Monday, August 18, 2003

Sexism in the Cités (Newsweek)

The phenomenon in France described in the piece below (archived here) has some special features (including what appears to be a high prevalence of gang rape), but in many ways it obviously fits a larger pattern. It is well known that one of the characteristic ways that immigrant and other minority groups often try to assert their identity and self-respect is through tightening up control over female sexuality (that is, restraint over the sexuality of "their" women). And one of the ways that their multifarious free-floating resentments find expression is to focus on male resentment of female sexuality. (For a lot of the Muslim communities in western Europe, the upsurge in fundamentalist versions of Islam has helped provide ideological justification for a backlash against female "immorality" and semi-emancipation, homosexuality, etc. But Islam isn't a necessary ingredient.)

In a number of European countries, there seem to be an increasing number of honor killings among Muslim immigrant populations. (In some cases, I suppose, "immigrant" should be in quotation marks, because they're already third-generation ethnic minorities.) As far as I can tell, however, France is the only country where there's a lot of punitive gang rape like this; but that may just mean that we don't know about similar patterns elsewhere.

At all events, this has recently become big "news" in France (i.e., an openly recognized scandal, rather than something that was just happening). But it's a phenomenon worth pondering for anyone thinking about the sociology of gender & sexuality. more generally

Yours in struggle,
Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. In France, when they're not raping teenage girls, they're beating up Jews. There are a lot of surplus resentments, which French society isn't coping with very successfully. But that's a larger story ...)
August 18, 2003
Sexism in the Cités
Life in immigrant ghettos can be violent and harsh for young Muslim women
By Christopher Dickey and Marie Valla

An unnamed 15-year-old girl is assaulted by 18 boys, most of them not much older than she is. Sonia, also 15, is raped by seven of her supposed friends in the basement of her apartment building. Sheherezade, 11, is beaten and raped repeatedly over the course of a year by 12 different boys.

Grim as such crimes may be, they’re becoming commonplace in the police ledgers of Paris, Lyons or Toulouse. The scene is almost always the same: the housing projects called cites on the outskirts of France’s major cities. Built by socially progressive governments in the 1960s, they’ve since been taken over by a generation of mostly Arab immigrants—impoverished, cut off from their native lands and culture, ghettoized. Here, young men try to rule their families and neighbors under a macho code drawn partly from Muslim tradition, partly from the violence and porn in the media. Women submit to men, they say. Good girls, good sisters, cover themselves and stay home. Otherwise they are putes, whores, who can be used and abused even if they say no.

Such stories, then, are not just about urban crime and rough neighborhoods. They reflect a core issue of Muslim integration in Europe. Can the young men and women of the cites break out, or will they become ever more isolated, turning inward against themselves? Will they build their lives and relationships on egalitarian values, or on the worst of Islam and the Internet? Young men trapped in a world with no jobs and no future, and violently confused about sex, tend to make women the symbols and the victims of the frustrations around them. Ten years ago, the boys in these hoods burned cars in the streets. Today, they increasingly turn their anger against “their” women in the basements of their apartment blocks.

Recently, a few young women of the cites have begun to fight back. One organization in particular, Ni Putes, Ni Soumises, (roughly, Not Whores, Not Servants), has been organizing protests and speaking out so loudly that the French public and the French government have taken notice—and sympathized. In one grandiose gesture on Bastille Day, July 14, huge photographs of 14 women from the cites, posing as Marianne, the symbol of French liberty, were hung on the columns of the National Assembly looking out on the Place de la Concorde. Will these girls’ fathers and brothers now show them as much respect?

That looks to be a longer fight. “Sexuality has always been a thorny issue in the quartiers ,” says Safia Lebdi, 29, who is one of the first members of Ni Putes, Ni Soumises, and could be a poster girl for confident, in-your-face sexuality. The other day she was wearing a pink see-through top, low-rise cargo pants and soft, beaded slippers. Born into the cite outside Clermont-Ferrand, where Michelin makes tires, she knows what she’s talking about when she says that “feminist thinking never reached the ghettos.” Girls, for their own protection, have taken to wearing loose-fitting track suits or veils over their hair. “They’re locked up in a world where their fathers have failed to break out of unemployment, where they have failed at finishing school or finding a job,” says a young woman activist with another group, Female Voices, Rebel Voices. Lacking hope or the opportunity for a better life, she adds, “all the men have left is their virility.” And some have savage ways of asserting it.

Late last year, two events galvanized the women of the cites. A young woman named Samira Bellil published a book, “In Gang-Rape Hell,” recounting her experiences in the ghetto, including twice being subjected to the tournante —men taking turns using her, one after another. She urged her “sisters in suffering” to speak out before they lost all self-esteem. Then reports hit the press about another —incident even more gruesome than those before it. A 17-year-old woman named Sohane told off an old boyfriend, and he burned her alive.

So was, earlier this year, that the eight young women of Ni Putes, Ni Soumises came together and began touring France to publicize their plight. They weren’t sure what they were doing or where they were going. But they knew they were fed up. “We were f—-ing scared,” says Lebdi. “We were heading for the unknown.”

Unknown then, perhaps, but no longer. Today, all of France knows of them and their cause. They have been received in Paris by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The government has promised that police stations would be more receptive to women in distress filing complaints, and that housing should be provided for women, whom these activists and the government agree, need rescuing from severe abuse. So far some 50 women have moved into such apartments, and Ni Putes, Ni Soumises gets a steady stream of abused and battered girls. “It takes time to make change happen,” says Lebdi, “but we don’t have time. Every single situation we deal with is an emergency and often even a matter of life and death.”

The problem is that to help the women of the cites in the long run, you have to help the men—not only to find jobs and education, but to learn to live in Western societies. And precious little has been done about that.