Ni Putes Ni Soumises: Experiments in Online Activism

This was written by Lobna Hadji and originally appeared at OWNI.eu, Digital Journalism.

I wasn’t meant to die so young… My name is Sohane Benziane. I was born in France to Algerian parents. On October 4th, 2002 my life came to a sudden end when my ex-boyfriend NoNo set me on fire. I remember the screams, the insults…the gasoline. For a quick moment, I became a flambeau vivant- a living torch. My flame died two hours later at the hospital.

Fadela Amara is a human rights activist who founded Ni Putes Ni Soumises – “Neither Whores Nor Submissives” – a movement aimed at shattering the law of silence within the Muslim community concerning violence perpetrated against women by a minority of young men, who have assumed the role of morality police and guardians of their family’s honor.

NPNS was created in direct response to both forced marriages as well as the incessant gang-rapes of young Muslim girls by Muslim male gangs in the Parisian ghettos.

One event in particular prompted Amara to act: the murder of Sohane, a teenager who dared to live like a modern French teenager. In her book, Breaking the Silence, Amara describes Sohane’s murder as an inhuman and barbaric act. According to her, Sohane was “a victim of the kind of hypermasculine behavior which enforced Islamic codes of sexual behavior.” For Amara, fundamentalism’s message for young women in the French ghettos is “one of regression toward patriarchy, submission imposed sometimes by violence, and seclusion within their community.” Later, Samira Bellil, spoke out on her own experience. In a book entitled Dans l’Enfer des Tournantes, she condemned the raping of young Muslim women for “rebelling against Islamic dress codes and gender-based conduct imposed by their older brothers.”

Together, Samira and Amara organized their first march in spring of 2003 in twenty-three cities and suburbs throughout France. The event drew considerable media attention and support from political authorities.  However, the movement was also highly criticized by various Islamic, North African organizations.

The disapproval grew when the organization came out in support of the ban of Islamic headscarves – hijabs – in school and the burqa in public places.

Since its creation, NPNS has always relied on traditional media but in October 2010 the organization finally launched a website. However, the website is far from complete with many functions still disabled. More importantly, its main message is extremely politicized and speaks the language of the “War on Terror” by viciously using anti-Muslim rhetoric. This kind of bigotry is seen as more and more acceptable in France and has found resonance in mainstream media outlets, and even feminist NGOs.

The organization started to capitalize on new social media, such as Facebook and Twitter; yet, NPNS seems confused as to how to use the latter and is not effectively using it. The organization only has 200 followers and seems to be using Twitter only to attack parties that criticize the movement. For example, on November, 2010, one tweet read “@NawelCCIF before you tweet, buy yourself a conjugation manual, always more useful that giving low blows like in Montreuil or Drancy.” On the other hand, it has a very active Facebook page, which remains unfiltered, much to the detriment of the group’s professionalism. On its page, NPNS and its users convey stereotypes about Arab men and women and their relation to one another

NPNS has long been a supporter of the ban on the hijab in schools, as well as the burqua in public spaces, both of which recently became laws in France. Women are not allowed to wear the hijab in places like schools, and the burqa is illegal on the street. A woman might be subject to a fine of 150 Euros, and a man who forces his wife to wear the burqa is subject to a 30,000 fine and a one-year jail term.

The organization came out in support of government officials, such as President Nicolas Sarkozy, who claimed “the veil was not welcome in France and was a symbol of the “subservience of women” that was not in line with the French Republic’s core value of equality.”

After the ban, the organization opened a debate on its Facebook page and asked its users to give their opinion on the new laws. For the vast majority, the debate was male-dominated, while women were practically absent from the thread, and Muslim women were non-existent. One user, Laurent L., talked about “Zero tolerance” vis-à-vis Muslim women who did not respect the new law.  He added, “ We will not allow Islamist extremists to impose Sharia law in our French territory.”

One should ask: is NPNS 2.0 attempt really helping Muslim women who are victims of violence and discrimination in the French ghettos or is it simply spreading more anti-Muslim messages? As far as 2.0 goes, NPNS still has to clarify its mission and adopt a better online strategy. Indeed, the organization has to regain control of its own online space and redefine its population focus. Instead of empowering Muslim women living in French cities, it has become complicit in the perpetuation of gendered and racialized narratives of assimilation. Moreover, NPNS is in dire need of an online protocol that would discourage users from posting inappropriate comments on the organization’s Facebook page.  For instance, NPNS could hire an “approval team” to filter their online postings.

The movement’s main mistakes remain in the implicit amalgam between Islam and the gender discrimination experienced by women and the exclusion of the very French problem of geographical apartheid, economical inequalities, and social exclusion of the immigrant population. The organization persists in oversimplifying a multidimensional issue. Despite its catchy slogan – “Neither Whores, nor Submissives” – NPNS seems to believe that Muslim women fall in two categories only: either whores or submissives.

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