Fadéla Amara & Sylvia Zappi, University of California Press, 2006
Translated by Helen Harden Chenut
Reviewed by Vanessa Agard-Jones, New York University
On the evening of October 4 2002, a young Muslim woman lost her life. That night Sohane Benziane, a 17-year-old of Algerian descent living in the French suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, was badly beaten, doused with an accelerant, and burned in full view of a crowd. A man she knew from her neighborhood did all of this. The cause? She allegedly refused to follow his “orders,” which may have included responding unfavorably to his sexual advances or being connected with members of a rival gang. Fadéla Amara and Sylvia Zappi’s Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto is a political memoir, one that tells the story of the mobilization sparked by the broader community’s outrage and horror at the circumstances of young Sohane’s death. After marching from city to city (23 in total) across France, on the “8 March 2003 more than thirty thousand people [came together] in the streets of Paris, most of them from the suburbs,” (35) and initiated one of the largest protests that that country has seen in recent memory. Theirs is an inspiring tale of women and men organizing together against patriarchy and violence, particularly in spaces where religion (erroneously) serves as justification for their existence. This text is available for the first time to English-speaking readers through a translation ably provided by University of California historian Helen Harden Chenut. The memoir, originally published in French in 2003 under the title Ni Putes, Ni Soumises (Neither Whores nor Submissives), was the winner of numerous French literary and political awards. It contributes to a corpus of work on gender and ethnic politics in France both written and available in English that has grown considerably in the past three years (see, for example: Keaton 2006; Hargreaves 2005; Beriss 2004; Silverstein 2004; Wright 2004; Sayad 2004; Raphael-Hernandez 2004; Stovall and Van den Abbeele 2003; Peabody and Stovall 2003; Edwards 2003).
At the time of Sohane’s death, co-author Fadéla Amara was 38 years old and a veteran of France’s anti-racist organizing waves of the 1980s. Vitry-sur-Seine, the banlieue (or suburb) where Sohane was killed, was much like Amara’s own home of Clermont-Ferrand, where she first got her political education. Unlike the suburbs conjured by a distinctly American frame of reference (replete with sprawling homes, smiling housewives, and under girding wealth), the suburbs of France “in the 1980s and 1990s came to symbolize political marginality…”(Stovall 2003) They have been the place of residence for the majority of the poor and working class immigrants of the country. They are described as places where “unemployment is high, housing is crumbling, and periodic bursts of youth protest lead the national government to prescribe an almost permanent riot police presence in the most explosive or “hot” neighborhoods (les quartiers chauds).” (Schroeder 2001) Particularly in this moment, after the riots that erupted in October and November 2005 , increased attention has been focused on the lives of young people living in France’s banlieues. Breaking the Silence contributes a first-person account to what is more often described in social science literature and in doing so brings a new dimension of critical and textured issues to the fore.
In Part One, “Social Breakdown in the Projects,” Amara weaves a narrative that both explicates her personal experiences of and investment in France’s banlieue communities and contextualizes the social conditions that led to Sohane’s murder. She points to unemployment and its massive increase in the 1990s, the withdrawal of the state from areas of high poverty and high need, and the neglect of public infrastructure as contributing factors in the development of a culture of violence. In response to this “cycle of advanced social and political breakdown” (84) Amara demonstrates ways in which people in these largely Maghrebian communities have creatively offered response, laying out a personalized chronology of anti-racist and social justice organizing over the past two decades. Part Two, “An Act of Survival: the March and Its Success,” is a more straightforwardly journalistic account of the genesis and execution of the 2003 cross-country march.
A simultaneous strength and weakness of the text that may arise for readers in the social sciences is that it is a work of personal experience, grounded in Amara’s community organizing work. The argument is constructed without the need for citations or evidence, which makes the information imparted useful in a fairly specific way. The memoir was also written as a tool in a political strategy, one that is part of an ongoing campaign to gain parity for underprivileged communities in the French landscape. To that end, it is oriented towards a certain intended audience: young people of the banlieues, public officials, and bourgeois power brokers, whom Amara wants to “reflect on the future of the suburbs” (146) and to (re)invest in the Republic.
This notion of engagement with French Republican ideology is reflected in Amara’s deep belief in the potential of laïcité (secularism) and her adherence to principles of integration. Hers is a vision of social change grounded in a specific historical (and cultural) moment amongst France’s Muslim populations, one that privileges a re-affirmation of French nationalism and an appeal to classic Republican values. Black British sociologist Stephen Small would likely admonish in response, “never trust the state” (Small 2006) and in that spirit it may be appropriate to question the efficacy of her allegiance to such a strategy, although her stance resonates with other political trajectories in the francophone world. She argues that young men in the banlieues respond to the state’s surveillance and violence by mapping the same onto the bodies of young women. Her politics represent a turn by those very same women to an idealization of the state’s norms. While many have argued that the French Republic was never meant to include people of color (slavery, after all, continued to flourish in the French empire for more than a decade after the Revolution), Amara insists that the “battle for republican integration” (90) is not only theoretically possible, but of the utmost practical importance. She supports the contention that both occupying public space and the construction of the Republic are “neutral” enterprises, theories that most postcolonial scholars would refute (as would those activists who organize around issues like the selective amnesia reflected in the French national history curriculum or the refusal of media outlets to hire people of color as newscasters).
