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Experts: French Muslim Women Often Wrongly Stereotyped


A series of highly publicized incidents involving Muslim women have reinforced popular perceptions that an intolerant, sexist brand of Islam is taking root in France - home to Europe's largest Muslim community. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA that Muslims and experts argue Muslim women are often wrongly stereotyped.

Like most young women, Wafa Ben Salem goes out to movies and dinner, dates men - albeit usually with a chaperone - and is a self-avowed fashion maven. Still, she is a far cry from many of today's young women in France - in her body-covering clothes, the headscarf tied under her chin and Ben Salem's personal vow not to have sex before marriage.

A university student from southern France, Ben Salem says Islam frowns on women who are not virgins before they marry. And, as a practicing Muslim, she says she will abide its strictures. She says she may meet and date men and she will pick her own husband. But she says will remain chaste until she ties the knot.

The question of chastity and modesty in Islam has been much debated in France in recent weeks. First, a court in the northern city, Lille, annulled the marriage of two Muslims after the husband claimed his wife was not a virgin at her wedding. The incident sparked outrage.

More recently, the Council for State - the country's highest administrative body - upheld a decision barring French citizenship to another Muslim woman, from Morocco, who wears a face-covering burqa, or niqab. It argued what was called her "radical practice" of Islam was incompatible with French values. Urban Affairs Minister Fadela Amara - a practicing Muslim of Algerian descent - hailed the decision, calling the niqab a "sign of oppression of women."

Several other incidents, including allegations a Muslim husband prevented a male doctor from performing an emergency caesarean on his wife, have helped reinforce assumptions that Muslim women in France are living under the thumbs of their men.

But analysts like Franck Fregosi, a sociologist who has written extensively on Islam, warns against easy stereotypes.

Fregosi says that, far from being submissive, many Muslim women in France and elsewhere in Europe are looking for a fit between their faiths and the highly secularized societies in which they live. He says many girls will date boys - but hide it from their families, many of them ethnic immigrants who come from conservative societies in Turkey or North Africa.

Fregosi says some young women may even have sexual relations before marriage, but that they will still try to preserve appearances so their families will not know. According to media reports, a growing number of Muslim women in Europe are opting for surgery to repair their hymens - to give the appearance of virginity at marriage.

Fregosi says even very devout young women are struggling to break free from their cultural traditions - including shunning chosen marriages. He says they prefer to choose a pious husband, not a cousin or another man chosen by their family.

France's five million-strong Muslim community has offered mixed reactions to the annulled marriage in Lille and to the niqab incident. Many are not strict practitioners of their faith. A 2006 survey by the CSA polling agency found that, although nearly nine in 10 Muslims observe the holy fasting month of Ramadan, only 17 percent go to mosque regularly. Some 90 percent are said to approve the idea of equality between the sexes.

Anthropologist Dounia Bouzar, who specializes in Muslim issues, says even Muslim clerics here generally agreed that in the case in Lille the husband should have settled the question about his wife's virginity discretely and not in court.

University student Ben Salem agrees.

Ben Salem says that, if a woman is not a virgin before her marriage, that is her own affair and it is a matter between her and God. But she believes many French mistakenly considered the annulment as another example of Islam's bias against women.

Ben Salem claims the French media, in particular, are quick to stereotype devout Muslim women like herself; that they never go out; that they are subjugated by men; that they do not know anything. She says that is simply not true.

Anthropologist Bouzar agrees.

Bouzar says there are too many easy - and incorrect - biases against Muslim women here. She says, although some are becoming increasingly devout, they are also questioning the western model of sexual liberty and whether it truly represents more freedom.

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