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In France, Muslim girls 'double victims'

By Associated Press
Published November 18, 2005

SAINT-DENIS, France - Fifteen-year-old Rawa Khalil risks verbal abuse - or worse - every time she leaves her house wearing jeans. Jenah Benzanfour, 16, was thrown out of the family home at 11, became a drug dealer at 13, and was raped by a relative a year later.

If young men in France's poor housing projects - scenes of three weeks of nightly arson and unrest - have it rough, girls often have it worse. Not only do they suffer from racism, unemployment and deprivation: They also endure daily harassment and even violence in their own communities.

"Women are double victims, of social and sexual discrimination as well as violence," said Fadela Amara, founder of Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither a Whore nor a Submissive), a group fighting to improve the lot of Muslim women and girls in impoverished French neighborhoods.

The plight of girls and women in the high-rise housing projects indicates that while racial discrimination may keep immigrants and their offspring on the margins of French society, that may not be the whole picture.

Some people in France's mostly Muslim North and Sub-Saharan African immigrant communities have resisted accepting Western values and the French way of life - making it harder for them to thrive. Polygamous households, while uncommon, can also be a barrier to integration.

Often from conservative backgrounds, many parents find it hard to shake off taboos. They expect their French-born daughters to remain virgins until marriage and refuse to allow them to marry non-Muslims.

And girls are often forced into marriages they do not want, said Amara.

"There's an identity crisis here," said Sonia Imloul, who works with troubled teens in Seine-Saint-Denis, a district northeast of Paris where the rioting - now abated - erupted Oct. 27. "It is very tough when you are stuck midway between France and Algeria or Morocco."

Some activists say the influence of radical Islamic preachers is partly to blame for how men treat women.

An Algerian Muslim prayer leader, Abdelkader Bouziane, was convicted last year in the southeastern city of Lyon and handed a six-year suspended sentence for publicly justifying beating an adulterous wife. He was deported to Algeria in October 2004.

Physical violence - including gang rapes - has been widely reported against girls and young women of North African origin.

Amara notes a pattern of unemployed immigrant fathers losing authority to sons who bring in money by dealing drugs, stealing or who have adopted radical Islam. Girls in such families are often exposed to violence and exploitation or to religious repression, she said.

Some girls have taken to wearing Islamic head coverings as protection against violence. But then they face pressures from the French state, which has banned veils and other religious symbols from schools to uphold the country's secular principles - and to quell Islamic fundamentalism. Authorities argue that girls should be empowered to cast off veils that are sometimes forced on them by their parents.

But Imloul says parents are in denial, because most of the girls in the projects date, have sex and smoke marijuana.

Jenah Benzanfour was 11 when her mother threw her out of the house because she was getting into trouble at school and with police for stealing and threatening her teacher with a knife.

At 13, she started selling marijuana. At 14, she says, an uncle raped her. At 15, she was a prostitute.

POLYGAMY SUGGESTIONS CAUSE UPROAR: French streets were relatively peaceful overnight after three weeks of unrest, police said Thursday. But protest has erupted amid suggestions that polygamy played a role in the violence.

Human rights groups are reacting with outrage to comments by French officials who have said polygamy is one of the reasons youths from underprivileged Muslim households have been rioting.

France's League of Human Rights called the comments "sickening and irresponsible," while the anti-racist group MRAP said that such remarks would only feed the "racism and exclusion" that incited youths to riot.

Labor Minister Gerard Larcher was quoted in Wednesday's Financial Times as saying that youths from large polygamous families often had social behavioral problems, stemming from lack of a father figure. Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was quoted in the current issue of newsweekly L'Express as saying that polygamy is one of the cultural differences that "makes it more difficult to integrate a French youth of African origin with a French youth of another origin."

And Conservative lawmaker Bernard Accoyer told RTL radio that polygamy was "certainly one of the causes" of the problems of integrating Muslim families into French society.

Jean-Pierre Brard, a communist lawmaker from Seine-Saint-Denis, said he was aware of 150 polygamous families in his town. But to link polygamy to the rioting "is to treat people like imbeciles."

[Last modified November 18, 2005, 01:29:09]

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