. On a broad scale, these organizations have succeeded in increasing public debate about women’s issues. Success isn’t only measured in media coverage, however. All three organizations emphasize the importance of their work on the ground: education, awareness, and dialogue. VETO and NPNS are very young, but Femmes médiatrices has been working for nearly two decades, and Marie-Clementine remarks, “there was nothing here (in Pantin) in November (during the riots in Paris)… grassroots work is essential.” The other two organizations point out that they will need more time to see concrete results from their work. Both NPNS and VETO seek to get the attention of the government, whether on a local or national level, and have had success in doing so. For VETO, this means that after years of being ignored, the mayor of Garges has finally recognized the organization as a valuable neighborhood interlocutor. NPNS, working at the national level, has had great success in partnering with the government in its work. The attention of the government for both groups is an especially notable achievement in France, where as social work has historically been the job of the government, and civil society initiatives are often not valued.

What does the future hold for the organizations we spoke to? Do they have staying power, or will they burn out as quickly as they were born? After eighteen years, Femmes médiatrices has found its niche in Pantin. It is funded by the city hall, and offers long-running programs that the neighborhood highly values. NPNS and VETO are both too young to draw too many conclusions about their future. Both groups face changes in the demands of their communities, and their ideologies continue to be redefined by their growing membership and evolving partnerships. NPNS must continue to maintain strong ties to the suburbs, listen to the voices of the women there, and take the media attention they gain from their activities in stride. VETO, already strongly connected to the communities it serves, must resist pressure to become complacent about issues facing women, a group that could easily be forgotten by a community facing a multitude of social problems. The cooperation of women is absolutely essential to achieving VETO’s main goal, the fight against extremism. 

If NPNS and VETO hope to make long-term progress, they must follow the example of Femmes médiatrices, and continue to listen to the voices of those they seek to serve, while at the same time maintaining strong organizational goals. Although the groups disagree on the severity of the problems facing women, they do at least agree on the methods for solving the crisis: working to increase dialogue and communication, providing support for women and their families, and educating the population about important issues. As long as both organizations continue with their practical and useful community-based programs, positive progress will certainly be made. Even in their short lives, these organizations have already made tangible changes in their communities: increased communication with political bodies, political activism among the population, and awareness about issues and rights. If they continue to make changes like these, a death like Sohane’s might belong to the past.

 

References

 

Interviews

Amar, Mekkia, VETO activist responsible for administrative work, June 23, 2006 

Bendo, Marie-Clementine, Femmes médiatrices socio-culturelles de Pantin Director, June 26, 2006

Jelty, Anne-Charlotte, Ni Putes Ni Soumises administrative manager, June 26, 2006

Kherouaa, Samira, VETO member and student, June 26, 2006

Print Sources

Amara, Fadela. Ni Putes Ni Soumises. La Découverte, (Paris, 2004) 168p.

Bellil, Samira.  Dans l’enfer des tournantes (In Gang Rape Hell). Gallimard (Paris, 2003), 307p.

Lagrange, Hugues, “Marche des femmes des quartiers: fin de l'omerta, demande d'égalité.” Esprit (Paris, May 2003). 

Internet Sources

“Marche silencieuse à Vitry pour Datou, tuée en pleine rue par son ex-fiancé”, AFP. May 28, 2006. http://fr.news.yahoo.com

Ni Putes Ni Soumises. www.niputesnisoumises.com

Open letter from the father of Jamal Derrar. April 11, 2006. http://sisyphe.org/breve.php3?id_breve=603

VETO. http://vetogarges.free.fr/

Streiff, Daniel. “For women in France's ghettos, a third option: Fadela Amara leads movement to end violence in the projects.” June 7, 2006. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/12812170/

 

Explore More »

Share this Article

About This Article

HIA Program:

France France 2006

Authors:

Related Media

Browse all content