London -- Monday July 17, 2006
Read also publisher's notes on Fadela Amara and Sylvia Zappi's
Her take-no-prisoners approach has revolutionised French feminism - and made her many dangerous enemies. Rose George asks Fadela Amara what fuels her rage
The two biggest moments in Fadela Amara's life have both involved death. The first, in her home cité or housing project, near the French town of Clermont-Ferrand, was the killing of her five-year-old brother Malik by a hit-and-run driver in 1978. "The cops arrived and one of them shook my mother," she writes in her new book Breaking the Silence: French Women's Voices from the Ghetto. "I saw how the cops were able to mistreat people just because they were Arabs ... it was like an electroshock." The young Fadela was consumed with rage - enough, in fact, to sustain her through the subsequent 25 years of campaigning against racism and for women's rights, in a country long thought to have acquired the latter.
French women may indeed have some rights, says 42-year-old Amara, but women in France's poorer banlieues or suburbs - the French equivalent of inner-city ghettos - aren't included. It was in a typical suburb, neglected and stuffed with unemployed, angry young men, mostly from immigrant families, that the second galvanising death occurred. In October 2002, a young thug called Nono, furious over being dissed by another local caid or hard-man, poured lighter fuel over his rival's 17-year-old girlfriend Sohane Benziane, a vivacious young beurette (French woman of Arab descent), and set fire to her. She burned to death.
That was the final straw, says Amara, as we talk in her office at the Maison de la Mixité [Centre for Living Together] in Paris. During two decades of work for women's rights and anti-racism initiatives she had watched the "social decomposition" of her old neighbourhoods. She remembered them as places of mutual support; now, mass unemployment had led to young men turning on women, in a desperate effort to assert themselves.
Young women in the suburbs were being told what not to wear (jeans, anything feminine) and what not to do (have a boyfriend, wear makeup, go out, have sex). Transgression brought severe penalties. Several months before Benziane's murder, a book by another young beurette, Samira Bellil, revealed how she had been gang-raped, and how it had become so common in the suburbs that it was known simply as a tournante, or pass-round. By now, young suburban men said - and believed - "that all women are whores except my mother".
It was this phrase that inspired Fadela to go on the warpath. With various young women from immigrant backgrounds and two men in tow (Amara insists that a women's movement needs to include men), she organised a march for women's rights in 2003, taking in 23 French cities. By the end, there were 30,000 people marching on Paris, and one of the march's slogans - Ni Putes Ni Soumises - Neither Whores Nor Submissives - became the name of France's noisiest new feminist movement.
French feminism, notorious for being more intellectual than practical, had fought hard in the 1970s to win rights for women. "But they forgot about us women in the ghettos," says Amara. All those noble rights - political parity, the right to an abortion, to choose your partner - were about as available to a second- or third-generation Frenchwoman of immigrant origin, she has said, as "an Hermès scarf, even on sale". French feminism, she thinks, has shirked the "social question". They've never addressed the basics, like the right to wear a skirt and not get raped. Or like teaching young people about sex and love and boundaries, which NPNS did with its "respect guide", initially distributed for free, then sold for one euro. It spent months in France's bestseller list.
Since the march, NPNS has set up a national network of shelters for young women who have been sexually assaulted in the projects. And when the Maison de la Mixité opened in March this year, President Chirac popped in.
Amara's speech is strewn with fighting terminology: she talks of her combat and her battles. She is also certain about what she's defending: a secular republic that allows for equality of the sexes. Anyone who obstructs that "is my enemy". That includes, notably, Islamists. Amara is a practising Muslim, and proud of her religion, but she's fierce in her condemnation of "political Islam", which arrived in the suburbs in the 1990s, preached "by self-appointed imams in basements where nobody could see them." Unlike Amara's Islam, which "leads to the freedom of the individual", she says this version advocates archaic traditions such as the subjugation of women and the wearing of headscarves. She calls it "green fascism", after the colour usually associated with Islam. "I can tell you that saying that has caused me a few problems."
During the "tour of France" in 2004, debates were regularly hijacked by heckling Islamists. "It was verbally very violent," says Amara, drawing a finger across her throat to mimic the gestures they made. But she's not scared. Though she is often named in the ranks of "western-friendly Muslim women", Amara's office door is wide open.
Amara's position on Islamists has caused rifts in French feminism, too. Last year, she took NPNS out of the Comité National des Femmes, a powerful collective of women's-rights groups, in response to the cultural relativism of some of the members. "They define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is," she says. "They won't denounce forced marriages or female genital mutilation, because, they say, it's tradition. It's nothing more than neocolonialism."
This battle came to a head during the furore surrounding France's controversial 2004 law banning headscarves in schools. Amara's position was clear: "The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women," and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France's public school system. So when some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of "tradition", Amara saw red. "It's not tradition, it's archaic! French feminists are totally contradictory. When Algerian women fought against wearing the headscarf in Algeria, French feminists supported them. But when it's some young girl in a [French] suburb school, they don't."
With all this fiery talk, Amara has her critics. NPNS has been accused of stigmatising young men in the ghettos, suggesting they're all just little thugs or gang-rapists. "That was true in 2003 and 2004," she admits. "But since then, with the help of the respect guide, more and more young men from the cités come to us." Despite its niche background, NPNS has, she says, evolved. "When we started, I talked about what I knew, the neighbourhoods. But during the first march, we had women from comfortable backgrounds telling us their stories of violence. I understood it was happening everywhere." NPNS now has committees in various European countries, as well as Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, "because we are fighting the rise of fundamentalism on all sides. And the first victims of fundamentalism are women. I don't care if it's Islamic fundamentalism or American evangelism. A fascist is a fascist."
Amara's book is now out in a paperback English version. There are plans for more marches, more shelters, more fighting. Will she ever get tired? For once, she pauses. "I don't think so." She's pessimistic, in some ways, when she sees the suburbs explode in riots, as they did last year, or when she talks to the unemployed young men hanging round the stairwells. It upsets her too that no politician has made a credible response to the riots, which to her were a symptom of rage at the state's abandonment of the suburbs.
But when she watches her young activists at work, when she sees young men and women mixing freely in the Maison de la Mixité, she's more hopeful. She'll carry on, says Amara, because "anyone blocking the emancipation of women has to be fought. I don't give a damn if they're Muslim, Catholic, whatever. For me, if they're fighting against women's liberation, they're fighting against me".
· Breaking the Silence: French Women's Voices from the Ghetto, by Fadela Amara, is published by the University of California Press. To order a copy for £10.95 with free UK p&p go to Guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.