x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Why women should wear short skirts

One of France's leading feminists explains why how she is battling harassment of women in the country's ghettos.

Sihem Habchi aims to force change in the perception of women, particularly in Muslim communities in France.
Sihem Habchi aims to force change in the perception of women, particularly in Muslim communities in France.

Sihem Habchi is on a mission: to get more women to wear skirts.

Showing off her own slender legs in a knee-skimming white pleated skirt teamed with a smart blue jacket, the pretty brunette declares: "I am asking all women to wear a skirt."

It seems a trivial cause for the woman on whose shoulders the hopes of hundreds of thousands are pinned: to lift the stigma of women in France's ghettos and put an end to the violent gang rapes that the establishment has long turned a blind eye to.

But Habchi, 36, is playing a long game: change the perception of women and you are halfway to beating the terrifying attacks they have been subjected to.

"The skirt is a weapon we can wear every day," she says. "I can be feminist and feminine, because femininity is my power. I think it is possible to be both.

"We are not encouraged to advertise our femininity because it means men look at us. That is an archaic tradition. Men want us to be sexual objects, not to be natural and accept our bodies. Women once wore trousers to be accepted as a man. Now we want to be respected like men but look like women."

It is a bold move away from the founding doctrine of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, the French feminist movement of which she has been president since 2007. The name means Neither Whores Nor Submissives, and like its title, its original members aimed to shock politicians and society into ending the subjugation of women, particularly within the immigrant Muslim population, in poverty-stricken enclaves where police rarely venture.

Aren't the National Skirt Day Habchi is proposing on November 25 and the comedy nights Ni Putes has hosted, sending up the treatment of women, a little frivolous?

"I am always searching for new methods to get people involved," she says, vigorously shaking a head of curls. "When you are growing up amid disaster, terrorist attacks and bombs, it makes you more powerful because if you laugh at it, you can put it at a distance."

We meet in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Dubai, where she is visiting friends and speaking to Arab women about their own battle for empowerment. Barely 5ft tall, she is attractive with huge doe eyes, long lashes and an earnestness that denotes a passion for her cause, plus a propensity to talk. A lot.

"I am a little hyperactive," she says apologetically.

She got the idea for her skirt campaign from the 2008 film La Journée de la Jupe (The Day of the Skirt), in which Isabelle Adjani plays a beleaguered teacher in a deprived neighbourhood who insists on wearing a skirt, flying in the face of a conservative government policy instigated because of aggressive and violent pupils.

The first Skirt Day last year drew the support of 150,000 women; this year Ni Putes is hoping for 900,000 women to sign up.

The film struck a chord because it echoed a reality that is rarely talked about.

On the fringes of French cities, the banlieues, or outlying suburbs, largely populated by immigrants and poor white people, are notorious for violence against young women. The attacks are not even known as gang rapes; they are called tournantes, or pass-arounds, because the girl is passed around like a cigarette.

Many victims are too terrified to report the attacks because of the fear of reprisals. In Muslim communities, the shame of admitting to a sexual assault means many women stay silent.

Samira Bellil, an Algerian immigrant and one of the founding members of Ni Putes, knew only too well the danger lurking for young women in these ghettos. She was gang-raped and beaten at the age of 14 in a night-long ordeal.

A month later, as other passengers looked away, the most violent of her attackers dragged her off a train by her hair and subjected her to another assault.

Bellil did not report her rapes until she learnt that two of her friends had been attacked by the same man. She prosecuted and her attacker was jailed for eight years.

Her family and her neighbourhood rejected her in shame but she wrote a book about her experiences (see sidebar on next page).

Habchi joined Ni Putes two months before the 2003 protest marches that saw Ni Putes rise to prominence. And when, on Bastille Day in July that year, her portrait was hung outside the National Assembly, together with pictures of 13 other women dressed as a modern-day Marianne, the symbol of French liberty, she resolved to devote her life to the cause.

