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FRANCE: Muslim students’ robes are latest fault line for French identity

Muslim students’ robes are latest fault line for French identity

When the French education minister declared that the abayas favored by some Muslim women “can no longer be worn in schools,” he stoked a fierce debate over the country’s secular ideals.


By Roger Cohen

New York Times (15.09.2023) – The mass French return to work, known as the “rentrée,” is often marked by renewed social conflict. This year has been no exception as the summer lull has given way to yet another battle over a recurrent national obsession: How Muslim women should dress.

Late last month, with France still in vacation mode, Gabriel Attal, 34, the newly appointed education minister and a favorite of President Emmanuel Macron, declared that “the abaya can no longer be worn in schools.”

His abrupt order, which applies to public middle and high schools, banished the loosefitting full-length robe worn by some Muslim students and ignited another storm over French identity.

The government believes the role of education is to dissolve ethnic or religious identity in a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship and so, as Mr. Attal put it, “you should not be able to distinguish or identify the students’ religion by looking at them.”

Since then, organizations representing the country’s large Muslim minority of about five million people have protested; some girls have taken to wearing kimonos or other long garments to school to illustrate their view that the ban is arbitrary; and a fierce debate has erupted over whether Mr. Attal’s August surprise, just before students went back to their classrooms, was a vote-seeking provocation or a necessary defense of the secularism that is France’s ideological foundation.

“Attal wanted to look tough, and draw the political benefits, but this was cheap courage,” said Nicolas Cadène, the co-founder of an organization that monitors laïcité in France, which is broadly the idea of a nondiscriminatory society where the state upholds strict religious neutrality. “Real courage would be to tackle the lack of social mingling in our schools, leading to segregated development and separate ethnic and religious identification.”

France banned “ostentatious” religious symbols in middle and high schools almost two decades ago. This, like the Second Amendment in the United States, left much room for interpretation.

The issue has been whether the 2004 law took aim equally at Muslim head scarves, Catholic crosses and Jewish kipas, for example, or was in effect a means to target an Islam viewed as increasingly threatening. The abaya, a garment that generally reflects Muslim religious affiliation but may merely amount to the choice of modest attire, had inhabited a gray area until Mr. Attal’s pronouncement.

In practice, “ostentatious,” as interpreted by school officials, has tended to mean Muslim. France’s concern over the fracturing of its secular model, fueled by a series of devastating attacks by Islamist terrorists, has focused on the perceived danger that Muslims will shun purportedly universal “Frenchness” in favor of their religious identity, and fanaticism in its name.

The niqab, the veil, the burkini, the abaya and even the head scarves worn by Muslim women accompanying children on school trips have all been pored over in France to a degree unusual in Europe — and much more so in the United States, which posits freedom of religion in contrast to French freedom from religion.

More on France

No French president would ever suggest that God bless France. The country’s lay model supplants any deity. A 2021 survey from IFOP, a leading French polling group, found that half of French people identify as atheists, a far greater proportion than in the United States.

Over recent years, laïcité, set out in a 1905 law that removed the Roman Catholic Church from public life, has hardened from a broadly accepted and little debated model that permitted freedom of conscience into a rigid and contested dogma. It has been passionately embraced on the right, and supported by a wide spectrum of society, as the French defense against everything from Islamist fundamentalism to American multiculturalism.

“This should have been done in 2004, and would have been if we did not have gutless leaders,” Marine Le Pen, the far-right, anti-immigration leader, said of Mr. Attal’s announcement. “As General MacArthur observed, lost battles can be summed up in two words: too late.”

The question is: too late for what? To ban the abaya from schools, as Mr. Attal now demands? Or to stop the spread of inferior, understaffed schools in ghettoized, drug-plagued neighborhoods on the outskirts of big cities, where the opportunities for children of Muslim immigrants are diminished and the possibility of radicalization increased?

Here is where France splits — not down the middle, because Mr. Attal’s ban has an approval level of over 80 percent, according to polls, but in critical ways for the country’s future sense of itself.

Where some still see laïcité as the core of a supposedly colorblind nation of equal opportunity, others see a form of hypocrisy that masks how far from unprejudiced France has become, as illustrated by those troubled suburbs with large Muslim populations.

Hence the explosiveness just beneath the surface of French life.

Fury still lingers over the beheading by an Islamist extremist of Samuel Paty, a teacher who in 2020 showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class to illustrate how free speech works in a secular France.

