In France’s Rough Suburban Housing Projects, Young Women Face Even More Challenges Than Men
SAINT-DENIS, France – Fifteen-year-old Rawa risks verbal abuse or worse every time she leaves her house wearing jeans. Jenah was thrown out of the family home at 11, became a drug dealer at 13, and was raped by a relative a year later.
If young men in France’s poor housing projects scenes of three weeks of nightly arson and unrest have it rough, girls often have it worse. Not only do they suffer from racism, unemployment and deprivation: They also endure daily harassment and even violence in their own communities.
“Women are double victims, of social and sexual discrimination as well as violence,” said Fadela Amara, founder of “Ni Putes, Ni Soumises” (Neither a Whore nor a Submissive), a group fighting to improve the lot of Muslim women and girls in impoverished French neighborhoods.
The plight of girls and women in the high-rise housing projects indicates that while racial discrimination may keep immigrants and their offspring on the margins of French society, that may not be the whole picture.
Some people in France’s mostly Muslim North and Sub-Saharan African immigrant communities have resisted accepting Western values and the French way of life making it harder for them to thrive. Polygamous households, while uncommon, can also be a barrier to integration.
Often from conservative backgrounds, many parents find it hard to shake off taboos. They expect their French-born daughters to remain virgins until marriage and refuse to allow them to marry non-Muslims.
And girls are often forced into marriages they do not want, said Amara.
“There’s an identity crisis here,” said Sonia Imloul, who works with troubled teens in Seine-Saint-Denis, a district northeast of Paris where the rioting now abated erupted Oct. 27. “It is very tough when you are stuck midway between France and Algeria or Morocco.”
Some activists say the influence of radical Islamic preachers is partly to blame for how men treat women.
An Algerian Muslim prayer leader, Abdelkader Bouziane, was convicted last year in the southeastern city of Lyon and handed a six-year suspended sentence for publicly justifying beating an adulterous wife. He was deported to Algeria in October 2004.
Physical violence including gang rapes has been widely reported against girls and young women of North African origin.
Amara notes a pattern of unemployed immigrant fathers losing authority to sons who bring in money by dealing drugs, stealing or who have adopted radical Islam. Girls in such families are often exposed to violence and exploitation or to religious repression, she said.
Samira Bellil’s 2002 book “Dans l’Enfer des Tournantes” (In Gang-Rape Hell) gave France a rare firsthand, graphic account of the troubles women face, including her own experience of gang rape.
“Your reputation is important in the projects,” wrote Bellil, who died of stomach cancer in 2003 at age 31. “It follows you everywhere. A girl can be branded easy or a little slut even if she does nothing wrong.”
Another incident that highlighted the tragedies that befall women in the projects was the murder of 19-year-old Sohanne Denziane: Her ex-boyfriend doused her with gasoline and set her on fire for breaking up with him.
Some girls have taken to wearing Islamic head coverings as protection against violence. But then they face pressures from the French state, which has banned veils and other religious symbols from schools to uphold the country’s secular principles and to quell Islamic fundamentalism. Authorities argue that girls should be empowered to cast off veils that are sometimes forced on them by their parents.
But Imloul says parents are in denial, because most of the girls in the projects date, have sex and smoke marijuana.
Sometimes, parents push their children into the mean streets.
Jenah Benzanfour was 11 when her mother threw her out of the house because she was getting into trouble at school and with police for stealing and threatening her teacher with a knife.
At 13, she started selling marijuana and Ecstasy for neighborhood thugs. At 14, she says, her uncle raped her over a period of several months. At 15, she was a prostitute.
Last month, Imloul happened to be driving by as Jenah was being beaten by a thug before onlooking neighbors. The social worker dragged Jenah away, took her to a clinic and then to the local police station.
Police were unsympathetic.
“They made fun of me, as if to say ‘Why do you care, this girl is a loser,'” said Imloul. They told her she would be wasting their time because Jenah had “a bad record, bad history.”
Jenah, now 16, is living with a family in a building across from her mother. She says she has stopped selling drugs and stealing and only now can reflect on her previous troubles.
“I hated the world,” she said. “I had rage against everyone.”
For her part, 15-year-old Rawa Khalil doesn’t leave home after dark, though daytime can be harrowing, too, with boys on the street calling her “whore.”
Her mother, Manoubia, 37, had been a victim of domestic violence at the hands of her drug dealing ex-husband. But now she is treated with contempt because she is no longer married.
“We have no father,” Rawa said, “no one to protect us.”