Muslim Women Leading the Charge In France

Sylvia Poggioli
France is Europe's most rigidly secular society, relegating religion to the sidelines.

Paradoxically, of all the Muslims in Europe, it's the French ones who most closely identify with France's values, despite widespread social discrimination.

And it's French Muslim women who are in the forefront of grassroots political activism and in forging their own interpretation of Islam.

Muslim Women Leading the Charge

After taking office, President Nicholas Sarkozy announced the appointment of the first Muslim — who is also a woman — as justice minister. Rachida Dati, 41, was the 12th child of a Moroccan laborer and an Algerian mother.

And she is not the only Muslim woman with a senior portfolio.

The foreign undersecretary for human rights is Senegal-born Rama Yade. The undersecretary for urban affairs is Fadela Amara, an activist from the immigrant housing projects.

Amara is visiting Epinay Sur Seine, one of the many immigrant ghettoes that encircle Paris. Here, poverty, unemployment and youth violence are endemic.

Amara, 43, known as the ghetto warrior, organized the first town hall meeting in this desolate, graffiti-laced project. Facing a mostly female audience, Amara lashed out at sexist patriarchal cultures that, she says, harm young women.

She tells the audience members that they must speak out and denounce violence against women in the ghetto — and against the growing number of forced marriages. And, Amara warns, they must be more vigilant against Islamist preachers who pollute the heads of young men with fundamentalism.

The daughter of Algerian immigrants, Amara was a political activist as a teen.

After a young Muslim girl was burned alive by a Muslim thug who thought she was too independent, Amara founded a movement with a provocative name: Ni Putes Ni Soumises, or Neither Whores Nor Submissives.

It put the spotlight on abuse of women in the high-rise ghettoes.

Searching for Inclusion

Amara is a firm believer in the secular values of mainstream French society, and she demands that France live up to its ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood for all its citizens.

One young woman echoes the challenge.

"Nouveau Francais" is the latest hit single by 22-year-old Amel Bent, the French-born daughter of North African parents who became famous on the French version of the U.S. reality television program American Idol.

Her tune echoes the national anthem and describes the desire of immigrants to be accepted under the same flag.

"We don't ask for special recognition," Bent sings. "We're neither more nor less a child of France."

In fact, rioting ghetto youths don't brandish religious symbols but rather their French ID cards.

This desire for inclusion was also expressed by French Muslims surveyed in a major Pew poll in 2006, in which 78 percent said they want to adopt French customs.

And the 2004 law banning headscarves in schools was much more sharply criticized abroad than by French Muslims.

Today, the presence of minority women in Sarkozy's cabinet shows young Muslim women it's possible to make a mark in France.

Gap Between Aspirations and Reality

But Sihem Habchi, the new president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, laments the wide gap between aspirations and reality. None of the ministers were elected. There's only one Muslim representative in parliament and no Muslim mayors.

Habchi says discrimination against men and women of foreign origin is widespread.

"We don't understand why they want to build this wall between us and the rest of society," she says. "I can represent all the French. I am French since long time, and I can defend the values of progress also."

Habchi believes the only outlet for women in the ghettoes is political activism.

Empowerment Through Religious Study

But some French Muslim women are following another path.

Nadia, a young woman whose head is covered with a tightly folded black headscarf, glides over the smooth marble floor in the grand mosque of Paris toward the woman's gallery.

She says she does not feel better represented now that there are three minority women in the cabinet.

"It is a real choice of faith to be Muslim, and it is not enough to be just of Arab origin," Nadia says.

Nadia is among a growing number of French Muslim women who are seizing the Koran for themselves.

The grand mosque made an unprecedented move five years ago. Courses were introduced to train young Muslim women as spiritual counselors for hospitals and prisons.

Today, most students in France's Islamic studies institutes are women.

One graduate is Noura Jaballah, mother of five and spokeswoman for the French League of Muslim Women.

She wears the Islamic headscarf, but she has no patience with certain traditional interpretations of Islam.

"I don't know how in the world they came up with the claim that women were created to stay home and take care of household chores and cooking. It's absolutely false," she says. "Women, like men, have the responsibility to make order reign on earth."

Jaballah is proud of her achievements and the fact that, at home, she's the one who leads family prayers.

The 'New Female Islamic Consciousness'

Dounia Bouzar, a sociologist and a Muslim, studies the new female Islamic consciousness, in which, she says, the Muslim woman has discovered her individuality and learned to say "I."

Bouzar believes that by growing up in a secular society, French Muslim women have shared experiences and blended with the rest of the French population.

"By working side by side with men, with non-Muslim women, with people who do not believe in God, by being friends with an Elizabeth who might be Buddhist … well, this totally contradicts traditional teachings," Bouzar says. "No preacher or father can convince you that your close friend Elizabeth is an infidel. This kind of argument just doesn't carry weight anymore."

Bouzar says it's not religion but social and economic discrimination that threatens this society's cohesion.

France's immigrant suburbs are social, economic ghettoes, she says, not separate Islamic enclaves such as those that exist in Germany and Britain.

This has enabled France's high intermarriage rate between Muslim women and non-Muslim men, which is taboo under strict Islamic practice.

Bouzar believes Muslim women can become the engine of integration.


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