At the same time, the nights of violent rioting in June this year that followed a police officer’s shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, demonstrated the pent-up rage stirred by the feeling that to be Muslim in France is to be at greater risk.

“The French government that invokes the laws of 1905 and 2004 to ‘protect the values of the Republic’ from an adolescent dress reveals its great weakness and lack of initiative in creating a peaceful form of living together that would ignore differences,” Agnès de Féo, a sociologist, wrote in the daily Le Monde.

To which Éric Ciotti, a leader of the Republicans, a center-right party, retorted that “communautarisme” — or identification first and foremost with a religious or ethnic identity — is “a leprosy that threatens the Republic.” Mr. Attal, he said in a statement, had given the appropriate response.

The views of the Republicans are important to Mr. Macron because his Renaissance party and its centrist allies do not have an absolute majority in Parliament, and their likeliest ally in passing legislation is probably Mr. Ciotti’s party.

In this sense, Mr. Attal’s decision has a clear political dimension. Mr. Macron governs from the center but leans right.

Mr. Attal took over one of the most sensitive of French ministries in July, after his predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, the first Black education minister, was effectively hounded from office by a torrent of rightist abuse, with thinly veiled racism appearing to lace much of the vitriol against him.

He was targeted for his supposed importation into France of America’s “doctrine of diversity” and his “reduction of everything to skin color,” as Valeurs Actuelles magazine, an extreme-right publication, put it this spring.


In June, just before he was ousted, Mr. Ndiaye rejected a sweeping ban on abayas of the kind adopted by Mr. Attal and upheld by a top French court last week. He said, “We are not going to edit a catalog of hundreds of pages with dresses of different colors and forms of sleeves.”


Rather, Mr. Ndiaye said, decisions about abayas should be left to the discretion of school principals.


Outside a high school in the northern Paris commune of Stains, Sheik Sidibe, a 21-year-old Black teaching assistant, said he had until recently worked at a school where the principal “showed a lack of respect” to Muslim students, “putting in place checkpoints where she arbitrarily decided which students could enter and which not” and criticizing Muslim women who chose to wear head scarves in the street.


“We should focus on real problems, like lousy teachers’ salaries,” said Mr. Sidibe, who is Muslim. “We have students living in states of extreme precariousness and we marginalize them even more. Our mission should not be to police clothes.”


The political ramifications of Mr. Attal’s measure remain to be seen. What appears clear already is that in a restive French society, it has been more polarizing than unifying, the declared aim of laïcité.

“Laïcité must be a form of liberty, the equality of everyone whatever their convictions,” Mr. Cadène said. “It must not turn into a weapon to silence or block people. That is not how you make it attractive.”


Photo credits: Denis Charlet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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AFGHANISTAN unmoved by UN call to lift bans on Afghan women & girls

Taliban unmoved by UN call to lift bans on Afghan women & girls

By Ayaz Gul

VOA (22.06.2023) — Afghanistan’s Taliban rejected a fresh call Thursday from the United Nations to remove what it says are “punishing restrictions” on the impoverished country’s female population.

The rebuke comes a day after a meeting of the U.N. Security Council was told the restrictions block Afghan women and girls from accessing education and work and participating in public life at large.

Since regaining control of Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban has banned girls from universities and teenage girls from attending schools beyond the sixth grade. They have also ordered most public sector female employees to stay at home. Women have also been barred from visiting parks and gyms.

Responding to the criticism from the U.N., the Taliban-led foreign ministry in Kabul called the remarks an interference in the country’s internal affairs.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan remains committed to international norms and obligations that do not contradict the principles of Islamic law, contravene Afghanistan’s cultural norms or undermine our national interests,” the statement said, using the official name of the Taliban government.

“We, therefore, urge all actors to respect the peremptory norm of non-interference and cease all attempts at meddling in our internal affairs, including the modalities and composition of our governance and laws.”

The Taliban is not recognized by any foreign government or international organization and their curbs on women and girls are seen as a major obstacle in its efforts to be regarded as Afghanistan’s legitimate government.

While briefing the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday, Roza Otunbayeva, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, slammed Taliban edicts banning her organization and other agencies from employing local women.

She urged the Taliban to “rescind” the ban to enable the United Nations to continue its full support to millions of Afghan families in need of urgent assistance.

