France: French women of migrant descent between the religious extreme Right and a coward Left

Marieme Hélie-Lucas
The international press has pointed at France on 2 occasions in the past 2 years: during the controversy around the so-called 'islamic veil' at the beginning of year 2004 and during the riots in suburbs [1] in 2005. These events are intimately linked.
The biggest mistake was to look at it in an un-gendered way: for there are huge discrepancies both in the actual situations, in the analysis of these situations and in the reactions to these situations, depending on whether we are talking of men or women, of boys or girls. Our own red thread here will be the public statements and actions of women of North African migrant descent during these events.
Moreover, international media overplayed violence of "communities", while underplaying "citizens" initiatives, and publishing unethical one sided reports.

Finally we will look into the growingly isolated political position of France within Europe and in the world regarding secularism vs multiculturalism, citizenship vs community - and the growing threat that the concept of "tolerance" constitutes for women, when it is hijacked by extreme right forces and when a coward Left, for fear of being accused of racism, adopts angelism to deal with the rise of religious fundamentalism, at the cost of women's rights.

What happened in France is of concern to us all, for we may rightly fear that it is the laboratory where the new entryist strategies of fundamentalists are being tested and that it will expand to other countries - definitely to the detriment of women.

The situation of migrants, migrant women and women of migrant descent in France.

The vast majority of "migrants" in France come from North Africa , especially Algeria. They are undifferetciatedly referred to as "Arabs". Migration from other former colonies of Africa is more recent. They started refering to themselves as "blacks" (using the English word in French). Migration from Asia, mostly Vietnamese, then Chinese, is far less important, while migrants from South Asia are virtually invisible.

It is an ancient source of cheap labor that started after the first world war and rose in numbers after the second world war. A qualitative change was introduced in the nature of migration when the French government allowed families to join migrant male workers.

Documentary films by Yasmina Benguigui, a French citizen of Algerian descent, on the history of migrants from North Africa in France, speak eloquently to this change: women promptly changed their traditional outfits for working class dresses and made use of French laws to step out of their houses and traditional roles; they entered the labor force; they sent their daughters to school, thus allowing a whole generation of young French women from migrant descent to climb the social ladder. The law on citizenship in France is based on soil, not on blood, i.e. any child born on French soil enjoys French citizenship. Moreover, being the parent of French children is a legal ground for applying for French citizenship.

But there is a far cry from the desire of previous generations of migrant descent for merging into French society and the claim for 'difference' of the present generation - which is often the third or fourth generation to be born and raised in France, hence in most cases French citizens. For discrimination, marginalisation of these sections of the population, and racism against them have grown, in an economic context where the whole French population is facing more and more difficulties in terms of access to stable employment, decent housing, etc... The growing number of jobless and homeless people in the streets of cities attest to these difficulties, and those are usually not the sons and daughters of migrants from North Africa whose family culture ensures the care of basic needs.

However, within this context of general pauperisation, youth from migrant descent is more affected than in the rest of the population:

Tokia Saifi, State Secretary on Sustainable Development: "this law is indispensible to set limits and to put an end to skids, but a real policy of integration should absolutely be added to it.../... By not taking into account the problems of discrimination regarding housing and employment, especially as it affects specifically populations of migrant descent and among them particularly the youth, a communal withdrawal has been facilitated and conflicts have been exacerbated.

The percentage of unemployement is above 50% [2] in suburbs where families of foreign origin are parked. Fundamentalist movements used the failure of our integration policy to extend their reach".

It is in this context that one should look at the anti secularism and pro veil campaign, and at the recent riots. To a situation of oppression and discrimination there can be various responses: a response from the Left and a response from the Right, a response as citizen and a response as community, but also a response from men and a response from women.

Typically, the response from women has been an entryist position, in which, like their grand mothers and great grand mothers who came decades ago to follow their husbands into migration and settled in France, they make the best possible use of laws and morae to assert their independance and empowerment.

