Sisters In Hell

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Samira Bellil would have much preferred to live a quiet life that didn't become the basis for a best-selling book. But after years of psychological torment caused by repeated gang rapes in one of the banlieues the destitute public housing projects that ring most French cities she penned Dans l'enfer des tournantes ("In the hell of the tournantes"; the last word is a slang term for gang rape). Published last month, the book has shocked France with its graphic accounts of the attacks and Bellil's impassioned denunciation of the increasing violence and sexual abuse committed against young women in the banlieues. Since 1999, rapes within the banlieue have increased by 15% to 20% every year. Dedicated to the countless "sisters in this hell, so they'll know there's a way out," Bellil shows precisely how and why sex crimes are surging in the projects. "As children of immigrants, we receive a strict upbringing and are judged very harshly if we stray from it," says the Algerian-born Bellil, 29, who was raised in a non-practicing Muslim household. "From the moment a girl steps outside, guys think they have the right to pass judgment and treat us differently. In extreme cases, this leads to violence or aggression."

In Bellil's own case, it led to a horrific sequence of gang rapes, in which she was brutalized in fetid apartments and on the ground between filthy trash cans. When one attack was over, her assailants offered Bellil compensation in the form of breakfast and a 10-franc coin. Though the assaults occurred in the late 1980s, Bellil didn't speak up or press charges until three other girls attacked by the same gang appealed to her. Bellil decided to write about the experience now to call attention to the spate of banlieue gang rapes and the perverse attitudes toward sex that feed the crimes.

Reports of sexual assaults against women have risen across France, with court convictions for rape having soared by 61% between 1995 to 2000. But specialists and victims' groups say violence against women is especially acute in the banlieues because of cultural attitudes toward women. Banlieue males may adopt the lifestyles of other French youths pop music, fast cars and pornography but they also frequently embrace the traditional prejudices of their immigrant parents when it comes to women: any neighborhood girl who smokes, uses makeup or wears attractive clothes is a whore. Bellil's attackers targeted her because she dressed as she pleased, mixed with males and liked to dance and had begun a romance with another teen. Owing to the fact that most rapes involve individuals known to victims, intimidation often suffices to ensure that charges are never lodged. "Victims know that they won't be protected by the police," says Bellil, "and that both they and their families will be threatened if they speak up."

The trauma of the assaults was compounded by the reaction of Bellil's family, friends and neighbors, who said she'd brought the attacks upon herself through her "loose behavior." "Your reputation is important in the projects," Bellil writes. "It follows you everywhere. A girl can be branded easy or a little slut even if she does nothing wrong."

Another factor is the bleak prospects facing men from the banlieues. Most are first-generation French, the sons of parents who arrived in the 1950s and '60s from Tunisia, Algeria, Spain and sub-Saharan Africa. Unemployment rates among these young men range from 20% to 50%, versus 9% nationally, and the banlieusards often feel shunned by mainstream French society. The location of banlieues outside affluent cities enhances the sense of alienation, and police are loath to patrol the areas for fear of violence. The result: civility and order in many banlieues have broken down, and bands of young men feel they can attack women with impunity. "We've allowed large populations of young people caught in economic and social limbo to create a culture of violence," comments Malek Boutih, president of SOS Racisme, France's leading civil-rights association. "The women of the banlieue suffer the worst from that: daily disrespect and aggression that all too often results in sexual violence."

But there is also evidence that such attacks are being mimicked in more affluent urban settings. Over the past year, nearly a score of highly publicized gang rapes have been reported or brought to trial across the country, some involving victims and perpetrators as young as 11. One 13-year-old girl in northern France was raped by as many as 88 youths over a four-month period earlier this year before alerting her parents. In September in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil, a court sentenced a band of youths to five to 12 years for repeatedly raping a local 15-year-old girl.

In most cases, the perpetrators don't seem to realize that they've committed a grievous crime. "They share around girls the way they do a CD or a sweater," Bellil writes in her book, a view echoed by Gilbert Collard, a lawyer representing a gang-rape victim from Orleans. "We've allowed a subculture to develop with its own codes and references that have made sexual violence a banality," he says. Adds Pierre-Olivier Sur, the attorney of the victim in the Argenteuil trial: "In this case, the attackers had no consciousness of having broken laws, of having raped a girl. Not only did they deny any wrongdoing, they accused the victim of being a slut."

Given these attitudes, women who do take their attackers to trial face an ordeal in the courtroom. In the Argenteuil case, the victim had to endure what has come to be a standard counterattack by defendants: that the attack was consensual group sex. Others defenses involve arguments that victims' attire, previous sexual history or even activities like smoking or dancing were invitations to sex. Such arguments enjoy a twisted credence among some banlieue residents and even in some courtrooms. "People listen more to what the perpetrators say instead of demanding justice for the victim," says Bellil.

It's also just one of the many forms of brutality suffered by banlieue women. Girls and teenage women who rebuff unwanted advances or defend themselves against suggestive insults are often beaten, sometimes to death. Last month, a 17-year-old named Sohane was burned alive outside her Paris banlieue building in Vitry-sur-Seine by a boyfriend with whom she had broken off. Just days later, two male teens from a Grenoble banlieue got 12-year sentences for the Nov. 2000 murder of 15-year-old Sofiane Allouche, whose throat they cut following a dispute. "The worst elements of the banlieue today have no respect for human lives including their own," says Paris judge Marc Trevidic, who in the 1990s worked cases in the banlieues of Nantes. "They make their own rules, and don't like seeing people usually girls living according to the rules of French society. For many, the slightest affront is a declaration of war."

Banlieue women must also deal with the spreading influence of Islamic fundamentalism, which threatens their liberty in other ways. "Over the past 10 years, the condition of women in the banlieues has radically deteriorated," says Fadela Amara, president of a national association of banlieue women and head of the "Neither Whores Nor Submissive" movement, which campaigns for women to be allowed to live normal, modern lives. "We're seeing increased insults of young women wearing jeans, a rise in forced or arranged marriages, more young women obliged to drop out of school and a greater incidence of polygamy," she says. "There comes a point when women must say, 'That's enough.'"

Bellil did just that, and the success of her book which has so far sold over 30,000 copies is bringing the issue to the attention of a wide audience. Despite her experiences, though, she is not abandoning the banlieues. She lives and works as an educational aide in a Paris neighborhood not far from the one in which the attacks occurred. She also insists that despite all the dire problems and terrible violence of banlieues, most remain warm and vibrant places. "The banlieue is like a big family," she writes in the final chapter of her book, albeit a dysfunctional family and one with terrible secrets.

To solve their problems, Bellil suggests, male and female, young and old, banlieue residents must restore mutual respect and dignity, a process that would be greatly assisted if mainstream French society treated people from the banlieues with respect and dignity too. In the end, Bellil's book is a message to her community. "It's to tell girls that they can survive and see justice done," she says. "And also to urge mothers to break with this infernal vicious cycle of the all-powerful male. It drives me crazy to still hear women say, 'Ah, that girl went looking for it.'"