Otunbayeva also rejected Taliban suggestions to replace female national staff with male Afghans. Since the ban went into effect on April 5, the U.N. has instructed its female staff to work from home and for non-essential male staffers to also work remotely.

“We have been given no explanations by the de facto authorities for this ban and no assurances that it will be lifted. We will not put our national female staff in danger and therefore we are asking them not to report to the office,” she said.

The U.N. envoy said she had told the Taliban that as long as restrictions on Afghan women “are in place, it is nearly impossible that their government will be recognized by members of the international community.”

In a meeting earlier this month, Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada directed government spokespersons to emphasize the enforcement of Islamic law in their statements.

“The United Nations and the United States have held the entire world hostage and nothing moves without their dictation,” he told the meeting in the southern city of Kandahar, which is known as the birthplace of the Taliban.

“The Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] effectively controls all parts of Afghanistan, but non-Muslim and even Islamic countries refuse to recognize it,” the reclusive Taliban leader, who rarely leaves Kandahar, was quoted as saying.

The Taliban welcomed parts of Otunbayeva’s speech on Wednesday, where she acknowledged that the group’s ban on opium cultivation in Afghanistan had been “effectively enforced,” and decreased the cultivation “significantly.”

New satellite images examined by geospatial analytics firm Alcis and longtime Afghanistan expert David Mansfield revealed this month that the scale of the reduction in opium production across the country is unprecedented, with cultivation in southern provinces down by at least 80% compared with last year when the Taliban banned the growing of poppies for opium.

The U.N. envoy also praised the Taliban’s efforts to improve the Afghan economy, reduce corruption and generate “sufficient” revenues to finance government operations, including paying civil-service salaries.

Photo credits: Afghan women attend the inauguration of women’s library in Kabul, August 24, 2022.

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AFGHANISTAN: Taliban ‘ban’ contraceptives for women-‘haram’ in sharia

Taliban ‘ban’ contraceptives for women-‘haram’ in sharia

Women in Afghanistan have said that midwives have refused to provide contraceptives where they previously would have

By Umang Sharma 


First Post (10.02.2023) – The Taliban have allegedly stopped selling contraceptives to women, claiming that it is “haram” or forbidden under Sharia law. Drug stores and pharmacies across Afghanistan have allegedly been directed not to stock any pills, ampoules, or medicines used as contraceptive.



Reacting to the move, though there has been no official announcement to this effect, Former Policy Advisor to Minister for Afghan Resettlement & Minister for Refugees, Shabnam Nasimi tweeted: “Access to contraception is a universal human right. This is outrageous.”

Contraceptive prices skyrocket

According to Afghanistan-based online news agency Rukhshana Media, selling contraceptives to women has been quietly stopped in Kabul and Balkh provinces.

The unofficial ban has doubled the price of contraceptives. There is, however, no regulation on drugs as the report said they are secretly sold on the grey market as the imports go unchecked by the Taliban.

‘Don’t know whether to laugh or cry’

Women in Afghanistan have said that midwives have refused to provide contraceptives where they previously would have.

The report quoted a 35-year-old Kabul resident and mother of three, whose youngest child is a year old, saying to prevent another pregnancy, she would visit a midwife every two months for contraception injections.

“The midwife I always visit said the Taliban has told them not to inject contraceptives because it is haram,” she said.

“When she said that it was haram, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” the woman added saying that when she to buy tablets instead from outside, she was charged double the amount.

‘Decision violates women’s rights’

Afghan women say that the decision to ban contraceptives violates the right of women to make a personal choice and the right of families to make decision about having children.

“They (Taliban) have even taken away the peace inside our house,” a woman said.

The report quoted another 42-year-old woman and a mother of four saying that she has been using birth control pills for past five years. Since the last three weeks, she has been running pillar to post for contraceptives.

“Contraceptive tablets were not found in many pharmacies in Kabul. The pharmacists told me that it is forbidden, so the price has gone up and it is sold secretly,” she said.

“They (pharmacies) said they don’t have it and it is forbidden,” he added.

‘Kabul bans import of contraceptives’

Reports quoted drug wholesalers in Kabul city confirming that the Taliban has stopped importing these drugs and other related equipment which in turn has pushed the price higher on the black market.

The Rukhshana Media report quoted a drug dealer saying that the Taliban banned all types of contraceptives 20 days ago.

