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.

  • Dina

    “Despite its catchy slogan – “Neither Whores, nor Submissives” – NPNS seems to believe that Muslim women fall in two categories only: either whores or submissives.”

    I have to read this saying of yours as you believing a self-determined woman (as self-determined to live her sexuality as she pleases, not as her family or community pleases) automatically is a whore. Or how else could you believe NPNS divides women into whores and submitted ones?
    Please clarify.

    If this is the case, obviously I strongly disagree with this judgment.

    As to the “minority of young men enforcing gender stereotypes”- as an “ex-parisienne” again I have to disagree.
    The vast majority of young Arab men, it seems, or at least a percentage so high and persistent a woman passerby gets the impression it is a vast majority, engage in “control by deterrence”. Meaning, of course only for the best of the community, not their own pleasure, they make sure uncovered/”indecent” women experience hell on earth on parisian streets through harassment of varying degrees.It is a daily reality, and many young women specifically say they had to start wearing hijab to be able to breathe on the streets. The harassment is psychologically devastating, and French women experience it too albeit less disastrously than Arabian descent women. It is not a racial stereotype but a very adverse and harmful community reality. Better to change it for the best of the community than to talk it down as a mere stereotype, its not.

    Regarding direct control of the sisters, I have no brothers to tell about, and my family’s comparatively liberal. But what I saw in maghrebine families in the maghrebine district i lived in control is omnipotent. I doubt only a small minority of men control their sisters, daughters, nieces. My impression was exactly the contrary.

    I hear the situation is similar in turkish areas in Germany, so it is not just an Arab problem. but it definitely is a predominant in Muslim Mediterranean communities. I have not experienced similar accounts and pressures on girls from Latino subcultures in Paris. quite possibly, non Muslim and Muslim Asian communities may be similar from what one hears about the UK. I just have no experience with them.
    My bottom line is: A serious and dominant problem at least in the Muslim Mediterranean cultures I experienced. Not to be relativized and downtalked as a stereotype and a small minority issue within the community. A defining issue, at least for France as I experienced it.

    Samira Bellil had hell on earth for speaking out about her own gang rape horrors within the communities, btw. the founders of NPNS get constant fire, too. Not to excuse some of their behavior I do not agree with, but it makes it somewhat understandable seeing how much fire they get and stress they are under.

  • Dina

    Samira Bellil died a few years after her revelations and activism through publication of stomach cancer. Anyone knows stomach ulcers develop – aside genetic reasons, where there is no hint for in her family history – as results of excruciating psychological trauma and stress. Very sad life story.

  • http://ndeyeandujar.wordpress.com/ ndeye

    Very interesting! You can read two articles about State Feminism in France (NPNS) in French and Spanish.

    http://lmsi.net/Ni-putes-ni-soumises-ou-la-parole

    http://www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=47147

  • Tec15

    This organization has never been anything more than the personal political vehicle of Fadela Amara, who has always been and still is a tool of the French establishment (Previously towards the Socialist Party, but now it appears she has hitched her wagon to Sarkozy).

    One telling fact is their silence regarding racism and bigotry against Muslim and non white people expressed by the French majority. In fact, the only bigotry that they ever appear to be concerned with is ‘Anti-Semtism’.

    The groups only function is to act as cover for the pet projects of the French rightwing, by claiming to be a “Muslim” group which supports headscarf and burqa bans and every other National Front pandering policy that Sarkozy and co come up with.

    In general, I tend to agree with all the criticism of this organization made by Houria Bouteldja and other French Muslim women.

  • Dina

    Tec15, while I may not agree with Ni putes ni soumises, nor Ms. Amara, on every statement or emphasis, I do not agree with the Muslim critique of the organization and Ms. Amara as a person, either. While she may be blind on one eye with regard to racism against non-whites and oppression by the French system and society of non-whites (or she may simply have her priorities otherwise), the same organizations are fully blind on the gender eye. Houria Bouteldja is every bit the self-promoter and biased person she accueses Amara to be; Amara may not be able or willing to criticize French racism, Bouteldja is absolutely unwilling to denounce the gender-specific violence and oppression in the community, the raging machismo violence and harassment problem.


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