Remembering Samira Bellil
You never really die, if your memory's still alive."
Samira Bellil died on September 3, 2004, at the young age of 31, from stomach cancer.
You may not have heard of her, so I will tell you about her life.
She was a beautiful woman who didn't deserve what befell her. You wonder why fate hands down such brutal judgements against some and spares others.
Samira, a blue-eyed Algerian girl, was born on November 27 1972 in Algiers, and moved to Seine-Saint-Denis, an immigrant enclave outside of Paris, France with her parents.
Her home life appeared troubled from early on, as her father was arrested and jailed for what Samira called, "stupidities". She was sent off during this period to a foster home in Belgium, a peaceful and happy place for her, a time of contentment away from home.
She returned unhappily to her family after five years, summoned back to her parents "like a parcel" she said, and found her freed father, distant and violent.
You have to imagine what her home life was like for Samira. She lived in the Projects, the French version of the Ghetto, or HLMs.
These enclaves or Quartiers were originally set up by the French, to provide cheap housing for North African and Turkish Muslims, and other poor immigrants who provided unskilled labor, doing the jobs, like collecting the trash, that the French abhored.
But over the years, the Quartiers degenerated in to prison blocks, high rise bastions of unemployment, non-assimilation, and despair, intermixed with strict Islamic customs. Women and girls bore the brunt of these hostile conditions, inhabiting a no-man's land of crime, rape, and hopelessness.
In this environment, the "Message" was given to all Muslim females like Samara. As Rebecca Hillauer tells us in Sight and Sound, the "Message" was: take on traditional female roles, dress chastely, don't go out and most importantly, remain a virgin until you marry.
It was during her teenage years, that Samira started rebelling against the "message", going out, meeting boys, standing up against the tight societal structures of her Muslim background and the Quartier. They were acts of defiance on Samara's part, and acts of courage, because girls that went against the norm suffered dire consequences.
One such dire consequence happened to 18 year old Sohane Benziane of Vitry-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris. As Rebecca Hillauer tells us, on October 4, 2002, Benziane,
the daughter of Kabyle immigrants, was burned alive. The perpetrators were two men her age of North African descent. They lured the girl, who refused to submit to the "norms of the neighbourhood", into a cellar. While one kept watch outside, the other poured gas over Sohane and set her on fire with a lighter.
Samira, I think, probably wished she too would have died, than face what happened to her.
She was raped.
As Samira sorrowfully noted in an interview with CBS' 60 Minutes: "I was gang raped by three people I knew, and I couldn't say anything, because in my culture, your family is dishonored if you lose your virginity," says Bellil. "So I kept quiet, and the rapes continued. The next time, I was pulled off a commuter train and no one lifted a finger to help me. Everybody turned their head away. They were all looking out the window."
Rose George writing in The Guardian, has an even more graphic description of what happened to Samira: Samira was first gang-raped when she was 14, when her boyfriend handed her over to three of his friends. They beat her viciously, raped her all night, and then made her breakfast. A month later, the most violent rapist, K, dragged her off a train by her hair, while other passengers looked the other way, and she was gang-raped again.
In all, Samira bore the agony of three gang rapes, or what the French call "tournates," or pass-rounds, because the girl was passed around like a joint.
Raped by multiple youths and men. And not uncommon.
As Samira said in a CNN Interview, There was a trial in Lille where a 13- year-old girl was gang raped by 80 men. Yes. Sometimes it's 80 or 50 or 10. It's absolutely terrible.
Samira further told CBS' 60 Minutes about a case in Argenteuil, "In the case of Argenteuil, it was horrible. A young woman was raped in a school. Of course, everybody knew, but they're so afraid of these young men that they prefer to close their eyes. That's the price of peace in the ghettos."
After the rapes, most of the victims remained silent. Silenced by custom. Silenced by their faith. Silenced by fear. Silenced by their families.
There was and is a real fear for the victims of these rapes to report such horrible deeds. The danger of reprisals in the Quartier is great. Apartments have been burned down, family members threatened with further rapes, the victim killed. Those are the physical effects. The mental anguish these girls faced, came from reporting a rape and bringing shame and humiliation to themselves and their custom-laden Muslim families, with the victim being cast out, tossed aside by their humiliated families and sentenced to a life of degredation on the streets.
These same fears plagued Samira and she too remained silent.
Until she found out, in talking with two of her friends, that one of her attackers K had raped them too.
Samira had had enough. She was furious.
She filed charges against K, who was found guilty, and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Results were predictable.
Her Muslim family threw Samira out on the streets - her neighborhood, the Quartier rejected her.
Foster homes followed for Samira, squatting in abandoned buildings, life on the streets, hopelessness, self-loathing, years of drug abuse.
Time passed, and Samira found a sympathetic psychologist, a kind person to confide in, who helped her, as she underwent years of therapy to restore her spirit and self-worth.
She made a decision to write a book about her experiences, to show other young women that there was a way out. In 2002 her courageous book, Dans l'enfer des tournantes or In the hell of the tournantes (gang-rapes) was published. It was an autobiographical look at the horrors and degradations that she and other women encountered in the French ghetto and how she survived them. As she said in the book's dedication, to her fellow sisters in trouble, about coping with and surviving such horrific experiences, "It's long and it's difficult, but it's possible..." She also bravely used her real name in the publication of the book and a picture of herself on the cover, despite the fact that she was once again living in the same Quartier as her attacker, K.
It was in the same year of 2002, that Samira rallied for her fellow sisters in trouble after becoming infuriated upon learning of the torturous death of Sohane Benziane, who as mentioned earlier, was doused with gasoline, set on fire, and burned alive by a gang leader. Said Samira to CNN, Before, they would rape us. Now, they're burning us alive. Sohane can't speak anymore, so I'm going do the talking.
And talking she did, as Samira became a patron of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, which in English translates to, We're neither whores nor doormats, a movement that sprang out of the ghettos, made up of mostly immigrant women who fought back against, the gang rapes and violence that plague their neighborhoods. In her role with Ni Putes Ni Soumises, Samira led demonstrations and marches across France, speaking out against the violence and rapes, and lobbied to, set up shelters to help protect the women at risk.
However, it was a heavy toll for Samara. As she told Rose George, "I can't carry all that violence forever".
Still, she seemed to have finally turned a corner with her life. She was close once again with her two sisters and reconciled with her mother. She had moved back to her Quartier, working there as a youth worker and doing drama, which she loved...and she even decided that not all men are bastards, as she put it...and she wanted to fall in love.
And then she was struck down with stomach cancer.
She died two years ago, this month.
We wish her the peace, she was denied in life.
Postscript: To honor her courage, the French government chose Samira, as one of the new Mariannes, the new faces of France.... In 2005, to honor her memory, France named a school in l'Île-Saint-Denis after her, the Ecole Samira Bellil.
Samira Bellil - Wikipedia
The Guardian - Obituary - Samira Bellil: Courageous writer who forced France to confront the outrage of gang rape
CBS News, 60 Minutes: The New French Revolution - Population Of France Is Almost 10 Percent Muslim
Sign And Sight: Neither whores nor submissive
CNN: Insight - Muslim Women Rebel In France
Washington Post: Samira Bellil, French Author and Rights Activist, Dies