“Currently, any type of drug that women use for contraception are prohibited. Although they did not tell us a specific reason, but the [the Taliban] said it is not permissible and it is forbidden,” the dealer said.

“About fifteen days ago, four Taliban forces came dressed in white clothes and told us that we no longer have the right to sell these drugs,” he said, adding that they also confiscated some of the medicines that were there in his shop.

Midwives in Afghanistan challenge ban

The ban has been challenged many midwives with one in Mazar-e-Sharif saying that the Taliban visited their clinic three weeks ago to tell them to stop providing contraception.

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IRAN: One girl dead, 400 schoolgirls poisoned, amidst attacks on schools

One girl dead, 400 schoolgirls poisoned, amidst attacks on schools

On UN Women’s Right Day, Human Rights Without Frontiers urges the UN to send an investigation mission.

Unfettered acts of terror against school girls raise questions of government complicity



School girls enthusiastically participated in major anti-state protests


Center for Human Rights in Iran (08.03.2023) – Five months into Iran’s “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, in which girls and women were among hundreds killed at nationwide, anti-state protests, at least one girl has died amid hundreds of schoolchildren being deliberately poisoned in major cities including Tehran, Qom, Sari, Ardabil, Boroujerd, Torbat Jam, and Qoochan.


“The deliberate poisoning of school girls in Iran is exposing the fanatical, lawless and violent mentality that is resurfacing under this unaccountable government and trying to force the entire country, especially women, backward,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).


“This is an act of terrorism, and the Islamic Republic’s failure to take it seriously for months raises serious questions regarding government complicity with groups that have the organizational capacity to carry out such major attacks,” Ghaemi said.


“School girls enthusiastically joined the anti-state protests in Iran,” he added. “Like the Iranian government, the people who are carrying out these attacks are petrified of these girls’ potential and power.”


The inhalational poisonings, which can be traced as far back as November 2022 (two months after major, women-led, anti-state protests erupted around the country), are thought to be the work of extremist religious groups that oppose the education for girls. These groups have found increasingly fertile ground under the Islamic Republic’s hardline government.


The poisonings have resulted in many children being hospitalized with symptoms of fatigue, burning throats, nausea, headaches, and numbness in the body. Some victims have described fumes and strange smells, including odors of tangerines and cleaning agents.


At least one schoolgirl has died amid the attacks, though the girl’s father, who works for a powerful cleric, and state officials, have refused to confirm the connection.


“Now more than ever, governments worldwide must act to demonstrate their complete rejection of this violent repression and ramp up collective actions against the Iranian government’s anti-women policies,” Ghaemi said.


Iranian Authorities Suppress Information About the Attacks


Iranian authorities have been trying to suppress information about 11-year-old Fatemeh Rezaie, who died of gas poisoning at a school in Qom, tweeted journalist and children’s rights activist Hedie Kimiaee on February 27, 2023.


“Even though this student had no prior illness, the authorities are trying to write a false medical report saying she had a long history of illness,” Kimiaee wrote. “Qom’s prosecutor has also warned the family not to talk to the media [and told them to] bury Fatemeh without notice.”


That day, Iran’s state television, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB)—which has a documented history of aiding intelligence agencies in trying to force victims of state violence to make false and forced statements on video—aired a recorded session with Fatemeh’s father, Abolqassem Rezaie.


In a brief statement, he claimed his daughter was not at her school on the day the poisonings occurred. Rezaie added that Fatemeh suffered from pain in her legs and stomach, had bouts of vomiting and fever and died of “severe blood infection.”


Razaie’s father is the driver for a well-known cleric, Majid Talkhabi, who’s a member of the powerful Asse that Fatemeh’s family would link her death to something other than gas poisoning.”


His brother, Ali Rezaie, is meanwhile a junior cleric studying in a seminary school. “They have probably come under pressure from the security agencies,” added the source, alluding to the fact that staff who work for Iranian officials are expected to toe the state line or face severe consequences.


Officials Admit Poisonings Were Deliberate After Hundreds of School Children Fall Ill


On February 24, reformist politician Jamileh Kadivar estimated that at least 400 girls have been hospitalized as a result of the attacks thus far.


Two days later, Deputy Health Minister Younes Panahi said at a press briefing in the city of Mashhad that the poisonings were a deliberate attempt “by individuals who would like all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed.”


