dioufIt’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.