Like most of us, I equivocate about our invasion of the Middle East. Some weeks I’m for it, some weeks I’m against it (depending on what I read in the news) but most of the time, I’m just not sure if we should try to impose American-style democracy on Muslim countries. But this week I’m definitely for securing a democratic stronghold in the Middle East, because I read “Daughters of France, Daughters of Allah” by Marie Brenner in April’s “Vanity Fair.” It made me realize that one of things we’re fighting for is no less than the future of women on this planet.
Brenner investigated the situation in France, where a new law has been passed forbidding girls to wear traditional Muslim headscarves in school. She sets out to answer this question: “How many women in the country actually live in repressive conditions without access to the full rights guaranteed by the republic?”
She says, “The rise of Islam in Europe is a remote subject for most Americans. There have been detailed reports on the growing number of attacks on Jews in France, but it is impossible to comprehend the new anti-Semitism without knowing something about France’s Muslim population.” Just outside of Paris is “a dim, desolate substratum of forlorn housing projects. Forty years ago, France built these fortresses to house the thousands of Muslim immigrants allowed into the country to sweep streets and work in factories. The city planners calculated on keeping this uneducated labor force at a safe distance from Paris itself. Later, as France’s economy sagged, the jobs disappeared and crime rates soared.”
The lack of Muslim assimilation can be seen in the way these families treat their daughters. The oppression of Muslim girls by their immigrant parents may seem like a problem that will gradually go away, as succeeding generations adopt Western culture. But Brenner says this isn’t happening, and the problem could spread throughout Europe and into other countries as well. The birth rate of Muslim immigrants is three times higher than that of the native population in most European countries. She asks, “Will France, and for that matter Europe, become Islamic, or will the Muslim population be Europeanized?”
Brenner writes, “When the girls wear the headscarf, it symbolizes that they accept all the conditions that Islam mandates?Girls who do not wear the scarf are seen as whores and potentials targets of violence. Gang rapes are common [in the Muslim housing projects].” She quotes activist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet as saying, “They become fair game for violence.” For these young woman, not wearing a headscarf can guarantee them an early death. One of the main ways of forcing Islamic women to follow ancient traditions is sending them back to the Middle East and forcing them to undergo an arranged marriage before they reach puberty. Once that happens, they have no chance to return to France and become modern Western women.
Brenner interviews a young Muslim girl named “Yildiz,” who is trying to break free from these traditions, and who agrees to meet with her in secret. She was only 10 when letters began arriving from Turkey with photos of prospective husbands for her sister, who was 13. “At night, she would hear her sister sobbing, and Yildiz understood that her destiny would be the same. Horror stories of what happened to girls who tried to fight their families circulated in the projects. Yildiz knew of girls who had been tricked by their parents into going on a vacation to Turkey or Algeria, only to find themselves being turned over to the families of their new husbands.”
There are organizations that try to help these girls, headed by the few Muslim women who have managed to break away from this repressive system. Gaye Petek runs one of them. Brenner writes, “In 1993, she heard on television about the murder of Nazmiye Ilikpinar, a 15-year-old Turkish girl [living in France].” She did not wear a headscarf and swam in the local pool. She was the daughter of a factory worker, who had chosen a Turkish boy for her future husband. Nazmiye resisted her parents’ wishes, because she was in love with a Moroccan boy. When her older brothers discovered the relationship, the parents’ reaction was violent. Nazmiye petitioned a social worker and a judge to place her in a children’s home for protection [but] she missed her Moroccan boyfriend and returned…Soon after that she was found dead in a ditch. ‘She had either been smothered or strangled,’ [the newspaper] Le Monde reported. A year later, one of Nazmiye’s brothers was sentenced to life imprisonment for her murder, and the parents and a cousin received 20 years.”
This is by no means the only time this has happened. Brenner says, “Paris did not really awaken to the plight [of these girls] until a young woman named Sohane Benziane was burned to death in October 2002.”
Brenner interviewed Muslim activist Nadia Amiri, who “worked as a nurse in a hospital, and female patients who were Muslim confided in her. Some of them were covered in welts from beatings. Some were in France illegally, so they were afraid to go to the authorities.” Amiri told her, “I would see the bruises, the evidence of what it is to live in fundamentalist Muslim families. They would talk to me about forced marriages. For some of these women, it was like Saudi Arabia in France.”
Hamida Bensadia was pursuing her college degree in France, when her parents tricked her into taking a vacation to Algeria in 1977, where she was forced into marriage. Brenner says, “For the next few years, she was kept a virtual prisoner in the house of her in-laws and was shunned by her husband’s family. After 13 years, she was finally able to return to France with her children.”
There are two trends that have surfaced here recently. One of them concerns women deciding that they are not really “feminists,” because they don’t agree with some of the more militant viewpoints in the movement. To that I reply: Do you agree with everything everyone has ever said who belongs to your religion or political party?
Another is the idea that we should respect all cultures and not destroy them by trying to modernize them. But fundamentalism in any religion is about the way a religious text is interpreted, and not everyone agrees with any one interpretation. While we may appreciate the richness that exploring other cultures can bring, we must draw a moral line at activities our own cultural has declared immoral. We cannot condone cannibalism, child sacrifice, or forced marriage.
For some people, our invasions of the Middle East were about getting rid of Saddam and the Taliban, for others, it’s about securing oil for the future of the U.S. For women, it’s about helping our sisters in the Middle East by showing them that there is an alternative.
Ladies: It’s time to stop equivocating and speak up for what we believe, unless we want see the condition of women set back hundreds of years, causing women in the future to have to start the fight for freedom all over again.
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