Zohra, 36, production assistant: "My mother, who is Algerian, stood against the veil. Twenty years ago, this was not a topic of interest, nobody would mention it"

It is certainly not unimportant to signal that the first male migrant workers from North Africa were most often employed in big companies in the car manufacturing sector, mining, textile industry, etc... i.e. in sectors where unions were well organised and powerful; these workers acquired a class culture that facilitated a form of integration into the national workers movement, as well as personal interaction with their male French colleagues through experience of class solidarity. Some degree of change also affected families and the role of women: documentary as well as fiction work of film makers of migrant descent focus on visible signs of integration of women such as the language spoken at home, dress code, attention paid to schooling of children of both sexes and beginning of access to wage labor.

Safia, 29, vice president of NPNS, Clermont-Ferrand: "the Muslim woman is not a veiled woman. Under pressure, some women feel that they are not good Muslims if they do not wear it. But everywhere in the world, women fight for their emancipation, just like our mothers have done before us".

The organisation of the working class in France has been steadily declining over the past decades. It is in this vacuum that fundamentalism has grown and is now strongly affecting the reactions of younger male generations to the unacceptable economic discrimination they now face.

But today too, girls massively use the opportunity of free schooling in primary and secondary state schools as well as in state universities to access the labor market in better conditions than their fore mothers. Today too, the use of French language remains a visible sign of belonging for girls, while their brothers clumsily sparkle their sentences with a couple of arabic words - a language that they do not speak – and pretend an arabic accent in French. Girls of migrant descent are generally doing well in schools, while their brothers constitute the vast majority of school drop outs, and of the unemployed youth. [3]

Warda, 23, manager, Neuilly Plaisance: "I have no problem with my identity. I am a French citizen, of Algerian culture, my religion is Islam. I speak arabic, i know the history of my family, and i used to go to Algeria on holidays. This prevented me from fantacising about my country of origin or from having a distorted image of my culture".

There is a recurrent dichotomy between boys and girls, men and women, in relation to communalism vs citizenship and therefore in the reactions to veil and to riots.

Protest as citizens vs protest as community: the stand of women of migrant descent

Two essential people's protests have marked the recent history of social movement in France both initiated by youth of migrant descent.

In 1984 a group of four young men of North African descent started a March in protest against the discrimination that they were suffering regarding employment. They called themselves 'La Marche des Beurs'( Beurs' March) – 'Beur' being a non derogatory slang word for 'Arab' that the youth invented for itself. Symbolically, they marched from Marseilles - the very port on the southern Mediterranean cost that has seen most migrants from North Africa disembarked on the soil of France - up to Paris - the location of the government -. All along their way, in cities, towns and villages, they spoke to people about their situation and urged them to support their cause – a 'long march' indeed. And thousands of French citizens (both of migrant descent and not), mostly youth, joined them : it was a citizens' movement that the French state could not ignore any more: when this crowd reached Paris, they had to be heard by the authorities. The March received a fantastic media coverage and social problems that stemmed from discrimination and marginalisation of citizens of migrant descent in France were publicly debated.

This initiative gave impetus to many other people's organisations which, like the "Marche des Beurs", positionned themselves as citizens' movements and drew into their struggle crowds that were not personally or directly affected by racism. By doing so, they were making a strong political statement that the plea of any sub category of people was of every citizen's concern insofar as it affected society as a whole, and that it should not be delt with exclusively by those who were directly affected. Their large success was the stronger statement against communalism that was made recently.

However, despite the growing outreach and the attention of the media, promises made by the government were not fully fulfilled; some of the leaders of the movement were co-opted. And the main parties and unions, as they have steadily done since the sixties, did not jump into the bandwagon to support and sustain a protest they had neither initiated nor controlled. Desillusion followed and opposite political forces made use of it.

