Group Promotes Women's Rights Amid Muslim Fundamentalism

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Paris ( - During the riots that rocked France's working-class housing projects last October and November, the recurring images were those of teenage boys rampaging and torching cars.

There were few reports of female rioters, but many stories of mothers and sisters fighting to keep their sons and brothers away from the violence and inside their homes.

This came as no surprise for Ni Putes ni Soumises, a French organization campaigning for equality for women of all social backgrounds, religions and ethnic origins.

In France's suburban projects, inhabited primarily by Muslims, the fundamentalist notion that women should be relegated to the private sphere of the home has gained increasing ground. Women challenging that view are frequently regarded as morally loose.

"Neither Whore nor Submissive" is the English translation of the provocatively named group Ni Putes ni Soumises, a name intended to assert that women should have more options than just minding the home and staying in the background.

"The public space, the neighborhood, has become the sphere of men, the space of men," said Sihem Habchi, the group's vice-president.

"The place of women is inside, or far away, outside the neighborhoods, because that is the only place they have for expression."

Ni Putes ni Soumises was formed in 2003 in response to the immolation of a 17-year old Muslim girl by a young man who had forbidden her to enter a specific suburban housing project in Paris. She was set ablaze outside the building as friends and children looked on in horror.

Despite the group's efforts to create awareness through marches, debates and by setting up local committees in various neighborhoods, it says the situation for women has not always improved since then.

On November 13, an 18-year old Moroccan girl was set on fire in another Paris suburb, after refusing the advances of a young man of Pakistani origin.

A silent protest march two weeks later attracted members of both sexes, although Habchi said the group has been noticing that people appear to be getting used to, and accepting of, that kind of violence.

"In the name of respect for different cultures and freedom of choice, the principles of human rights have been compromised by tolerating violent acts against women such as polygamy, genital mutilation, forced marriages [and] so-called honor crimes," the group says in its manifesto.

With the rise of radical Islam, many residents of poor suburban housing projects have been turning to archaic religious traditions.

Habchi said society was wrong to accept these teachings, which promote the inequality of men and women. Such fundamentalist thought, coupled with France's traditional patriarchal vision of society, have made women victims, she said.

"In abandoned neighborhood ghettos, where there is sometimes no garbage pick-up and where there are ghetto schools and a concentration of the poorest social classes, how can equality of women move forward, especially if the field is then left open to a radical interpretation of religion?" she asked.

With no apparent alternatives available, many women have accepted the role of submission.

"For a 14-year-old [girl] who lives in a ghetto neighborhood, it is easier to wear a veil so that she is not harassed," Habchi said.

"Today, there are many girls who say this is my path, this is my identity. I accept the domination of my brother. I accept to wear a veil because it is my culture.

"Our worry today is that this role has been internalized. This kind of behavior has become a symbol of identity and ethnicity."

The organization blames the increasing influence of Islamic groups on a lack of action by French officials, who it says often found it easier to finance cultural and religious social organizations rather than develop civic projects aimed at achieving long-term integration.

Habchi said France shares the problem with other European countries where there are large groups of immigrants, whose children live astride several cultures. The organization has established contact with groups in countries including Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

"We have to learn to live together," she said. "These are our children. This is the future of Europe."

An English translation of the group's book, also entitled Ni Putes ni Soumises, will be published in the United States next year.

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