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African Women to Rally in Paris Against Discrimination - 2003-03-08

Since the beginning of February, a group of ethnic African and North African women has staged demonstrations across France to highlight discrimination and violence they face in many parts of the country. The campaign arrives in Paris Saturday, with a march coinciding with International Women's Day.

Twenty-nine-year-old Samira Bellil has been gang-raped twice. She was insulted and threatened when she filed charges against her attackers. But Ms. Bellil went on to write a book about her experiences. Now she helps lead a new movement to shed light on sexual harassment, discrimination and violence facing ethnic African and North African women, like herself, who live in France's gritty, immigrant-heavy suburbs.

The group's slogan is "Neither Whores Nor Under Submission." The women reject charges by traditionalists in their neighborhoods that they are promiscuous, because they practice what they consider a normal, modern lifestyle, complete with lipstick, short skirts and boyfriends. They reject calls by many of their fathers, mothers and brothers that they submit to traditional restrictions on their activities. The women say their families want to make life in the French suburbs just like it was in Africa, with women kept at home in traditional roles and under the domination of men.

The secretary-general of the Paris-based activist group, SOS Racism, Sarah Benichou, said women in these impoverished neighborhoods live in restricted societies, which offer few freedoms. "It means you're not allowed to go out at night, if you're a girl, even if a boy your own age can go out," she said. "You're not allowed to go and have a love story with someone you love. You're not allowed to have sexual intercourse, because there's a myth about virginity in the suburbs."

Low-income suburbs ringing cities across France have long been a headache for the government. They are home to thousands of jobless and disaffected youth. They are considered breeding grounds for violence and, sometimes, Islamist extremism. But Ms. Benichou said the fate of women in the suburbs is largely ignored. "We have allowed these suburbs to become what they have become. We didn't help things get better in these suburbs," she said. "We just repainted some doors and windows."

Members of the African and North African women's movement will be meeting Saturday with French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, before marching through the streets of Paris. They hope their campaign will draw thousands of fellow protesters. More importantly, they hope it will launch a sustained effort to tackle inequity and poverty among African and North African immigrants in the French suburbs, and the often hidden discrimination and violence against women.