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Discouragement is the men who kill
1 Jul 2010
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 “People tell me, ‘Mariam, it’s good you grew up in the ghetto. You are not a liar. You are not here to speak just to speak. We know that you know.’ When you know it, you understand it.”

Mariam Toure. Founder of LAS: Liberté d'Agir Scolaire, an association that works against violence in schools. She founded the organization July 2, 2012 and currently conducts in-school interventions on several themes, including relationships between boys and girls, violence against girls and women, racism, anti-Semitism, and gang violence. At the time of the interview, July 2010, she was in a former position as coordinator of in-school awareness programs, a position she held for eight years, at Ni Putes Ni Soumises, a vocal feminist organization based in Paris, which advocates for the rights of women and girls in France.

Discouragement is the men who kill

I thought I would be a shop-keeper or a nanny watching children. I didn’t have a future. I had limits on my career. Even when I was small, I would say to myself, “Mariam, you will only be a nanny or shop-keeper. You will do nothing else.” Then, you believe in what you say, what people say. You live without a big career.

Me, if you had told me four or five years ago, Mariam, you will be a feminist, you will help women, I would have said, “Never. I don’t give a fuck about women. It’s not my problem.” But, no. We change.

I was a student. I did my college degree, and I thought that after my studies, I was going to work in a clothing store, a shoe store, or watch children.

Then, this young woman, bless her soul, was burned alive in Vitry-sur-Seine. I lived near there, so that intrigued me. I wanted to know more. How could it happen that one can commit an act so horrible in France? Country of the rights of man, country of secularism, country of kings, of equality, how did it happen that a girl who said, “No,” was set on fire?

I said to myself, there is something not right here. There is something weird that needs to be explained. A girl, she can do—no matter what she does, I don’t give a fuck—when you burn a girl alive? Even a guy! If you burn someone... How could that happen? I wanted to know.

Then, I had the luck to meet Fadela AmaraFadela Amara shocked all of France. She opened the association Ni Putes Ni Soumises, an association that speaks for the girls of the quartier.* That didn’t exist before. I found myself in the movement.

The movement asked something of me. I did my internship at Ni Putes Ni Soumises. I was trained, I did debates, and after, I was employed. I changed career, and now I am responsible for the in-school programs. The young people are in need of that.

So, I am MariamTouré. I am 26 years old. I have been at Ni Putes Ni Soumises for six years. 

In the elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, university, my goal is education on violence against women, on secularism, gender diversity, equality, discrimination, polygamy, excision. My goal is to speak to people.

I do a lot of interventions in the cités and quartiers populaires. There, the goal is to speak of girl-boy relationships. The truth is, often in those areas, there is not a lot of communication between boys and girls. My goal is prevention.

There are young people who will say, “If you are a girl and you are raped, you are asking for it.” She deserved it. Girls and boys say this. I tell them, “No.” I explain to them that rape, it’s not like breaking your arm or falling down. A rape has lots of consequences behind it. It manifests in later years in addiction, in depression, also suicide. There are many things with it. There are girls and women who cannot deal with this.

Often when I intervene in schools, the guys say, “But sometimes the girl wants it.” Often these guys think that sex life is like television, like pornography. They think that a woman can sleep with twelve, fifteen men, have oral sex, have anal sex, and everything, but my goal is to explain to them that porn is not real life. When she says, “No,” you have to stop.

There are a lot of girls and women at our association who were gang raped or raped. In the quartiers, it is not safe to talk about rape because often when things like that happen, the girls know their aggressor. It is often their friends and people they have grown up with. It’s very difficult to say, “They hurt me, they did me wrong.” They say, “I cannot press charges against my friends.” But no, they are not your friends.

It is taboo to talk about, but there are girls who have begun to press charges. Ten years ago, five years ago, girls who were raped, they did not press charges.

Now, they start to appear and say, “It is not normal. I go out with a guy. I like him a lot. I find him handsome. I fall in love with him. How can it be that this guy calls his friends, calls his brothers, call his cousins to come rape me? And his friends say, ‘Yes.’ Me, I say, ‘No.’” Of those five, ten, fifteen guys that raped her, there was not one guy who said, “No, what we are doing is not good. It’s not normal.” They say, “The girl said, ‘Yes.’” But the girl is obliged to say, “Yes”: There are fifteen of you! Of course she said yes. You beat her. You forced her. You were violent with her. What do you want her to do? Now, those girls are going to say, “I have the right to say, ‘No,’” and they’re going to press charges.