Section two also includes a chapter that explicitly tackles the relevance of feminism to her movement’s work. Amara distinguishes between the label and traditional conceptualization of a “feminist,” which she declares to be “hackneyed, outdated, obsolete” (129) and the ways in which she sees the struggles of women from the banlieues both fitting into and standing outside of constructions of French feminism (134). Hers is akin to a second wave argument, vaguely reminiscent of the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 statement and its affirmation of community politics that include both men and women. According to Chenut, “while many young Muslim women taking part in this movement do not readily identify themselves as feminists, their movement shares many of contemporary feminism’s goals,”(3) and this positioning is evident, in a limited way, throughout the text.
A major limitation arises in her treatment of gender and sexuality beyond basic political participation frames. Amara places gay men within the scope of her argument when she begins to deconstruct hypermasculine tropes (66, 117), but fails to think expansively about gender and sexuality, thereby missing the opportunity to consider the experiences of lesbians, transgendered people, and other gender non-conformers in both her memoir and her broader political project. She even goes so far as to categorize young women in the banlieues as falling into one of three categories: “the submissive, the mannish, and the invisible,” (69) a reductive move that gains only slight nuance beyond a Manichean binary. Amara conceives of women’s liberation in a narrow way, working from the assumption that “affirmation of femininity”(79) (including the wearing of makeup, high heels, etc.) is the ultimate marker of freedom. Not only does she frame androgynous women negatively, but she extends this assumption to her judgments about women who choose to wear the foulard (or headscarf) and to those women who choose to engage in anal sex with their partners as a strategy for maintaining their “virginity.” In general, Amara’s gender and sexual politics remain undertheorized, but their incorporation into a significant social movement present a ripe opportunity for critical discussion and re-evaluation.
Chenut, while framing this narrative well in the “Translator’s Introduction,” leaves the reader to their own devices throughout much of the text, footnoting only sporadically. To those unfamiliar with names of French political and cultural figures or French historical landmarks, outside research will have to supplement in order to gain a comprehensive reading of the text. Perhaps of use, too, would have been greater (anthropological) reflexivity in her Translators’ Notes. Understanding both her method and approach to the subject might have explained some instances of awkward word choice and inelegant phrasing.
Overall, this text would be a useful addition to courses that address social change on a global scale, ones that interrogate contemporary challenges faced by urban populations in France and in Europe more broadly, and any courses that work to understand ways that feminisms manifest amongst women of color in the 21st century. It would be a provocative work to use to consider the role that political memoir plays in anthropological discourse and for applied anthropologists, offers numerous insights into the relationship between texts, narrative construction, and political mobilization.
Vanessa Agard-Jones is a graduate student in Anthropology and French Studies at New York University. She earned her Master of Arts degree in African American Studies at Columbia University and her Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at Yale University. She is the Assistant Editor of SOULS: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society and serves on the Board of Directors of the Audre Lorde Project, a community organizing center in New York City.
Beriss, David. 2004. Black skins, French voices : Caribbean ethnicity and activism in urban France. Boulder, Colo.; Oxford: Westview.
Edwards, Brent Hayes. 2003. The practice of diaspora : literature, translation, and the rise of Black internationalism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Hargreaves, Alec G. 2005. Memory, empire, and postcolonialism : legacies of French colonialism, After the empire. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books.
Keaton, Trica Danielle. 2006. Muslim girls and the other France : race, identity politics, & social exclusion. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Peabody, Sue, and Tyler Edward Stovall. 2003. The color of liberty : histories of race in France. Durham: Duke University Press.
Raphael-Hernandez, Heike. 2004. Blackening Europe : the African American presence. New York: Routledge.
Sayad, Abdelmalek. 2004. The suffering of the immigrant. Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA: Polity Press.
Schroeder, Erin. 2001. “A Multicultural Conversation: La Haine, Rai, and Menace II Society.” Camera Obscura 16 (1):143-179.
Silverstein, Paul A. 2004. Algeria in France : transpolitics, race, and nation, New anthropologies of Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Small, Stephen. 2006. “The Empire Strikes Back! Class, Gender, and the Black Presence in Europe Paper” read at Black European Studies in Transnational Perspective, July 29, at Berlin, Germany.
Stovall, Tyler Edward. 2003. “From Red Belt to Black Belt: Race, Class, and Marginality in Twentieth-Century Paris.” In The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France, edited by T. E. Stovall and S. Peabody. Durham: Duke University Press.
Stovall, Tyler Edward, and Georges Van den Abbeele. 2003. French civilization and its discontents : nationalism, colonialism, race, After the empire. Lanham: Lexington Books.
Wright, Michelle M. 2004. Becoming Black : creating identity in the African diaspora. Durham: Duke University Press.