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Muslim Women Rebel In France

Aired May 24, 2004 - 23:00:00   ET


JONATHAN MANN, HOST: The darkest shadows of the city of light. Muslim women in the housing projects of Paris rebel against oppression and sexual assault. The rest of France seems a far way off.
Hello and welcome.

The history of France is written in its architecture. The Arc de Triumph is a monument to Napoleon and the Age of Revolution. The Eiffel Tower a monument to steel and the industrial revolution. Historians may someday decide the most important architecture of contemporary France tells the story of a revolution that is still under way. They're the unsightly high-rises built around major cities to house thousands of immigrants, immigrants and now their children who are changing the social and religious fabric of France.

The France acronym is HLM which sounds a lot like the English word "slum". The HLMs are confining places to grow up; they are dangerous places if you are a woman.

On our program today, the hidden face of the HLMs.

CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour begins our coverage.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When people talk about ghettos in France, they're talking about these projects, high-rises which are being built far away from the city center to house African and Arab immigrants.

Just saying you live in this neighborhood is enough to get your job application thrown in the garbage, and the unemployment amongst young people is four-times the national average.

(voice-over): With little hope of making it outside the projects, many of these young men try to dominate their own neighborhood, resulting to violence, especially against young women.

They rule gangland style, combined with the male-dominated traditions of the Arab countries they came from. It's gotten so bad that today most of the young women only feel safe if they're covered up or if they stay at home. Girls who want to look just like other French girls are considered provocative, asking for trouble.

Samira Bellil wasn't asking for trouble, but trouble came to her. She's the granddaughter of Algerian immigrants and she's written a book about surviving the hell of the Parish ghettos.

SAMIRA BELLIL, AUTHOR (through translator): I was gang raped by three people I knew and I couldn't say anything because in my culture your family is dishonored if you lose your virginity, so I kept quiet and the rapes continued.

The next time I was pulled off the commuter train and no one lifted a finger to help me.

AMANPOUR (on camera): You were on a train and not one passenger did anything to help you?

BELLIL (through translator): No. Everybody turned their head away. They were all looking out of the window.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): When Samira's family discovered that she had been raped, they weren't sympathetic. They threw her out onto the streets. But she since discovered that hers was not the only case.

BELLIL (through translator): There was a trial in Lille where a 13- year-old girl was gang raped by 80 men. Yes. Sometimes it's 80 or 50 or 10. It's absolutely terrible.

In the town of Argenteuil it was horrible. A young woman was raped in a school.

AMANPOUR: In a school?

BELLIL (through translator): Yes. In a school.

AMANPOUR: And nobody knew? Not a student? Not a teacher?

BELLIL (through translator): Of course everybody knew. But they were so afraid of these young men that they preferred to close their eyes. That's the price of peace in the ghettos.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): When the verdicts came down in this case, the courthouse turned into a madhouse. 18 teenagers were convicted of raping a 15-year-old girl over a two-month period. But what really shocked France was how the mothers of those boys reacted.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): You call this justice? Seven years in prison for some oral sex.

AMANPOUR: Aboubacar was one of those convicted, not of raping the girl, but of knowing about it, and doing nothing to stop it.

(on camera): Why did you decide not to intervene and not to help her?

ABOUBACAR, CONVICTED IN RAPE CASE (through translator): When you live in a neighborhood that's so dark and tough, you can't mess with other people's business, unless you want to put your life on the line.

AMANPOUR: They could kill you for trying to stop a rape?

ABOUBACAR (through translator): Yes, of they could rape my sister.

AMANPOUR: If you heard a similar danger was underway, would you try to stop it today?

ABOUBACAR (through translator): I don't know. I just don't know.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Aboubacar did get a suspended sentence. Now he's using his rap music to spread the message that violence is wrong.

ABOUBACAR (through translator): We were gangsters. If someone was robbing a house, I had to follow the group, otherwise they'd say I wasn't a man.

AMANPOUR (on camera):: How did the law of the jungle, if you like, dictate how a woman is treated or how a man is treated?

ABOUBACAR (through translator): Men are stronger than women. Men are more respected than women. So if I don't have many brothers, my sister can be attacked. But if I come from a big family, people will lower their eyes when they pass my sisters. That's part of the law.

AMANPOUR: It's not the same as the law of France.