"That was the moment I understood the meaning of the fight," she says. "I had this feeling of something bigger than me. It was incredible. We never expected so many women but we succeeded in something very new."

Her understanding of poor migrant communities comes from her own background. The eldest of six siblings, she was born in Constantine, Algeria. Her father, Talhi, now 77, worked as a labourer and came from a poverty-stricken village with no electricity or running water. He married her mother, Ziloukha, now 61, in 1970, and when Habchi was 3 years old the family moved to the outskirts of Paris, where there was a burgeoning Algerian community.

Despite his own upbringing and the hardship they faced, Habchi's father had high aspirations for his children and refused to move to the ghettos, despite offers of a bigger home on benefits from the authorities.

"He refused to move from the 14th district. Every time they offered a bigger place, it was in the ghetto but he wanted to be close to Paris because of the access to schools," she says. "Segregation does not bring you the same education. My father was not educated and my mother was illiterate but the only thing they demanded was for us to study."

As the eldest, she was expected to fulfil familial obligations, and dutifully wrote cheques and filled in business documents for her father. At 10, she became resentful and asked why she had to. "He said: 'Your education is your independence.' At the time, I did not understand but that is what structured me."

Although she came from a different cultural background from her white public school classmates, she was always secure in her Arab identity.

"I did not speak French initially, only Arabic, but I thought they were the foreigners," she says.

She had a crude introduction on the school playground to the nature of tournantes, little knowing then that it would be her life's mission to challenge such abuse.

"We called them 'girls of the cave' [cellar] because that was where the attacks happened," she says softly. "It was so present around you that it became normal. I realised when I was 16. Girls would point and say: 'She's a whore.' Sometimes now I feel I am also treated as a whore. You are a whore if you are not submissive to all the rules you are supposed to respect."

As a teenager, Habchi planned to train as a doctor to work in the rural regions, but after a "period of asking existential questions" she went to the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris to study multimedia. On graduating, she taught French to immigrant women and tourists and got a job as a website designer.

Her curiosity was piqued when she read about Ni Putes and wandered into the organisation's office early in 2003.

"I heard something was happening and that women like me were organising themselves," she says. "I just went in and said I wanted to volunteer. They had no website or email system so my job was to structure the organisation."

Then came her epiphany, as she stood before a giant poster of herself, dressed as France's emblematic figure of triumph, and decided to fight the conspiracy of silence.

"The magnitude hit me the next day with the testimony of women who were suffering," she says. "Victims started calling us and we were not prepared for that. Until then, people did not want to talk about the problem. What happened in the family stayed in the family. We had to make a decision to be either a militant movement or a place where women could be supported. We decided to do both. We realised we had created hope in society."

Their mission was to "end violence against women and to help women's rights, and support women across the world".

Habchi became vice-president in September 2003 and led more than 100 public debates the following year. She began touring Europe to spread the message and took part in numerous international conferences. In 2006, she had an audience with the then-president, Jacques Chirac. A year later, Ni Putes won recognition from the United Nations, and Habchi was elected president after its founding leader, Fadela Amara, became a junior government minister.

Habchi spends her time meeting top-level politicians - when Nicolas Sarkozy was made president, she wrote to him demanding he commit to their cause - and touring schools with the Ni Putes publication A Guide to Respect.

The most dismaying discovery was that, rather than stemming from gang warfare, the violence was coming from young men victimising classmates.

"They target you at school and make a trap," she says. "The latest gang rape took place at school. A lot of organisations are silent about this issue."

Sex education is still taboo in the conservative education system and, she says, teenage boys do not understand women cannot be treated as sex objects.

"It makes me a little sad to talk to them," Habchi says. "We go to schools to talk about relations between men and women and when we discover someone has been killed, we organise a demo inside the ghetto."

She is battling a disillusionment with politics in the enclaves with up to 80 per cent failing to vote. It is a Catch-22 situation: without voting, they lose their voice and the violence continues.

