Portrait of a migrant woman.
Ghania Khelifi - 22/06/2012
Luckily for her, she does not know that all the past and future pitfalls are part of the female North African and migrant woman package that is equivalent to the “triple trouble” in the words of Carole Tanqueray, director of an association supporting migrant women at Gennevilliers (Parisian suburbs). Expert in North African female immigration, Mrs. Tanqueray explains that “this combination of sex and racial discrimination as well as discrimination related to housing and poverty” often maintains this group of women in poverty.
The women that are supported by her organisation are under the pressure of their community on the one hand and the necessity to empower themselves in order to survive in France on the other hand. The road to access their rights is always painful as it requires a break-up with their own history and community.
In Algeria, Naima was an academic. Today, she is a part-time facilitator with a salary that is below minimum wage in a recreation centre for children. She has refused job offers as a housekeeper that an employment agency gave her and is still offended. She ignores that her case is identified by official statistics showing that over-unemployment of graduates among French nationals of North African descent is massive. One in two women is concerned compared to 26% of other French-born women. Naima is preparing her application for naturalisation because she wants to be recruited as a local authority official at the local council where she is currently employed. She is afraid of becoming like all these increasingly veiled North African immigrant women that are satisfied with a few hours of house cleaning or with social allowances. They are far from the life of freedom and comfort that she had imagined. Even though she was fulfilled in her middle-class family when she still lived in her hometown in Eastern Algeria, she used to envy her acquaintances who left to settle in Canada or in France.
Nonetheless, she did not envisage to embark the adventure of leaving alone, paying a smuggler or playing the card of furthering her studies in a foreign university.
Her luck, or so she thought, knocked on her door in the summer of 2007. Her parents’ neighbours who rented a house by the seaside every year, come from France. They had a son who was a bit old but looked young for his forty years of age. He was educated, spoke well and had the French nationality. A couple of walks on the beach later, she was sure she had found the man of her life. Back in France, the beautiful Franco-Algerian sent her a flood of emails and kept her awake every night on Skype. In spring, he asked her to marry him and promised her the moon. Naima’s father was reluctant; the suitor was too old and too fast. He yielded under the combined pressure of the mother and daughter. The summer of 2008, Naima got married with great fanfare. She was 21 years old. She waited for the family reunification* procedures and she then she settled in a furnished three-room apartment with her husband.
A few months passed in brand new happiness until the day her husband told her that they were moving in with his parents and that their social housing apartment had to be “handed over” to the public housing (low rent housing). The young women did not ask any questions and moved in with her mother-in-law. Her husband was often at home in a bad mood and going round in circles. She dared to ask him to explain and he told her he had lost his job. One evening, as soon as she entered their bedroom, he went out and sat in the living room. The game went on for a few days until her mother-in-law demanded her to start sleeping in the same room with her sister-in-law. Naima did not understand what was happening to her. She knew that the entire household was keeping away from her but she was paralysed with fear. She finally found the courage to demand an explanation from her husband. This terrible man with whom she had walked hand in hand on the beach turned into a monster. That night, he insulted, hit and threatened her. This violence repeated itself several times each week. “He accused me of wanting to live like a French woman. He told me he was ashamed of the way I dressed in the area. I used to dress like I used to dress in Algeria! I understood that they all wanted me to wear the veil like all the women of our family circle. When I think that back home in Algeria, no one ever forced me to do so…”
He left the house and she did not see him again. The in-laws refused to give her any information even though she knew that they all knew where he was. She was disorientated and did not know whom to tell about this ordeal. She did not want to tell her parents in Algeria no matter what. The appointment for her residence permit at the prefecture was approaching and the husband whose presence was indispensable had disappeared. She did not know how he learned that she meant to lay charges against him for desertion. On the phone, he threatened to kill her and warned her “I will never help you to have your residence permit, I will make life difficult for you until you return back to your father.” In July 2012, her in-laws asked her to leave their home claiming they were going on holidays and did not want her to stay in their house in their absence. “Find yourself a safe house”, her mother-in-law told her, “and leave my son alone”.
Naime swallowed all her pride and called a distant cousin begging her for accommodation. “At the time, I neither knew anything about the French administration procedures nor about women’s rights. I thought rights were only reserved to French women”.
The cousin whose husband did not welcome this new burden did all she could to accompany Naima to the police station, the prefecture, the employment agency and the social services office. Her resident permit was renewed for a year instead of ten years as she had expected. Her status as a victim of domestic violence saved her from expulsion. Little by little, Naima discovered autonomy but also the debts accumulated by her husband that she has to pay back. She made her own research and managed to locate the missing husband who did not live far away during the whole time. He shared a studio flat with a friend and according to a few testimonies he seemed to be unable to get off drugs. She wanted to contact him for one last attempt. However, one day someone called her to tell her “forget it, he no longer wants to be with you, go live your life”. What have I done? “Nothing, haven’t you understood? He does not want to be married. His family obliged him to find a woman in Algeria as he was becoming old. Forget him my sister. God has put a curse on him.”
I had never cried that much in my life that day. I cried for myself, for my stupidity, for him, the man I had loved. I wept with rage against my in-laws, against Algeria. I cried with shame and helplessness. But it is all over now and I am no longer the same woman. In France you have to be strong and that is how I will be.”
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech
* Family reunification is a recognized reason for immigration in many countries because of the presence of one or more family members in a certain country, therefore, enables the rest of the family to immigrate to that country as well. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_reunification