CLIO TALKS BACK: Fadela Amara Speaks Out and Organizes Against Violence in French Housing Projects

Fadela Amara
The French human rights activist Fadela Amara (b. 1963) is best known as the founder of Ni Putes Ni Soumises [Neither Whore Nor Submissive], a French organization of progressive young Muslim women and men and their supporters. Born and raised in Clermont-Ferrand to Berber parents who had immigrated from Kabylia, in Algeria, Amara found herself a “native” citizen in France, a country in which religion and ethnicity are not supposed to matter, but in practice matter very much. As a young woman, she became deeply concerned about the development in her nearly all-Arab Muslim neighborhood of a culture of male violence against girls who wanted to dress like other French girls and to go out unchaperoned. The causes of the violence were closely linked to rising unemployment and deteriorating conditions in the community infrastructure, which fed and fueled the concern of young males for the chastity of “their” women even as the young women wanted to pursue a freer lifestyle than some in their community were willing to sanction.

Fadela Amara believes strongly in the secular, individualist values of republican France, which did not seem to apply to young women who shared her background. So she decided to do something about it. This led her to a lifetime of activism, in the Beur march, in SOS Racisme, to the founding of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, and to upholding the ban on headscarves in French schools. She has since held a junior cabinet position in the French government, and in early 2011 she was named Inspector General for Social Affairs.

What follows is an excerpt from the Prologue to Fadela Amara’s memoir, Breaking the Silence, in which she reminisces about the beginnings of her activism:
I would never have imagined we could do it. To bring together on 8 March 2003 more than thirty thousand people in the streets of Paris, most of them from the suburbs, behind our slogan Ni Putes Ni Soumises – I would never even have dared to dream of such success.
For many years feminist associations had struggled to mobilize around their own traditional themes. And there we were, a handful of young women from the housing projects, with little political experience, who had managed to assemble some of the most diverse organizations in French society, political parties, unions, associations for women’s rights, and various other groups! Public opinion suddenly discovered these women from the projects who were demonstrating to protest the daily violence they endured; everyone could glimpse the proud faces of women who were determined to break the taboos of a new form of sexism. 
We were only eight marchers at the start, six young women and two young men, who set out – in a climate of indifference and distrust – on a five-week march to denounce gang rape and male violence. Our path through France included twenty-three stopovers, multiple press conferences, meetings with elected officials, and debates with people in the housing projects, all aiming to raise the awareness of this evil that was destroying our suburbs. 
Two major events several months earlier had incited us to organize this march. One was the horrible crime that took place on 4 October 2002: the murder of Sohane, a young woman of eighteen, burned alive in the cellar of a housing project in Vitry-sur-Seine. Beautiful and rebellious, Sohane paid with her life for her refusal to conform to the gender norms of the suburbs, to the law of brute force. Her older sister Kahina, despite her grief, her suffering, and outside pressure, refused to remain silent. With courage and determination (like another Kahina, famous in the history of the Berber people), she spoke out against the atrocity that had destroyed her family and vowed to make public the fate of young women in the projects. 
Several months before that Samira Bellil had published Dans l’enfer des tournantes, a personal account of gang rapes, now a topic of public attention. We had often heard stories in our association meetings, stories of gang rape perpetrated by groups of young men against women who had refused to hide their femininity. But the pressure in the projects was so strong that the victims refused to speak out, and the neighborhood maintained its taboos. In revealing the facts, Samira’s testimony – raw, direct and painful – acted like a bomb. She faced her struggle alone and told the whole story. I have great admiration for her and for her great humanity! During meetings at each stopover of our march, she explained again and again that she could never pardon those who raped her, but she could understand how they came to act in this way, and the long, slow process of destruction that consumed these young men. By refusing to live with hatred, she taught us an extraordinary lesson. I am proud that she has become the symbolic center of our movement. Her book also helped open the eyes of women suffering the same horrors, giving them the strength to say ‘Enough!’ The support and the direct experience of Kahina and Samira have strengthened our resolve to put an end to violence against women.

Source: Fadela Amara, with Sylvia Zappi, Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto, translated with an introduction by Helen Harden Chenut (University of California Press, 2006); originally published in France as Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Éditions la Découverte, 2004), pp. 35-37.