Recently she worked with the government on the ban on niqabs. It earned her death threats and criticism from feminist writers such as Sylvie Tissot, who accused her of fuelling Islamophobia peddled by the far right.

Habchi is defiant: "It is nothing compared to the price women are paying in my country right now. I cannot accept that any more. I feel very strongly because I never imagined in my country I would have to fight the burqa. I am not living in a poor area of Afghanistan or Pakistan, this is France."

A French citizen for the past decade, she was furious when the right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen accused her of not being French.

"I am the best ambassador for French values and defend them better than Le Pen or the government," she says. "Who else would risk their life for their country?"

She has not ruled out following Amara and the likes of the European Parliament member Rachida Dati into a career in politics, saying only that she "wants to be a part of the debate". There is still much for Ni Putes to achieve first.

"Activism is one solution but there are others," she says. "I really want to see us changing the situation for women where the movement began. My life has always been about finding a way to fight injustice, but there is still a lot to do."


The death that inspired a cause

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS) owes much of its growth to the short life of Sohane Benziane, a teenager whose parents had emigrated to France from Algeria dreaming of a better future.

Sohane, 17, was not the victim of an honour killing. There was no religious motivation on which France's anti-Islam far right might later seize.

In the Parisian suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, seven kilometres from the grand boulevards and chic boutiques, a former boyfriend wanted her back. He brandished a bottle of petrol and flicked his lighter as they argued beside rubbish containers serving a high-rise estate. Engulfed in flames, Sohane died an agonising death.

This was one of two events which, in 2002, gave impetus to the anger felt by a group of feminists who happened to come predominantly from Maghrebin immigrant backgrounds.

The other was a book, To Hell and Back, by Samira Bellil, pictured. Born in Algiers but brought up in Belgium and France, she recounted her experiences as a the victim of repeated gang rapes in another Parisian suburb.

Here were extreme examples of the threat of violence the NPNS founders saw as part of the daily lives of girls and young women living in these banlieues, populated mainly by Muslim families in a reflection of France's colonial past.

Bellil is dead, too, killed by stomach cancer at 31. But the legacy of her suffering, and that of Sohane, lives on in NPNS. The movement took shape the following year. Ten young women and two men, all familiar with life in the volatile banlieues, set off on a march from Sohane's suburb, Vitry, on February 1, 2003 and passed through 21 towns and cities.

Despite the low-key start, the protest opened eyes; the climax five weeks later drew 30,000 people to the streets of the capital. The group went on to be received by the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and to have some general aims accepted by government.

The march organiser, Fadéla Amara, also of Algerian origin, became NPNS president. Her heart was on the left but she later became the minister for urban policies in the centre-right government of François Fillon, leaving last year to become inspector general for social affairs.

The movement's rise has attracted criticism from sources including feminists and socialists who might have been expected to sympathise. One complaint is that NPNS has become a tool of the Islamophobia of the right, from conservative voices in Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling centre-right Union for a Popular Movement to the shrill tones of Marine Le Pen's Front National.

Although the French left - in common with NPNS - broadly supported the ban on Muslim girls wearing headscarves at school, that NPNS position also dismayed some.

The demographics of the banlieue, typically populated by Muslim families, dictate that any campaign championing the rights of young female residents can be portrayed as anti-Islamic. Yet the movement insists that it represents women of all faiths and none, and of all ethnic backgrounds. NPNS does not publish membership figures. In 2006, it was estimated unofficially to have 6,000 members, but this may have included supporters outside France, where an official report put numbers rather lower.

Concrete achievements are hard to assess: Jacques Chirac's government paid for women's refuges, and a guide offered sex education. That suggests modest advances. But almost anything would be an improvement on how it was when the movement was created: at the insistence of the Vitry town hall, Sohane Benziane's commemorative plaque makes no mention of how she died. And when police took her killer back to the estate for a reconstruction, a mob applauded him.