“After several poisonings of students in Qom schools, it was found that some people wanted all schools, especially girls’ schools, to be closed,” the state Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) quoted Panahi saying.


Previously, Iranian officials had denied knowledge of the attacks being premediated or deliberately intended to block access to education in the country.


Iran’s education minister Yousef Noori initially dismissed the reports as “rumors.”


The Islamic Republic has a documented history of denying knowledge of human rights violations, and when forced to admit to them, of painting the attacks as being perpetuated by forces outside its sphere of influence.


Schoolgirls Filmed Themselves Without Forced-Hijab, Chanting Anti-State Slogans


Iranian women and schoolgirls have been at the forefront of the current protests in Iran.


Girls in many schools across the country rebelled against the state-mandated hijab for all women by filming themselves chanting anti-state slogans and posting the videos on social media. Schoolboys have also filmed themselves supporting the anti-state protests.


In one instance, chanting schoolgirls refusing to wear the hijab heckled a member of the paramilitary Basij force as he was giving a speech on the campus.


“The poisoning of students at girls’ schools, which has been confirmed as deliberate acts, was neither arbitrary nor accidental,” tweeted Mohammad Habibi, spokesman for the Iranian Teachers Trade Association on February 26. “To erase the gains on freedom of clothing, [the authorities] need to increase public fear.”


Serial Attacks Result in Hospitalization of Children and School Staff


The first reported poisoning of school girls in Iran occurred on November 30, 2022, at the Nour Yazdanshahr training school for girls in the city of Qom, which is considered holy according to Shi’a Islam, and which is 92 miles south of Tehran.


That day, several students and staff were hospitalized though the exact number was not reported.


The same school was hit with another inhalational attack on December 13, which sickened 51 students and staff and prompted more than 30 families to sue education officials in Qom to demand an investigation.


Following yet another gas poisoning incident that sent at least 117 school girls to the hospital in Qom on February 14, angry parents gathered at the governor’s office to demand answers. However, the education minister dismissed the parents’ concerns and accused them of being influenced by “rumors.”


IRGC Elite Military Forces Sent into Hospitals, Staff Physically Attacked


The Iranian government has responded to the serial attacks by sending elite military forces into the hospitals where victims are being treated. In at least one case, doctors and nurses were physically attacked by unidentified assailants that tried to impersonate the victim’s families.


A staff member of the Medical Sciences University in Khorramabad, the capital of Iran’s Lorestan province, spoke to CHRI about schoolgirls who had been poisoned in the city of Boroujerd, and who had been transferred to Khorramabad’s university hospital for treatment, where the facilities were better equipped.


“The [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] have been stationed at the university hospital and they are taking the blood tests to be analyzed by their own specialists,” said the staff member who requested anonymity for fear of being penalized for speaking about the state security presence in the hospital.


“Also, on February 23, a group carrying knives attacked the Shahid Rahimi Clinic in Khorramabad and injured several doctors and nurses,” added the source. “At first they claimed to be relatives of poisoned students but then it became clear they were not related to any of the staff or patients.”


In his February 26 press briefing, Younes Panahi, the deputy health minister in charge of research and technology, said official investigations had concluded that the students had been overcome by “accessible chemicals” and not by any poison gas used in warfare.


Some activists on social media have speculated that the attacks are being carried out by an extremist religious group known as Fadaian Velayat, or “devotees of the Islamic state.”


Flyers distributed by the group have declared the education of girls to be forbidden according to their reading of Islam, and the group has threatened to spread their attacks to girls’ schools throughout the country.


Also speculating about the case, Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi, a religious scholar, told the Shargh newspaper on February 27 that clues from the attacks pointed to a radical Shia religious group as Hezarehgara, which has many followers in Qom and Boroujerd who advocate against education for girls and women.


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WORLD: Analysis of feminists’ prejudice against religious minority women

Analysis of feminists’ prejudice against religious minority women

By Mariz Tadros


IPS UN Bureau (17.02.2023) – Since researching the experiences of gender discrimination against women in poverty who belong to religious minorities, many fellow feminists have turned their back on me.


The inherent assumption among some of my feminist critics is that by defending women who are targeted on account of their religious affiliation, I am defending their religions. Yet defending the rights of a Hindu woman in Pakistan or Muslim woman in India do not constitute defending Hinduism or Islam.

