Women’s stories

Women’s stories Salma, 24, married, mother of one, living in the outskirts of Paris
A childish smile, sparkling eyes, this is Salma. She talks freely about herself. This 24-year-old mother always had excellent results at school and was awarded several diplomas with Merit. She has a Masters degree in French as a Foreign Language (FLE). She became drawn to religion during her high-school years. Following the "bac" (high-school diploma), Salma started a course in performing arts at Nanterre University. Her wish was to become a film critic. However, she felt lonely and decided to delve into the teachings of Islam : "I followed the advice of my bookseller and bought books about women in Islam and religious practices".
In 2004, she decided to start wearing the jilbeb, against her parents’ wishes. The jilbeb is a very loose garment that completely hides the shape of the body and the head, but does not cover either the face or the hands. "When my father came to pick me up at the station and saw me wearing the jilbeb, he said : ‘I won’t start the car unless you take off your headscarf’. He told me that we hadn’t moved to France in order to bother the French. He said we needed to melt into the crowd. My mother was particularly worried about my future, but I managed to reassure her, and in time even persuaded her to wear the jilbeb herself."
Salma is currently working as a nanny and taking care of her child. She would have liked to teach French, but she has a thin chance of finding a job if she continues to wear her jilbeb. "It bothers me, I have the impression that people do not see what I am really worth. In France, there are plenty of obstacles if you want to practice your faith. We are far behind when compared with other European countries where women can wear a headscarf and still work in schools, banks or law courts. I wish that personal freedom was more respected here, not only where Muslims are concerned, but for the whole population. Most of all, I wish they would stop imposing a ‘normal’ lifestyle on us." Although Salma was born in France, although she loves the French language, she feels "less and less French. The more I travel, the more I seem to detach myself. I have the impression I don’t belong here. My faith is not accepted, my view of things is not accepted," she says.
Eyes riveted on her computer screen, this Internet consumer is interested in everything that is going on around her. Like millions of people around the world, she was very much affected by the death of Michael Jackson : "I was really touched by his death. I consider him to be a victim." She takes interest in current affairs. She is worried as much about the financial crisis as the situation in Palestine.
She would like to give her one-year-old daughter a religious education, "the basics that will enable her to make her own choice. In Islam it is said that children should be taught the existence of God as soon as they acquire understanding. They should start saying their prayers at the age of 8, and when they reach the age of reason, at around 13, they should make their own choice. It is not the parents’ responsibility any more. I would like her to wear the hijab. Islam is beneficial for us, and I want the best for my daughter."

Women’s stories
Zakia : 29, married, mother of one, teacher, United Kingdom
Zakia lives with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in the UK. It was a choice she made in 2007, as a result of her "wish to live her faith without cutting herself off from society. In the UK this is possible, because a woman can work and wear her nijab." Nevertheless, Zakia still feels French. "Ever since I moved here, I have come to realise that my language, the language I think in, is French. As I learnt when I studied linguistics, the language one thinks in determines one’s nationality. Zakia, 29, wears the sitar, which covers her fully except for the eyes. She teaches French and the Qur’an to young people.
Her story is closely linked to her illness, muscular dystrophy, which obliges her to move around in a wheelchair. "I was cast aside on various counts : I am a disabled person, I am from the Maghreb, and I wear the niqab. As a general rule, French people don’t know how to deal with difference, it scares them. Lots of people didn’t dare speak to me even before I started wearing the nijab, and the reason for that was that I was in a wheelchair."
She feels torn between her love of France, the country that provided treatment for her illness, and the anger she feels towards the people who reject her. "When I fell ill, my father decided to leave Morocco and move to France. He has deep respect and admiration for the French, and rightly so, for they were the ones who diagnosed my illness and provided me with appropriate treatment. He passed on to us his respect for France."
Zakia owes her self-confidence to the support she received from the medical team in France : "The staff at the hospital gave me a very warm welcome. They admired me because I was a fighter and wouldn’t give in to the illness. Those people helped me to pull myself together. They gave me encouragement."
Zakia received her schooling at a special school in Hauts-de-Seine where she was provided with the necessary healthcare facilities. "It was then that I started feeling different from my schoolfriends, most of whom came from well-off backgrounds. I had the feeling that I needed to prove something all the time, that I had to justify who I was, Arab and disabled. It was this feeling that drew me closer to religion. I started praying and covering my head. The headscarf was not an issue back then."
She pursued her studies, in sociology and psychology first, without any real conviction. Then she changed to history and ethnology, but she found the history course too tough. It was then that she also enrolled in Arabic classes at the Paris Mosque. There she met her husband, a Cameroonian converted to Islam.
She came into contact with the Salafists – a rigorous movement that hails the wearing of the full veil – at the mosque in Argenteuil. "I had heard people saying that the Salafists were a sect, that their women were not allowed to leave their homes, that they wore long beards and kamis, and refused to integrate into French society. I believed what I heard. When scholars from Egypt and Jordany came to the mosque, they introduced themselves as Muslim scholars ‘ahel sunna wa jamaa’, (the people of the Sunna and consensus). When we heard their teachings, my husband and I instantly became followers."
She gets carried away. She refuses any analgams between Salafists and terrorism : "Salafism is not extremism, it’s orthodox Islam."
In 2002, she dropped out of college and gave birth to her daughter, Najia. Recently, she decided to take up a Masters degree by correspondence in order to become a teacher. When she was still living in France, she wore the sitar for two years but, she admits, she gave in to the pressure put upon her by the people around her. "People think I do not exist, they think I am not capable of any thought or reflection, that I am just a ghostly figure. For them, existing means existing on the street. But I exist beyond that. When I go to the market, the sellers recognize me. They have my vegetables ready before I arrive. I have always accepted discussion, even with men."
For Zakia, wearing a sitar is a spiritual act. "For me, it is a way of being close to my creator. The sitar permits a woman to be something more than an object. Nowadays, relationships between men and women are essentially based on seduction. The niqab helps to avoid this problem. All the women out there look the same, they all wear the same thing. Their aim is to look beautiful in the eyes of men, whereas mine is to be beautiful in the eyes of God."
She fully accepts her choice and is indignant at the way the French media have been dealing with the issue. "Even if we cry out loudly and clearly that we wear the sitar out of our own free will, journalists still refuse to believe us. They continue to think that we are subservient women." She says that in France, people would often insult or pester her. "If I were able-bodied, I would wear the sitar, but it became dangerous when I ended up in a wheelchair. I was verbally molested. I could not fight back, so I decided to stop wearing it."
Moving to the UK was an obvious choice : "You are given a chance here. If you want to contribute in one way or another to this country, you get help."


Interviews done by Nadia Lamarkbi
Translated by Nadia Mifsud Mutschle
(17/10/2009)

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