ABOUBACAR (through translator): No, it has nothing to do with it.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): Nadir Doudane grew up in the same projects. Now, he works as a youth counselor trying to encourage more normal relations between the boys and girls.

(on camera): What is it about the projects that is at the root of this violence?

NADIR DOUDANE, YOUTH COUNSELOR: I think it's because of the tradition that make the boys think that the girls should be treated this way and not that way.

AMANPOUR: The scene that you describe, this relationship between girls and boys, this unnatural state of affairs, it's like being in some fundamentalist country.

DOUDANE: Yes, a little bit.

AMANPOUR: This is France. It's not just France; it's Paris.

DOUDANE: HERE, It's not France here.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): What really scares Nadir is that Islamic fundamentalists are taking advantage of these frustrations.

DOUDANE: Like me, I am not feeling as French as a Jacques or Pierre are.

AMANPOUR (on camera): Because Nadir, you're not French.

DOUDANE: It's tough. What the fundamentalists are saying to the young kids, "We will help you find a job. We will help you be proud of who you are." That's why it's a big success here.

AMANPOUR: So the societies are sort of separating.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): On downtown Paris streets, racy ads are still the rule. But in the projects, the fundamentalist voices are growing stronger. They are now targeting the disaffected youth in the ghettos. Many of the mosques there are filled with fundamentalist preaching.

This is what an influential imam of one French mosque recently said about how men can treat their wives:

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If a woman cheats on her husband, her husband can beat her, as long as he doesn't hit her nose, her eyes, her ears. That's part of our religion.

AMANPOUR: The French government promptly deported him back to his native Algeria. He is the fifth Muslim cleric thrown out of France this year for preaching such an intolerant form of Islam.

But this clash of cultures is threatening to divide France between those who want to keep the country secular and those who protested against the government's ban on wearing Islamic headscarves in public schools.

It's also dividing many immigrant families. At least 70,000 young women have come under pressure to accept arranged marriages according to France's Commission for Integration.

ZAIR KEDADOUCHE, COMMISSIONER: It's necessary to explain to parents and to young people that we are in France.

AMANPOUR: Zair Kedadouche, who is himself of Arab descent, sits on that commission.

KEDADOUCHE: The relation between Islam and the relation between a woman and men, it's very hypocritical. Even in -- I'm Muslim, but I know it's very hypocritical."

AMANPOUR: Equally hypocritical, he says, is the French government, which champions equality, but has effectively disenfranchised its own Muslim community -- the biggest in Europe.

KEDADOUCHE: We are 10 percent of the French population, and we have no members of parliament. We have 37,000 mayors in France; we have no mayor.

AMANPOUR (on camera): No Arab descent mayor?


AMANPOUR: Out of 37,000?

KEDADOUCHE: Yes. It's very strange.

AMANPOUR: It sounds like what it was like for blacks in America, to an extent it still is.

KEDADOUCHE: We can compare the situation of black people in the beginning of the `60s in America and now in France.

AMANPOUR (voice-over): As well as this lack of opportunity, there seems to be so much violence in the ghettos, in the slums, the project areas, where most of the immigrants have to live.

KEDADOUCHE: It's not because we are Arabic that we are delinquent. It's because we are very poor and we live in very bad conditions that we are more delinquent, more on drugs, more in problems.

AMANPOUR: But nothing prepared France for what happened to a 17-year- old French Muslim girl named Sohane Benziane. Her case really woke up the country to the nightmare that has been festering so long in these projects.

Sohane was burned alive in the basement of this apartment complex by a gang leader who had told her he didn't want to see her on his turf. After her murder, her sister, Kahina, dedicated a memorial at the site of her killing.

KAHINA BENZIANE, SISTER OF VICTIM (through translator): Thank you all for coming. Too bad it's so few of you because life for young women here is really desperate.

AMANPOUR: And just in case there was any doubt about where loyalties lie in these projects, when the young man accused of killing Sohane returned with police to show how he had doused her with gasoline, the high- rise he had controlled broke out in cries of support.

But that just infuriated Samira Bellil enough to help lead a national movement against this violence.

BELLIL (through translator): Before, they would rape us. Now, they're burning us alive. Sohane can't speak anymore, so I'm going do the talking.

AMANPOUR (on camera): "Ni putes ni soumises." It's a provocative slogan that, roughly translated, means "We're neither whores nor doormats."