For at the other end of the political spectrum, communal movements, largely inspired by those born in the UK a few decades ago, stand for privatisation of social problems: racism and discrimination are the exclusive burden of affected communities and combatting those is their prerogative, not that of all citizens. And like in most political movements in our own countries of origin, political, racial and religious identities are blurred and lumped together. Thus, it is neither as citizens, as full members of a society and a country that one has chosen to live in, nor as members of a political organisation providing an analysis of a given problem, that they fight social problems - but as 'Muslims', as 'Blacks'. This ideological stand avoids pointing at any class difference. The mass of 'Muslims' is presumed a homogeneity that is de facto challenged by the rise of a 'black bourgeoisie'. The demand for social justice is replaced by praise for charity. Moreover, it stamps on all people, whose parents came from a Muslim country or community, a religious identity that few of them actually could claim - as if an unwashable 'original sin' had been imprinted at birth by virtue of blood - , thus denying to religion the status of a free spiritual choice.

Thinking back at the lax tolerance that such ideology has met within the Left, one could hardly imagine a similar discourse remaining unchallenged if it were, for instance, racism against Jews that were at stake: no one would ever dare claim that this is the exclusive problem of Jews themseves, and no one would dare deny that this is indeed the problem of the whole of France. But the fundamentalists benefit from the white guilt and the fear to appear racist or anti islam that blindly leads the Left at present..

Not surprisingly, young male of migrant descent, discriminated against as citizens and recently reborn as 'Blacks' or as 'Muslims' under the influence of fundamentalist communalist groups, do not turn a blind eye to the strategy of girls that 'betray their identity' by trying more successfully than boys to carve a niche for themselves within French society. Aicha, 34, social worker, Fontenay-sous-bois: "Today, the little brothers are the ones who tell their mother: your daughter must be veiled. This is the culture of the suburbs. What upsets me? That the extremists monopolize the attention of the state and of the media. Nobody listens to Muslims that do not create any problem, who practice their religion in the private sphere."

Gangs of young males patrol the suburbs to send girls back home and punish them for 'unislamic' behavior- fundamentalist version. That includes wearing fashionable clothes, speaking to boys in public, etc... And the 'punishment' has included, like in our countries of origin, public insults, public humiliation, public beatings, collective rape, acid throwing, death sentence by stoning, etc...

Fadoua, 25, student, Corbeil-Essonne: "In my suburb, the street belongs to boys, girls stay at home. The outside space, the right to speak, everything is limited. I do not want to be reduced to that. The suburb is like a big family, with the same unconveniences. One cannot step out of one's role, or one has to leave"

The French police has long forgotten these areas where they cannot enter without being attacked in various ways by disoccupied young men, who, let us not forget it at this point, are indeed facing racism and violence by the police. But for schools, most state services are no more available in these areas, for the employees fear attacks, as representant of the state. Even firebrigades hesitate to enter some areas. Fundamentalists groups, who have both the huge finances and, let us admit it, the will, used this vacuum to provide alternative social services that the French state fails to provide, while using the opportunity to infilter minds: they take care of widows and poor families via various systems of donations, charity, dime (zakat); they coach children who need support with their school work, they open sport clubs, they offer an alternative to drugs, etc... And at the same time, they offer for free headscarves and so-called 'islamic dress' to women, preach 'islamic morality', draw men and boys to the mosques, teach combat sports to the potential future djihadis and travel them widely, etc... Among the non local fighters that were identified in Algeria, Bosnia, the Phillipines, etc... as well as those involved in the bombings of Bali, Madrid, London or Paris were those trained in these suburbs.

But one cannot fail to mention here that a significant number of young men from totally "French French" descent, who share with those of 'Muslim' descent poverty, unemployment, and rage, have also joined these trainings and have been found participating in the recent major bombings in Europe. It is estimated that there are 60 000 "French French" converted to Islam. And if some of them are well known intellectuals and artists, many of the young ones come from the same lower middle class and the same suburbs.

As a frontal confrontation of such a situation, a citizens' movement emerged in the late nineties. Led by young women from North African descent, it has taken the torch from the hands of the initial Beurs and is presently expanding into other countries of Europe. In response to crimes committed against women and girls by the new 'muslim militia' that govern entire suburban sectors of big cities in France, they gave themselves the provocative name of 'Ni Putes Ni Soumises' ,- or its acronym NPNS - (the litteral translation is: 'Neither Whores, Nor Submissive'). This name states that being socially active citizens of France who enjoy the normal rights of other citizens in terms of education, freedom of movement, freedom of belief, etc... does not make them prostitutes, as male youth often accuses them of being of loose morality, and that they will neither submit to male orders, nor to male-interpreted God's orders.