Defending a woman’s right not to be discriminated against because of her identity and challenging religious bigotry both go hand in hand. We need to challenge all political projects that seek to homogenize people while simultaneously defending women, minorities, artists and others whose positioning accentuates their experiences of inequality.


Feminist reluctance to address injustices experienced by women who belong to religious minorities is also driven by concern that we end up empowering religious movements whose ethos is against women’s equality.


Again, we need to distinguish between women who are the targets of hate because they do not share the same faith as the majority, and anti-feminist movements who often are from the majority. We need to show solidarity with the former while challenging the latter.

Well-meaning progressive, feminists based in the West are reluctant to openly advocate for the rights of religious minority women living in Muslim majority contexts because of legitimate concerns that this would feed into orientalist (racist) representations of radical militant Islamist groups or by intolerant sections of society.


Yet can we be inadvertently reproduce a colonialist mindset when we decide to omit the experiences of minority women out of fear of misappropriation in the west?

Why should women who have experienced genocide be denied transnational feminist solidarities because it would be more progressive to focus on the Muslims who were against the genocide.

Research undertaken by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development, shows that in countries including Iraq, Pakistan and Nigeria, experiences for women are made worse where their experiences of gender inequality, religious marginality and socio-economic exclusion intersect.


For example, women belonging to religious minorities become easy targets of vilification and assault because of the visible manifestation of difference through what they wear. Yazidi, Sabean or Christian women are exposed to harassment in disproportionate levels in Iraq because they do not cover their hair while in Pakistan, Hindu women dressed in Sari are subject to ridicule and targeting because their middle bodies are said to be ‘exposed’.


Even if you belong to the majority religion, and you cover up more than the others, this still means exposure to harassment for being seen to practice the religion differently, as experienced by Ahmediyya women in Pakistan and the Izala Sufi women in Nigeria.


Women from religious minorities can also be at significant risk of sexual assault. While all women in patriarchal societies are exposed to sexual harassment independently of their religious affiliation, women affiliated to religiously marginalized communities are targeted because of the circulation of stereotypes that they are more available or ‘fair game’ or that men are not obligated to respect them the same respect as those from the majority religion.

While all women living in poverty suffer the impact of gender, caste and socio-economic exclusion combined, the experiences of discrimination become more acute and severe when shaped by ideological prejudice.

In our research in the aftermath of covid, Muslim women spoke about being denied health care because of the scapegoating of Muslims for the spread of the pandemic, while in Iraq Yazidi women spoke of how despicable stereotypes of Yazidi women not washing meant doctors denied them treatment.


The feminist movement cannot continue to represent itself as committed to inclusivity through intersectionality (the recognition of and redress to- interface of gender, race, class, ableism and so forth in shaping and influencing power dynamics) while turning its back on women who come from a religious minority background where their rights are denied.

A review by doctoral researcher Amy Quinn-Graham of UN Women’s website and publications related to intersectionality and/or ‘minorities’ from 2014 – 2019, showed that compared to indigenous women, migrant women, women with disabilities, women and girls living in rural localities, older women, and women and girls of African descent, all of which were accounted for in the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women agreed conclusions from 2017 onwards, concerns for the vulnerabilities facing “ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities” were raised only once and for the first time in 2019, by the EU.


Certainly, there are feminist movements, scholars and those engaged in policymaking who recognize and seek redress for discrimination on grounds of religion experienced by socio-economically excluded women, but it seems they are the exception, rather than the norm.

It is not too late for us to be inclusive, and this International Women’s Day we should recognize and show solidarity with women who belong to religious minorities living on the margins. We just have to start by not making excuses for their omission from our “intersectional lens”.

Professor Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies; a professor of politics and development and an IDS Research Fellow specialising in the politics and human development of the Middle East. Areas of specialisation include democratisation, Islamist politics, gender, sectarianism, human security and religion and development. Prof Tadros has convened the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) since November 2018.

Photo credits: Adam Cohn/Flickr


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FRANCE: Female genital mutilation – ‘Women circumcise little girls for men’

Female genital mutilation: ‘Women circumcise little girls for men’

France 24 (06.02.2023) – In France, nearly 125,000 women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM). The fight against this practice has led to the creation of psychological and surgical care over the last 40 years but the subject remains taboo. FRANCE 24 provides an overview of the situation on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, February 6.