You can say, “Oh, you have done nothing,” but knowing that within ten or fifteen years, the girls who were harassed, raped, or beaten, now they are going to press charges. To see change like that, I find it’s incredible.

Now, there is a price to pay for those guys. That girl  can press charges, and she is going to press charges. And now there are many excellent therapies and specialized psychologists in this domain to help those girls because it is so traumatizing.

So Fadela Amara was one of the first women to speak on television about what was happening to girls in the quartiers. Everyone said, “It’s not true. It’s impossible.” But no, it exists. It’s not only in the quartiers. There are girls in every city in the world in every city everywhere who are gang raped, and it’s not normal. Truly, we are lucky to fight this fight so that it’s not taboo to talk about.

Often, there are interventions that speak of condoms, AIDs, but the real problem, if you have AIDs or STDs, it is because you did an act with someone. Something happened before. Sometimes it was bad. So talk about respect between boys and girls. When you made love with your boyfriend or girlfriend, was it ok? Were you forced? Talk about that and be real, be honest.

The part of my work I love the most, I am in the field. I intervene everywhere: Elementary school, middle school, high school, university, dormitories, prisons. I also have the chance to meet political representatives, delegates from the mayor's office, the director of establishments, principals, teachers.

I intervene in all the cities of France. If a municipality wants me to intervene in Provence, in Cannes, in Nantes, I do it, and because we are well-known, we can intervene in other countries too.

I also do presentations in correctional facilities. I work a lot in prisons now. The goal is not to preach morality. No. It is to try to find a connection, to show respect between men and women.

I speak in the news as well, and I work against violence in its universality. I speak of violence against women, polygamy, excision, women beaten, women raped. I can also speak of violence in the quartiers because I grew up in the quartier. I know well how it functions. I speak of violence in all its forms: Girl-boy, gang violence, rivalries. It’s what I know and it’s what I’ve lived.

I can bring my experience, and I like to meet young people. When they hear Ni Putes Ni Soumises, they are a bit shocked but when I talk to them, they say, “Mariam, you are like us. We are like you.” Young people more than anything want to see someone who is similar to them, who can speak to what they live.

They don’t want people who say, “I know the quartier. I know the ghetto” but have never lived it. Young people, they feel that. Me, when I speak with them, they say—and similarly when I intervene in prisons—the people tell me, “Mariam, it’s good you grew up in the ghetto. You are not a liar. You are not here to speak just to speak. We know that you know.” When you know it, you understand it.

For me, it is a comfort with these people. I am like those young people there. To speak to them and say, “I was like you. No, worse than you, and I changed because I did an internship at an association, and I saw life differently. I did an internship outside of my quartier, in Paris, so I saw.” When I tell them that, I give my message. I speak, I leave, and after, there are volunteers and interns who come to the association. When I do a program in Pantin,[1] in Créteil,[2] no matter where, there is always one or two who are interested. Afterward, they become supporters. That is my greatest pride. 

It’s rare that I have conflicts. It can happen that there are people who get angry at me. Me too. I grew up in the quartier. I can get angry right back, and when they see that, they calm down. I say, “I respect you, you respect me. If I don’t respect you, you don’t respect me. If I speak calmly, you speak calmly.” I tell them, I am like you. 

In our discussion, it’s amazing. I also do debates with them, and when they listen, they listen. The goal is to speak of what I know. The goal is to have a connection with the people, girls and boys. When that happens, they are going to change.

It’s important, especially in the quartiers, but it’s hard. Sometimes there are schools that refuse me. They agree and then after change their minds, saying, “No, you cannot come” because in fact, they know very well that what happens in their establishment: Gang rapes, fights. It’s hard to believe that it’s really true. So we are here for that.

Sometimes it’s hard. Yes, I cry. I’ve seen them, the mothers crying, the relatives crying because they didn’t protect their children from violent acts. It’s quite traumatizing. When the women who are victims of violence come, when you see them cry, when you see them extremely sad, when you see the young girls, the women who have lost their hope, when you see the young guys who fight amongst themselves and die, that is very, very hard. It’s tiring.

But I believe in what I do. That’s what gives me strength. Because if you do something and you don’t believe in it, it’s nothing. I am here, and that is what gives me strength. When I see young people, it gives me courage.

There is always something to do, and above all else, one must believe and have conviction. My conviction is to change mentalities and closed minds. I think my destiny is there. No matter where I am, I keep going.

Our vice president, a few years ago, she was set on fire, too. Afterward, her aggressor drove over her in a car, and she lived. The people like her, it is the people who push me to continue. Despite that she was burned, despite that she was run over, she continues the fight. She continues to be here and never does she complain. She was truly burned from head to toe. She too, she said, “No.” She was beaten. She was burned. 