Saoudia, 23, student, Nice:"Religion is in the heart, not on the head".

Their birth was sparked by a horrifying crime committed in a suburb of Paris, in Vitry sur Seine, against a 17 years old girl who was burnt alive in the garbage cell of the building where she lived with her family. Her name, Sohane, is now on a street sign that is heatbreakingly permanently degraded by male youth - and replaced, under pressure from NPNS. It says enough that, like in Algeria under fundamentalist rule for instance, this is not seen as a crime but as the just punishment of a sinner.

Asma, 28, psychologist, Saint Ouen: " I was born in algeria, i witnessed the rise of fundamentalism. Disoccupied boys who force you to wear a head scarf, mosques that rise like mushrooms, the social discourse, the extremists who pose as victims... they are doing the same thing in France."

Following this crime, a small number of women and even fewer men, started marching from the central city of Clermont Ferrand to Paris –and like their predecessors they stopped in towns and villages, informing their fellow citizens on their way, and denoucing in one go the discrimination and racism they were victims of, the rise of fundamentalism that put them under actual death threat and the lax attitude of the state. Since the inception of the movement, NPNS has worked towards forcing the state to face its responsibility regarding the protection of all citizens.

Unfortunately, these crimes against women are more and more numerous. Each time NPNS calls for a huge demonstration together with smaller women's organisations that have surged in recent years ; these demonstrations draw more and more people that are not of migrant descent but feel totally concerned as citizens.

Fundamentalist groups do not fail to discredit these demos and their initiators as racist and islamophobic – despite public stands taken by courageous progressive Imams who unveil the fundamentalist hijacking of Islam, in which progressive believers cannot recognize their faith.

It is in this context of a. the unacceptable growing discrimination against French people of migrant North African descent and citizens' initiatives to fight it - in which women have taken a major lead -, and b. the communal withdrawal led by fundamentalists, that one should look at two major political events in France that have agitated international media: the veil controversy and the riots.

The veil controversy and other attacks on secular principles of the French Republic

It is a major success of fundamentalists that the whole world now labels the French law on secularism 'the law against the veil', thus unwittingly supporting the fundamentalist claim that the French state is essentially islamophobic !

Indeed it is NOT a law against the veil: this law, which has been revived and reworded recently, dates from 1906, at a time when it was mainly curtailing the power of the Catholic Church to interfere into the politics of the French state and when 'Muslim' migration from North Africa was not at stake. The law proclaims the total separation between state and religion; it garantees freedom of belief and of practice to all religions, but the state, beyond this basic protection extented to all believers, will not interfere with religions, will in fact ignore religions, as it sees beliefs as pertaining to the private domain.

This conception of secularism is a far cry from that of many other European countries: in the UK, the Queen is both the Head of State and the Head of the Anglican Church; in Germany, the state collects taxes that are redistributed to churches, and religion is taught in state schools as part of the curriculum; in many other countries, ID documents make mention of religion, one swears in court on the Bible, etc... Secularism for these countries means equal tolerance of all religions, while French secularism just does not consider religion as an issue which is within state mandate.

Subsequently, religious signs are not allowed in areas that are symbolic of the Republic – this space must remain strctly neutral and republican. Hence children and teachers in primary and secondary state schools, and civil servants when they are in contact with the public, i.e. when they represent the secular Republic vis a vis citizens, cannot wear cross, kippa, veil, etc. But at the same time, the Republic guarantees the right of all citizens to wear these religious signs in any other space which is not symbolic of the Secular Republic, i.e; in the streets, at work, etc... That this perfectly tolerant and balanced law, which in fact protects and guarantees religious rights of all citizens as well as the rights of citizens who do not profess any religion to continue to do so without facing persecution, be now seen as anti Islam only shows the lobbying power of fundamentalist groups linked internationally and their use and abuse of human rights concepts.