Excision: The cutting or removal of some or all of the external female genitaliaher clitoris, her inner labia. “Cutting is a form of violence committed against little girls. It is one of the most serious types of sexual violence,” says Dr Ghada Hatem, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, in front of a crowded room at Hospital Delafontaine in the French suburb Seine-Saint-Denis. The practice, which some describe as “traditional”, “religious” or even “mandatory”, is difficult to eradicate, including in France, where it is nevertheless punishable by law.

Diaryatou Bah was circumcised when she was 8 years old in Guinea Conakry where she lived before coming to France: “It happened one morning. A woman came and took me outside. I found myself surrounded by aunts, neighbours and my grandmother. Two held my feet while two others help my hands. They covered my face with leaves. No one explained what was going to happen to me.” 

The founder of the “Espoirs et combats de femmes” (“Hopes and dreams of women”) association and author of the book “They stole my childhood from me”,  Bah remembers certain details vividly.

“I’ll never forget the knife and the feeling when the woman cut me. My own scream. I am 37 and I still remember the details. I knew I was going to endure the procedure one day because it was what every little girl went through; that was the ritual. All the women in my family have undergone the practice.” 

What followed was “indescribable pain and three weeks without being able to walk”. She took a long time to understand her experience, she says.

“Until the age of 20, I thought all the women in the world went through the same procedure.”

Risk of FGM increased by Covid pandemic, war in Ukraine

Bah’s story is similar to the one shared by millions of little girls in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Out of the 200 million women who have been victims of FGM worldwide, 125,000 who have undergone the procedure live in France, according to statistics published by the Weekly Epidemiological Bulletin (BEH) in July 2019. The overall number of victims could even be revised upwards, according to projections by the United Nations.

The Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine account for the increasing number of women suffering FGM. “In Africa, some circumcisers have begun to re-adopt the ritual. Families do not have enough to eat, schools are being closed and the solution is to marry off their daughters,” says Isabelle Gillette-Faye, sociologist and director of GAMS (Group for the Abolition of Sexual Mutilation, Forced Marriage and other traditional practices harmful to the health of women and children).  Globally, she adds, we have gone from a risk of 2 million victims of FGM per year to 3 or 4 million by 2030.

Despite the gloomy predictions, and even if she says it is necessary to remain “attentive”, Gillette-Faye prefers to concentrate on the achievements of 40 years of prevention and education. In France, the first cases of FGM appeared at the end of the 1970s. Men from Sub-Saharan Africa who had come to France to work also brought their wives. Paediatricians from the Maternal and Infant Protection (PMI) service discovered the first mutilated girls during medical examinations. In 1982, a three-month-old girl died in hospital in Paris following an excision. A wave of shock rippled across France. The little girl’s doctors filed a civil action lawsuit.

At the time, even though excision was not mentioned, FGM was considered a crime punishable by 10 years in prison and a €150,000 fine, according to article 222-9 of the penal code. The law applies whether or not FGM took place in France or during a vacation in the country of origin, as long as the victims live on French soil.

“Families find it difficult to understand that the law applies in France even if they have their children circumcised outside the national territory and regardless of their nationality,” says Gillette-Faye.

Since the 1980s, nearly 30 circumcisers or parents of mutilated girls have been put on trial in France. In April 2022, a 39-year-old mother received a five-year suspended prison sentence for the excision of her three oldest daughters, including one who is mentally handicapped, between 2007 and 2013. The procedures took place during the girls’ visits to their grandmother in Djibouti, a country where FGM has been banned since 1995.

“Up until then, we had only been talking about West Africa. We discovered that families from East Africa could be judged, condemned and owe damages to their children for having practiced FGM even if the procedure took place outside the national territory,” says Gillette-Faye, who attended the trial.

Silence prevails

What accounts for the persistence of this tradition despite the laws against it?

For uprooted families, perpetuating this tradition allows them to cling to their cultural identity.

“Many use the religious argument that it is written in the Koran,” says Dr Ghada Hatem, also founder of La Maison des femmes (The House for Women) in the Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. She adds that the practice does not exist in any of the books of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is also the fantasy that a “pure” woman is an excised woman, that it increases fertility and that the child has a better chance of being born alive.

