Waiting in France for a fatwa against forced marriages
It’s Ramadan and on a bustling shopping street on the fringes of northern Paris, the holy month is in full swing. Bearded men in long robes collect alms, women in headscarves sell sweet pastries. But the period of fasting and charitable acts has little impact on the work of activist Christine Jamaa, whose office is in a secret location not far from the busy street market.
Jamaa, who heads the Voix de Femmes (Women’s Voice) group helping victims of forced marriage, met me there last week for a interview for my feature “New school year puts French on forced marriage alert.” In the feature, another activist, Fatou Diouf (pictured above in a photo by Jacky Naegelen), told of her family’s attempt to kidnap her and force her into marrying her uncle in Senegal at the age of 18.
While I was in Jamaa’s office, her phone was constantly ringing with emergency calls from threatened girls and women – most of them Muslims of Africa, Asian or Middle Eastern descent. Jamaa herself is a Muslim, like many of the activists who help victims of forced marriage here, and she keeps telling the families and the women at risk that Islam bans forced marriage.
In her experience, however, the families don’t care. “They just pick the parts of Islam that are convenient to them,” she told me. A few years ago, Jamaa worked with an imam to try and use religion to fight the practice. But they had to stop after the imam himself was threatened by angry families.
For now, she believes religion can play a marginal part in dealing with marriage conflicts. Once the girl has fled the family, and the parents show some regret, an imam may be able to smooth the reconciliation process. Faith can also reassure the victims, who almost always feel terribly guilty about running away. And Jamaa believes a strong stance among Muslim leaders could help: “I’m still waiting for a fatwa saying forced marriages are haram (forbidden),” she said with an air of resignation.
Even if such a fatwa were issued, most of these families would probably ignore it. For Fatou Diouf, a French woman of Senegalese descent, the practice is not about religion anyway, but about tradition. Her own ordeal began when she dated a non-Muslim Cameroonian in France at the age of 18. Her family lured her to Senegal, then told her they had already married her off to her 36-year-old uncle in a religious ceremony that did not require her presence.
(Image: Voix de Femmes poster — the text says “Forced marriage … a one-way ticket? The girls refuse.”)
“I had my father on the phone, and he said, I’m fed up with you fooling around in France, you’re going to stay down there,” she told me. Later on, after she escaped, Jamaa travelled back to France and eventually confronted her parents about their betrayal. Her father justified himself – but not by invoking religion. “He said friends had started asking why I was always out, where I was, he said I would be treated like a whore,” she said.
The activists and victims I spoke to cited many different motives for forced marriage in migrant communities here. But the strongest factor seems to be a fear of daughters becoming too independent, too rebellious, “too French”. And even though activists say some of the victims are from Christian, Hindu or Jewish immigrant backgrounds, the majority — based on their accounts — does seem to be Muslim. There are unfortunately no reliable official statistics to give a clearer picture.
One interesting insight the activists gave was that the most fervent young Muslim women – the kind who wear the full veils that have sparked such a lively debate in France – tend to pick their own partners rather than submit to their families’ will. Most fully veiled women say they have chosen to wear the niqab themselves, often against the wishes of their parents. So if their parents try to arrange a union with a man not pious enough for them, they reply by saying Islam forbids forced marriage and then choose a similarly devout spouse.