It's a movement that sprang out of the ghettos, made up of mostly immigrant women who are now fighting back against the gang rapes and violence that plague their neighborhoods.

(voice-over): And Samira is in the forefront of that fight, leading demonstrations and lobbying to set up shelters to help protect these women.

In an extraordinary gesture, the French government honored Samira's achievements and those of 13 other women from the projects by hanging their portraits outside the country's parliament, recognizing that France's ethnic fabric is changing.

BELLIL (through translator): My life is not the same life today. Before, it was terrible, it was terrible. But I fight very hard to be what I am now today. And I win, and for me, it's wonderful, and now I smile, you know.


MANN: We asked France's Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin to join us for this program to talk about the immigrants and the law and order situation in the HLMs and he turned us down.

So when we come back, we'll talk to someone else about what the French government is doing about this.

Stay with us.


MANN: The French government has a surprising suggestion to address the rise of radical Islam. It wants to create a new generation of Muslim clergy. French Muslims are largely led by foreign-born clerics, many of whom are closer to the politics, culture and language of their home countries than to France. The French government thinks there would be fewer fundamentalists among them if only there were more Frenchmen.

Welcome back.

In the meantime, France has reportedly deported more than two dozen clerics in the last few years alone, but there are more pressing responsibilities for the authorities. The basic safety of French citizens among them.

A short while ago we got in touch with Patrice de Beer, editor-in- chief of "Le Monde."


PATRICE DE BEER, "LE MONDE": Of course the government is responsible for the safety of its citizens and it is true that the government and the police haven't always done what they should have done, but at the same time you have to realize that some HLM or low-cost housing in the big city suburbs are out of reach for the police. Sometimes these places are quite dangerous and the police are not always making all the efforts they should be making to police these places.

There are crime-ridden neighborhoods in Paris, as you have in many other places. It just happens that often they are ethnic places.

MANN: Too dangerous for even the police?

DE BEER: Of course. There are some areas where they feel that they could be shot or stoned and they don't always make the necessary efforts to police on a day to day basis some of these estates.

MANN: Is the problem confusion? One gets a sense with the ban on headscarves and yet at the same time the idea that someone in France should be training more Muslim clerics that French society in general, the French government in particular, doesn't really know what it wants to do with this change.

DE BEER: Well, it is true that in a secular society like ours, the administration, the state is not supposed to deal with the training of clerics of any particular denomination, the problem being that with the Muslim community, which is not organized, about 90 percent of the clerics come from the Arab world and not often from the enlightened Arab world.

You've got imams coming, for instance, from Saudi Arabia, from Pakistan, from far away places in Turkey or Morocco, who don't speak the language, don't know the customs, and are trying to bring into modern society very traditional, sometimes backwards Islam, where they still mention that unfaithful women have to be stoned or things like that.

So this is the reason why the representatives from the Muslim society and the government are trying to find ways and means of training clerics. It's difficult. It's slow. There is no money put in it. But I think this is a solution. It's a long-term solution, but this is a solution to this problem that we have clerics that come from within the society, knowing everything from this society rather than from outside.

MANN: When you look not just to religion but you look to poverty, when you look to social and ethnic marginalization, is it obvious what the solution could be?

DE BEER: I wish I had the solution. The problem with the dispossessed and the people of low-income is mainly from ethnic communities, but it's also from people who have been here for generations. It's a problem that many link to globalization. It's a simple answer. It's not the whole answer, but I think that the social and economic policies have to be improved in order to reach these people who, almost all of them would like to have a job, would like to lead a better life and would like to become consumers, just like the others.

It's not only the Muslims. It's not only the blacks. It's not only the Asians, but it is the poor part of the society as a whole.

MANN: Patrice de Beer, of "Le Monde," thank you so much for this.


MANN: We take a break, once again. When we come back, more on what might be fueling the violence in France's suburbs.

Stay with us.


MANN: The majority of France's five million Muslims come from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, all former colonies. Most came in the `50s, `60s and `70s as guest workers. Now they're permanent residents, their children citizens, but few enjoy the full prosperity or opportunities of French life.

Welcome back.

French now has the largest and fastest growing Muslim population in Europe. About 10 percent of the countries population and an estimated 25 or 30 percent of French under the age of 25.