As for the taboo about openly discussing FGM, it is almost omnipresent within the family and the community of origin. “In the community silence prevails, as always in the case of violence, guaranteeing that the practice will be maintained,” says Hatem. “Girls are excised without an explanation. Over there [in the country of origin], what is not normal is an uncircumcised girl. She is seen as impure and above all, she will not be able to marry. In order for her to remain a virgin until marriage, she must be circumcised,” confirms Bah.

Sometimes these women are unaware of their excision. “I see women on a daily or at least weekly basis who have undergone FGM. Some of them do not even know they have had it,” says Agathe André, a midwife at a public hospital in Nanterre, near Paris. “There is no easy way to say it but it is important that we inform them, especially when they give birth to a little girl. They will potentially return to their country of origin and they must be made aware that in France, the practice is forbidden.”

“Many women don’t know if they are excised because they were in the cradle when they went through the procedure,” says Gillette-Faye. Very often, they only discover what happened to them during a visit with their gynaecologist or sometimes during childbirth. “I have patients who were very angry. Some had given birth four times in France and no one ever told them anything,” says Hatem.

Do some doctors and women stick their head in the sand when it comes to FGM? Certainly. Fear also plays a role. As with other cases of violence against women, doctors must measure their words in order not to accentuate or awaken sometimes buried trauma. “If you approach the subject in an inappropriate, humiliating or critical way, you will do a lot of harm to the young woman you’re dealing with,” says Hatem, who trains health workers in best practices.

“As soon as you start talking about ‘normal’ vulvas, you do damage,” adds Gillette-Faye, speaking from her own experience and also referring to reconstructed genitals seen in pornographic films. “It’s a form of aggression against mutilated women who already have a tendency to beat themselves up because they tell themselves that they are not normal.” 

For Hatem, a victim expects above all that “you explain to her what FGM is, what has been done to her, the consequences, if she can live normally and what you can offer her”.

Repairing lives

Victims sometimes suffer silently for many years. FGM can lead to sexual problems such as a lack of desire and/or pleasure, and shame. The trauma runs deep. Excision, forced marriage, rape, abuse – “The average fate of a little girl in Sub-Saharan Africa is often a continuum of violence,” says Hatem.

To help them rebuild their lives, repairing the anatomy of FGM victims is possible. In 1984, Dr Pierre Foldès, an urological surgeon and co-founder of Doctors without Borders, developed the only surgical method to repair the clitoris. “Everything is absolutely repairable…,” says Foldès. “The technique is reliable and there is an extremely low failure rate.”

The traditional circumcisers do not cut everything. “There is scarring that hides what remains of the clitoral glans. The technique consists of finding all these dead parts and gently removing them,” Foldès explains. “In this process, the clitoral stump is pulled upwards by the scarring and the pubic bone. When these abnormal adhesions are removed, the clitoris will descend and reposition itself normally.”

In 35 years, Foldès has performed reconstructive surgery on 6,000 women and his waiting room is always full. The victims sometimes come from very far away. And they’re ready to wait as long as it takes for an appointment.

All eyes on men

Having surgery is far from the end of the ordeal. “The goal is not to restore the clitoris but to restore normal sexuality,” says Foldès, who also helped found Women Safe & Children, the first care centre to provide full recovery for women victims of violence, in the Paris suburb of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. “We must consider all aspects of the trauma, treat each and accompany the victims throughout. If we operate, we have to accompany the patient for two years. We will treat the patient, teach her how to live with a normal organ and try to rebuild her sexual life. When you take time, the healing process works better.”

Repairing a woman’s mutilated genitals without repairing her mental health inevitably leads to failure. “Some women are disappointed because they do not see any improvement. Often, it is because their healing process is not optimal,” says Foldès. “Some women’s condition deteriorated after their operation…,” says Gillette-Faye. “Sometimes they skip steps and go to a plastic surgeon. There is a real market for cosmetic surgery. At GAMS, we have chosen to promote global care.”

To help eradicate FGM, all eyes are now on men. In Belgium, GAMS has launched awareness campaigns called “Men speak out”.

In France, the national federation also works with the association Femmes Entraide et Autonomie (FEA) (Mutual aid and autonomy for Women).

“We have to leave behind the notion that this is a women’s problem and that men don’t have to be involved,” says Gillette-Faye.

“We need to involve men so that they say ‘I will not marry a woman who has been circumcised’,” says Hatem. “Women circumcise little girls for men. If men say no, they will stop getting circumcised.” 

Photo credits: Studio graphique FMM

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