Fundamentalist movements have opened a new front in Europe and North America, where they apply exactly the same tactics that they experimented in our countries of origin: they use the legitimate discontent of the people, they occupy the vacuum left by a failing state, they do away with citizenship and promote religious and racial identities, they redefine social problems in terms of communalism and finally they take steps towards ending secularism. Farida, 27, social worker, Narbonne: "i stand for all mixities: in school, in the swiming pool, in marriage, in the suburbs... otherwise one moves from geographical ghetto to mental ghetto and communalism".

In France, they presently attack and challenge the very roots of the secular republic, in the name of religious identity. It is not only the "right to veil" (which sadly reminds us of the 'right to female genital mutilation' in the name of cultural rights in the seventies, and other discriminary and painful 'rights' that apply exclusively to females !!!) that they demand; they also demand various other forms of male/female segregation, among which segregation of sexes in schools, a different cursus for boys and girls that will eliminate from the girls' cursus subjects such as biology, arts, music and sports, separate swimming pools, separate wards in public hospitals and female doctors, nurses and other para medical personnel in female hospitals – all this at a time when state hospitals lack basic personnel, whether male or female – etc....

It is in this context that the "right to veil" – not just everywhere else, which is perfectly legal in France, but in primary and secondary state schools i.e. for minors under age 16, and in public administration when civil servants are in contact with the public, became such an international campaign led by fundamentalists.

Alas, it was promptly followed by human rights campaigners and quite an impressive part of the Left and of the Far Left in the name of tolerance and anti racism, religious rights and cultural rights.

At no point have they seen that this was part of a world wide concerted action of fundamentalists which would not only destroy women's rights – the Left, alas again, has long taught us not to count on them to support women's rights (which always come last : after the revolution, after independance, after etc...) - , but human rights in general and the whole notion of citizenship, as well as progressive social movements.

Meriem, 25, lawyer: " when i hear a girl say: the veil protects me, i respond: no it is the republic that protects you."

That the French and European Left be blinded by their 'white guilt' , their colonial memories, and their traditional anti-state position is one thing; but our own Left in Third World countries too is betraying the emerging democratic opposition to fundamentalism. As they have done when the people of Algeria - and not just our corrupt government - was desperately fighting the FIS , GIA [4] and the like at the cost of their very lives ( several hundred thouthands died at the hands of fundamentalists), some of our brightest Third World intellectuals on the Left see no problem in promoting a near fascist political force provided it attacks the state and imperialism. Fundamentalist speakers are invited to Social Fora and given platforms in alternativefora and media that once were created to give us public space.

The international media widely publicised the only two small Paris based anti secular law demos of veiled women cornacked by bearded men. [5] Exoticism, rather than ethics and politics, seem to be their guiding thread.

Meanwhile, regardless of the threats and actual danger that they faced for doing so, thousands of women from migrant descent, political exiles from countries such as Iran and Algeria who suffered under fundamentalist rule, as well as progressive men including religious authorities, have gone public in the national media in support of a law that does guarantee their freedom of religion while protecting them as well from the intrusion of religion within the state, a situation that they have fled in their countries. They gathered several huge demonstrations that were ignored by the media, outside France itself: it was not politically correct.

Fadela Mrabet, President of NPNS spoke in a demo in favor of the revival of the French law on secularism ; after reminding people of the basic foundations of the republic, she said: "Today it is crucial for living together in our country to reaffirm the two principles of secularism and equality between sexes.../... Veil is not as they would like us to believe, a religious sign for Muslim women: this symbol of submission represents the seal of humiliation for women and the marker of a forever minor status that they try to impose on women.../... Only a law that will reaffirm these two indissociable principles of secularim and equality between sexes will protect the girls of the suburbs and further the status of women"

Young women chose to expose themselves to the wrath of fundamentalist inpired young men.

They used all the media but also lined to testify in front of the Stasi Commission that was appointed by the government to evaluate people's support to secularism. They denounced the very meaning of the veil as well as other discriminations that women suffer under religious rule in Muslim countries.