Joining us now to talk more about this is Jocelyne Cesari, a senior research fellow at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris and a visiting professor at the Harvard University Divinity School.

Thank so much for being with us.

JOCELYNE CESARI, NCSR: Thank you for having me.

MANN: I want to take this conversation back to the HLM. The reporting that we have done, the reporting that one sees elsewhere outside of France suggests that when you talk about violence against women there, there is something unique about it. There is something different from the violence against women elsewhere in Europe or in France for that matter, something particular and something cultural. Is that true, do you think?

CESARI: There is something unique, but it's not so much related to a Muslim population but to the particular faith, and this is a very damaged faith. When we talk about housing projects in France, this is a place, and you said it in your different reports, where you have the highest rate of unemployment, the housing is very deteriorated, drugs and delinquency. And people feel that they are abandoned.

The French politicians and political class don't think of them and don't take care of them, and there is a high level of frustration. And it happens that these people are a majority coming from the North African immigration of the `60s and the `50s and they have given fewer improvements in the last 20 years.

This kind of violence against women, it is very (UNINTELLIGIBLE), let's say the last five to seven years, and these people have been living here for, some of them, three generations, with no hope of social residential mobility.

So I would like to say that here we have very, very dangerous connection between poverty, nationality (ph), disenfranchisement and ethnicity and religion, and this connection is done by policymakers. They assume that Islam is part of the problem in the socioeconomic deprivation, but also by young people themselves. They think that they are mistreated, so to speak, because they are Muslim.

So here it is something very difficult politically and controlling (ph).

MANN: You've covered a lot of ground there. Let me go back to one element of what you said, which many women seem to believe that part of the oppression they feel is forced on them because of the traditional place that women have in traditional societies, in Muslim societies, and that further by breaking with Islam, they somehow send a signal to the men around them that they are available for abuse, that somehow it is permitted because they are no longer proper, decent women.

CESARI: Yes, here we are touching very, very important and difficult for many women, which is the connection between the religion and the culture. And these young men, especially, are not particularly religious. They will say to you I am a Muslim and am very proud of it, but they don't practice Muslimism, they don't know enough about Islam, because Islam has been embedded in their culture, and it's a Mediterranean culture, lots of them come from North Africa, Turkey.

And in this kind of culture, the men dominate. There is a distinction between men and women and we're taken for granted at the priority of men. And there is this concept of honor. The women are in charge of the honor of the family. They have to keep up with some kind of modest behavior and they have to behave in a certain way in public space.

And so these kinds of young man have in some way mixed up the culture or the norms and values coming from North Africa with all sorts of values of working class in France, because there has been a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) society, and this is a very dangerous thing (ph), because the only thing that is left is how can I control my sisters, how can I control my daughters in order to avoid the sort of shame and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

You have lots of people (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in this kind of place, as it's now related to country. Even these people are (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Islamic terms. I mean, here comes the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) because we say this is Islam. In Islam women don't dress in too provocative a way, the don't wear makeup, et cetera, et cetera. But this is something that has been passed to them by popular culture.

MANN: Let me jump in for a moment here, because the French government is trying to break with that culture, with that habit, in a very particular way, which is by forcing women who want to attend schools in France to abandon their headscarves. Are they helping these women or when they do that are the women that we're talking about going to be pulled by their families back to the HLM, away from the school, away from the moderating influence because that community will feel what the French government is doing.

CESARI: The hijab affair is another issue. The young women who are mistreated, even in the housing projects, are not blaming hijab and the hijab affair is related to the status of religion in public spaces in France and in this particular (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the classroom and public schools and so on, but it's true that some people have said that these young women, if they don't wear the hijab, are going to also be back to a certain kind of mistreatment in the housing project. But I think we are missing the confusion here between secular Islamism, religion, and with young men, because one thing if these young men were really fundamentalist, they would not look for women. They would (UNINTELLIGIBLE) separation. They would not try to go out with young women, like these young men trying to do. There are not these kinds of strict separation in morality that is even dictated by fundamentalism. On the contrary, they want to keep up on the women, but at the same time they rate (ph) women, which is what fundamentalists are advocating.

So here we are - I think we are a little.

MANN: I see your point. I see your point. Unfortunately, we're going to have to end the conversation here, but Jocelyne Cesari, of Harvard, thank you so much for talking with us.

CESARI: Thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT for this day. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.



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