Wait, we complain because we don’t have new sneakers or new dresses or can’t smoke? We aren’t happy, but this girl who was burned and survived, she works like us. She works forty hours a week. People like that push me to continue because I ought to listen to her. I have no reason to complain. When we burn ourselves with a hairdryer or an iron, we cry. Her whole body was burned. So these women give me courage, and they are women I respect a lot. They are icons; they are symbols.

They inspire me. Like Shérazade Belayni,[3] the young girl, now she is twenty-three, who was also burned alive, who continues the fight, I respect a lot. I participated in her hearings, it was horrible. One of the most powerful days in my life, all the same.

Fadela Amara, all my life I will be grateful to this woman because she is someone who opened the way of the feminist in the quartiers. I had the luck to work with her, to know her. It is a pride to know a woman like that.

Élisabeth Badinter,[4] a great feminist, I had the luck to meet her too, extraordinary. Mukhtar Mai,[5] a woman who wrote a book, a Pakistani who was raped, she fled Pakistan to Bangladesh where she worked and went to school. She did a lot for the education of girls. Samira Bellil,[6]who passed away, was one of the founders of the association Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Dairyatou Bah, who works here with us, who wrote a book called On m’a volé mon enfance, who is a woman who lived through polygamy, excision, forced marriage, she is remarkable. Nujood Ali, the little girl, nine years old, who was married off in Yemen and her husband started to make her sleep with him, even when she said, “No.” She left by train to go before a tribunal, to see a lawyer, and there is also Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein,[7] a Sudanese woman who was condemned to forty lashes because she wore pants. There are many.

I am proud to know these women, to meet them. These are women who made an impression on me. Thanks to them, I am able to live my life differently. Also, the women victims of violence who I meet and all the women who died because they said, “No.” These are people who have marked me.

The discouragement, the disgust, is the men who kill their girlfriends, wives, sisters. Certain men are like that. The men who are violent, it is them who must be condemned, in all the countries, in all the cities, among the rich, among the poor, among the middle class. Cry out. More than anything, the worst thing for parents is to lose their children, and under such circumstances, it’s horrible.

Prevention, it’s necessary to educate people. It’s necessary to educate men, not only women. Unfortunately, there are families who act differently toward the girls and the boys. From the moment of their birth, they should be treated the same. It’s necessary to educate them the same. You shouldn’t say pink is only for girls, that blue is only for boys. Don’t say he is stronger because he is a man, no. It’s necessary to educate directly. 

It’s never too late. All women who survive violence and also people who know women victims of violence, it’s necessary to protest the violence. Tell them that women are courageous. I think that the future is with women and the future rests on women. It’s them who make the world. Also, men should be feminist because it’s thanks to them that we can make progress. And be courageous. Don’t be ashamed to be a victim of violence. Don’t accept it. Continue the fight. It’s not the end.

I would never have believed that I, Mariam Toure, would become a feminist. Five years ago, if you had said to me, “Mariam, you will be a feminist at an association,” I would have laughed. I would have said, “Never in my life." Yet, here I am. 


* Quartier: Also referred to as the cité or quartier populaire, the housing project suburbs that ring major citiesin France; these poor and working class districts are often isolated, packed with immigrants, and rife with violence.    

[1] Pantin: Northeast of Paris, this suburban commune is one of the most densely populated municipalities in Europe.

[2] Créteil: A commune in the southeastern suburbs of Paris.

[3]Shérazade Belayni : Young woman harassed, threatened, and burned alive by Mushtaq Amer Butt because she refused to marry him. Over sixty percent of her body was burned, and still she survived, although scarred.

[4] Élisabeth Badinter: French author, feminist, historian, and professor of Philosophy in Paris.

[5] Mukhtar Mai: Pakistani woman gang raped on the orders of a village council to avenge a falsified misconduct claim against her brother. She spoke up against the crime and fought to bring the rapists to justice.

[6]Samira Bellil: French feminist activist, famous for her autobiography Dans l'enfer des tournantes. The book reveals the gang-rapes and violence she and other girls endured in the quartiers. She died at age 31 of cancer.

[7] Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein: Sudanese Muslim, media worker and activist who was prosecuted for wearing pants; launched a campaign against the Sudanese law, Article 152, which allows the flogging or fining of anyone who “violates public morality or wears indecent clothing,” otherwise sanctioning the beating of women for dress. 

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Community Justice Activism Advocacy
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