Meryem, 23, student, Paris: " the veil is meant to avoid provoking the desire of men. This is a way to alleviate their responsibility and to potentially charge us with guilt – and i cannot accept that"

Interestingly enough, because it was mainly school girls that were concerned , the rights of the girl child were central to the debate, not just women's rights. It is a fact that girls in present day fundamentalist contexts are veiled not just at puberty as was done traditionally but at a younger and younger age, sometimes starting at age 2 or 3 . inculcating, into such a young mind, through the symbol of the veil, that her sexuality is bad and dangerous, that she will be responsible for men's sexual violence, cannot but have pernicious effects on her psyche.

Chadortt Djavann, Iranian writer exiled in France: "I am convinced that veiling minors should be forbidden in the whole of the country. In the name of equality between minors of all origins, religions and gender, i demand that the veil on minors, this veil that stigmatises their female sexuality, this veil whose scars they will bear throughout their lives, be considered as ill treatment".

It is interesting to note that the transgression of the law on secularism started some fifteen years ago and that at the moment only 50 girls in the whole of France actually persist in going all the way to being expelled of school. Since education is compulsory for all children uder 16, parents then have an obligation to put them into private schools or give them private tuition.

Since the beginning of this action, Muslim fundamentalists received support from Jewish and Christian fundamentalist forces who seize this opportunity to regain a power that they lost in 1906 , as well as from extreme right political parties, such as the National Front led by Le Pen in France and the Freedom Party led by Haider in Austria. For extreme right fascist forces too support the 'right to difference', precisely because it legitimates in their views racial inferiority. Let us not ever forget that the tenants of apartheid in South Africa, or the pro-slavery Southern States in the USA were starch defenders of ' difference'.

France was also under heavy pressure from other European states that were pushing for multi culturalism. On two occasions the European Parliament nearly adopted provisions that would have put an end to French secularism: they wanted to inscribe Christianity in the Constitution, and a law on blasphemy. At a time when France was isolated within Europe on the question of secularism and multiculturalism, was attacked by left and antiglobalisation forces in the name of anti racism, was taken to the European Court on Human Rights on behalf of veiled girls, when one was fearing that France will finally bend to these pressures, one can say that the support to French secularism that came from women of migrant descent and their seizing of the media was a decisive factor in the reviving of the law.

For us women it is a matter of life and death: for, behind these claims for specificities – which, as mentionned earlier, are not limited to the veil in schools, there is the underlying demand of specific 'personal laws'. As we can see in other countries, and recently in Canada, introducing family laws that respect religious differences is the final target ; that will mean for women of North African descent to loose the right to marry - but to have to be given in marriage by a matrimonial tutor -, to loose the right to initiate divorce - only the husbands can inititate it -, to loose custody over our children upon divorce, to go back to obedience to husbands , to have unequal share to inheritance, etc... This is the goal of fundamentalist forces in Europe. When coupled with the denial of the right to change religion or to declare no religion (in 1999 France failed to obtain recognition of these rights from the UOIF -union of islamic organisations of France-), these provisions will then allow to discriminate against all French citizens of " Muslim" migrant descent, making them, as in our own countries, second class citizens.

The 2005 youth riots in French suburbs and citizens' responses

For more than ten years, several times a year and symbolically on new year eves, under priviledged youth have set fire to symbols of consumerist society,: hundred of cars have been burnt each year and elite shops have been looted. It is only this year, following the veil controversy, that the international media has given so much attention to these events. France was portrayed as highly insecure, while incidents took place mostly at night, by small groups, and were circumscribed to specific areas around the main cities of France.

Indeed there were qualitative differences in what happened this time: it lasted longer ( three weeks, rather than a couple of days) and the magnitude of the degradations was significant: the youth did not just attack cars and shops, but buses, schools, community centers, sports equipment, police stations, etc... However public transportation and police stations had been already attacked in the past few years. Nobody died in the riots, except for the accident that apparently sparked the rioters: two kids apparently afraid of a potential police control hid in an electric generator where they were electrocuted.

