Making Paris safer

  • Tithiya Sharma
  • |
  • Updated: Dec 12, 2010 00:34 IST

Around the world in 54 weeks
Destination 23: Paris

It all started with a nationwide march across 23 cities, in 2002 - in response to an epidemic of violent crimes against young Muslim women that were perpetrated by Muslim male gangs in the infamous Parisian suburbs called Cites (pronounced See-tay) - low-cost housing projects.

The bleak, Muslim-dominated suburbs sprung up in the 1950s and 60s around large cities in France. With an unemployment rate that's double the national average, and blatant discrimination, some young men in the ghettos, often of Muslim heritage, direct their aggression inward, assuming the role of the moral police and guardians of their families' honour.

They create an environment where young girls are afraid to leave their homes unescorted, dress as they would like to or even talk to male classmates at school. It might sound like a tale from some obscure town in the Middle East, or in North Africa...but this is the reality of young Muslim women in Paris!

The brutal rape and murder of Sohane Benziane, a 17-year-old girl by her ex-boyfriend and his friends, served as the final catalyst.  Five women and two men decided to fight this growing obscurantism and targeting of young Muslim girls. They marched all across France, calling the public's attention to the condition of young girls in poor neighbourhoods.

To bring this misogynistic trend to a grinding halt, a feminist movement called Ni Putes Ni Soumises emerged, started by women who had endured the same plight.
Sihem Habchi is one of those. Born to Algerian immigrant parents, she survived discrimination and victimisation as a young girl.

In 2007, she took over as president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. The group's name is provocative - and intentionally so. It literally translates to "Neither whores, nor submissives" and is aimed at those who confine women to either the roles of homemakers and dutiful daughters or label them as immoral and disgraceful for adopting even a modicum of social freedom.

She explains, "For this generation, the crucial issues are secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation, in order to create a feminist movement based upon living together in harmony."

Sihem travels the world drawing attention and showing solidarity with women being targeted by religious fundamentalists. She drew the continent's support to Nilofer Bakhtiar in Pakistan and Taslima Nasrin in Bangladesh when they were threatened with a fatwa.

When Somalia-born Dutch citizen Ayaan Hirsi Ali was condemned for her screenplay for the film Submission, and the director Theo Van Gough, was assassinated, Ni Putes Ni Soumises rallied support for the issue.

Earlier this year, a French playwright and actress, Rayhana was attacked in front of a theater, in Paris where she was performing a provocative play. She was ambushed, doused in fuel and her attackers tossed a lit cigarette on her head. Thankfully, Rayhana survived. NPNS came out in support of her en masse. The seasoned actress emerged even more resilient from this experience.

Everyday is an uphill battle for Sihem as she tackles allegations of being Islamophobic and racist, especially for supporting the 'Burqa ban' in France. Her organisation was banned in Morocco - even before they applied for registration. But she says she must "fight all those who exploit Islam to confine women."

Ni Putes Ni Soumises is a movement that's ushering in change. Their message is simple… Join in, or step out of their way.

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