Concerns about voter support for the far right in France have taken center stage but should not deflect from the underlying problem of homegrown suburban terrorism. Following the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, attention was drawn to the lawless, low-income immigrant neighborhoods where the violent jihadist ideology of Islamic State took hold. Among many factors in this development, the long-standing violence against women is sadly relevant.
Prior to the arrival of Islamic State, these enclaves endured many years of violence against women, and it would seem logical to postulate there is a connection between growing up in such neighborhoods and accepting, even embracing, the brutality of Islamic State.
Seine-Saint-Denis is one of many high-density, public housing projects situated around Paris. Similar council estates can be found outside most major cities in France. Often known as impoverished banlieues or quartiers, they were built to provide suburban housing for immigrants from former French colonies. In these neighborhoods, young women have faced savage sexual attacks.
Fadela Amara, French feminist and politician, portrayed the realities in her book, Breaking the Silence: French Women's Voices from the Ghetto. Born in France to Muslim immigrants from Algeria, and brought up in a suburban housing project, Amara described neighborhoods segregated from mainstream French society, where many young Muslim men, unskilled and unemployed, were left to themselves. The worst of both cultures became entwined in the combination of Western style urban gangs, and Islamic tradition bent on idolizing boys and constraining girls. Women who contravened cultural norms by wearing Western dress or makeup were in danger of punishment by gang rape, known as tournante, or pass round.
A few examples illustrate the tragic problems in these dystopias. Samira Bellil of Algerian background grew up in Seine-Saint-Denis. She reported her ordeals of serial gang rapes that began in 1987 when she was fourteen, and her boyfriend handed her over to a number of his friends. They kept her all night, beating and raping her continually. Fearful of the dishonor she might bring to her family, she kept quiet, and the rapists felt free to abuse her at any time. Finally, she decided to press charges, a decision that brought about rejection and abandonment by family, friends and neighbors. Before eventually seeking help, she spent years in foster homes and on the street, addicted to drugs. Bellil wrote about her experiences in order to forge solidarity and help her "sisters in this hell. "
In another housing estate, seventeen-year-old Sohane Benziane was murdered by a gang leader, who doused her with gasoline and set her alight. The killer was cheered by other men when he was brought back to the murder scene by police. It was too much for Amara, who responded with a march for women's rights in cities throughout France, inspiring a new movement and the slogan Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats).
The culture of violence against women was exposed in 2012 at the trial of fourteen men accused of gang raping two teenage girls in a housing estate in Fontenay-sous-Bois outside Paris. It was generally acknowledged the case typified a much wider problem. Prolonged sex attacks occurred daily in many places such as car parks, apartments and cellars. A witness of an attack described fifty young men lining up to take part. The girls kept quiet for years until one of them was beaten unconscious.
It is conceivable that young men who took part in such violence might be desensitized to the violence inherent in the tenets of Islamic State, possibly facilitating a path from sexual to jihadi violence.
Moreover, the lenient penalties meted out to the defendants were inadequate deterrents. Those who were tried received light sentences, as they were minors. Ten were acquitted and the four found guilty were handed sentences ranging from three years' suspended sentence to one year in prison.
Many of the run-down housing estates are designated no-go zones. A research paper listed dozens where law enforcement officers will not enter for fear of attack. In August 2014, an article in French magazine Valeurs Actuelles (Contemporary Values) mentioned 750 lawless areas where police officers might be met with serious assault, including mortar fire.
Endemic violence against women was undoubtedly boosted by lawlessness in the banlieues and light sentences for attacks. The environment of sexual violence could have provided fertile soil for the violent creed of Islamic State, so that the militant group took root easily, and their ideology of armed jihad flourished.