The reaction of police forces and of the Minister of Interior during the October riots raises issue: the incidents could have been smashed in a couple of days, as has been done in all previous instances, with no blood shed and a few young men briefly arrested, not even put to trial. However, the authorities de liberately let it grow and last. More cars were burnt later, on New Year eve, as usual, and that was swifly stopped the usual way. One suspects some strategy for the up coming presidential elections of 2007, rather than any real difficulty in handling the situation.

This lack of adequate state reaction sparked new citizens' initiatives: fathers and mothers stepped out of their homes in the evenings and camped inside the premises of buildings they wanted to protect, such as schools and other public equipment that benefit people. They publicly stated that they were not there to replace the police but to show their presence as citizens. Groups of fathers took turns to walk the streets of affected areas, talking to the youth they met in the nights, explaining why they were opposed to the degradations. Mediators expressed the concerns of young rioters in the national media. Many of the youth angrily held their French national identity card to the cameras, asking why their lives were so miserable if they were nationals of this country.

Many of these parents, educators, mediators and other adults that took vigils and also undertook to speak with the angry youth were of North African descent, but there was a fair mix of origins among the people that in fact controlled the situation throughout the events.

If boys from North African descent were a visible minority among the rioters, "blacks" were also present, as well as "white" French boys.

What united the youth was obviously the economic condition they live in, the high rate of unemployment and 'lack of future' as they say, as well as their revolt in front of a consumption society they belong to by their aspirations but that left them out .

What united the adults was the powerful feeling of belonging to this country, and the will to defend their rights as citizens, not as communities.

Citizens' initiatives did not stop with the end of the riots. Throughout the month of December, before the deadline for the establishment of electoral lists that will be used for the next presidential elections, numerous well known artists and sport stars from North African descent took the floor in all the media, organized rallies in the suburbs to incite the youth to put their names down on these lists, if they had not already done so: the message was that they should use their voting power to change their situations.

Sihem, 28, multimedia conceptor, Paris: "Three years ago, i applied for French citizenship. It does not mean that i did not feel at home. But in very concrete terms, i could not vote; while i wanted my voice to be heard".

Like during the battle over secularism and the veil, one witnessed women taking a stand, and in many instances taking the lead, in re-politicizing the debate, and de-ethniticizing it.

Druing the riots, women from North African descent initiated numerous dialogues with the rioters and with the representatives of the government and the media. They initiated marches of protest. They participated, together with men, in the day and night occupation of public equipment in order to peacefully protect those from rioters.


While there is no denying that, within a difficult global economic context in France with an serious percentage of unemployement , degradation of the conditions of living of the middle and lower middle class, nationals from migrant descent and especially from North African descent are discriminated against,- the question remains of the ways to address this situation.

Refusing to listen to the fundamentalist mermaids, women have taken a political stand in both these events: they will tackle political issues as citizens, not as members of a community. They will not swallow the policy of "going back to our roots" (women into men's custody inside the homes) that fundamentalists are promoting as a solution to social problems. They will not accept that the French state trades their consitutional rights for keeping "communities" at peace. They have proved to be the best guardians of French secularism, that they see as their protection against extreme right religious groups.

They have been active and visible.

One can only hope that their growing strengh will force French and European states to stop considering male self appointed religious leaders as representatives of the "community" and to give in to their demands, at the cost of women's rights, in the name of cultural and religious rights.

One can hope too, that their voices will finally be heard and convince the progressive forces that they are by no means 'islamophobic' when they oppose extreme right forces working under the guise of religion, and that they should challenge the fundamentalist monopoly over religion. We suggest that they give a platform to progressive theologians in Islam, women as well as men: those will not defend the veiling of women as criteria of true faith.

As for the social problems that France faces, it should not, cannot be the task of the sole affected people of migrant descent to fight for a change. It is the role of all citizens.

Let us not forget how Hitler was brought to power: to a situation of oppression, there are various responses. Let us not unwittingly support responses from the extreme right, built on racism, difference, communalism, and control of women.

This is the lesson that French women of North African migrant descent have taught the world during these two crisis situations.

Will they be heard?

Originally published by Isis in January 2006