Acting on The Outrage
It's all too easy to be shocked by the abuse of women. But a local organizer is putting that anger to work.
Sohane Benziane was murdered twice. In October 2002, the 17-year-old Muslim girl was doused with gasoline and burned alive by a local gang leader in the dingy utility room of a housing project in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine. Her crime: refusing to obey him. When the accused killer brought police back to the project to re-enact the crime for them, he was greeted with cheers by young men from the complex - a symbolic second killing that horrified French citizens.
But the atrocity demanded a greater response than mere shock, and Fadéla Amara knew it. Amara, then a 38-year-old civil-rights activist, saw the attack as a sign of the rapidly deteriorating condition of millions of women in thousands of projects across the nation. "The escalating violence against women of these areas is the most extreme expression of the general atmosphere of oppression," she says. "Something had to be done to allow women to break the silence that left victims feeling isolated, alone, powerless."
To do that, Amara founded an association that has gained enormous support by refusing to submit to what Amara calls "the brutish law of the strongest" in France's blighted public-housing districts. The organization grew from a 23-city march Amara and her colleagues organized in early 2003, starting from the scene of Benziane's murder. The procession's final leg, in Paris, drew 30,000 people behind a banner declaring them "Ni Putes, Ni Soumises" (Neither *****s Nor Submissive). The motto stuck, and a movement was born. The group currently boasts 30 regional branches and thousands of members across France.
"Daughters, sisters, cousins, female neighbors must either act like submissive but virtuous vassals, OR BE TREATED LIKE CHEAP *****S. Any sign of independence or femininity is viewed as a challenge and a provocation. "
The daughter of Algerian parents, Amara was brought up in a suburban Clermont-Ferrand housing development. Amara says her project was like most today: "about 90% immigrants or their children," underemployed and segregated from French society. Those conditions, Amara explains, have gradually corrupted once strict but paternalistic cultures among immigrant families, creating misogynistic codes that dominate entire neighborhoods. "Today it's not fathers, but eldest sons who impose authority," Amara explains. "Daughters, sisters, cousins, female neighbors must either act like submissive but virtuous vassals, or be treated like cheap *****s. Any sign of independence or femininity is viewed as a challenge and provocation." And so women in these projects are often harassed and insulted if they don't cover up and stay indoors; they are physically abused and sometimes violently raped; and they are discouraged or forbidden from aspiring to the life of a modern European woman.
That environment triggered a lifelong activism in Amara. At 17, she began organizing antiracism marches. In 1986 she joined French anti-racism group sos Racisme, and later founded its local affiliate, La Maison des Potes, whose national federation she has presided over since 2000.
But none of that experience made it easy to organize Ni Putes, Ni Soumises. "At the first debate, we had maybe 15 people - including local thugs there to heckle us," Amara recalls. "By the end, we had almost 10,000 people."
Ni Putes, Ni Soumises has since generated wide attention and support from politicians across the spectrum. Amara persuaded the government to provide 50 rooms in shelters for women who flee abuse in the projects - and she's bargaining for 100 more. And she has recruited psychologists and lawyers to work in housing developments with victims of oppression or abuse.
Amara insists that neither her drive, her commitment or her background explains the group's success. "If the dough has risen, it's because all the ingredients were there, and the time was right," she says. It still is. Fully two years after Benziane was murdered, the plaque marking the spot of her death is regularly vandalized - and her killer has yet to be tried.
Fadela Amara is also against the hijab, which, she says, is only worn by Muslim women out of three reasons: 1) Out of fear; 2) Because they believe the hijab is a legitimate sign of Islam (which it isn't, according to Amara); 3) Because some women are fundamentalist and use the hijab as a sign of this fundamentalist Islam.
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