Elevate Difference

Breaking the Silence: French Women’s Voices from the Ghetto

In her recently translated book Breaking the Silence, Fadela Amara attempts to rework and redefine feminism as it relates to her specific time and place. As a Muslim girl of Algerian immigrant parents growing up in the projects, Amara’s experience of feminism as the term is traditionally defined by western academics was non-existent. In fact, her book critiques the very term as it exists now, perceived by her to be owned by the white middle and upper-class women who coined it. Rather than clinging to old ways and means, Amara challenges herself and other women in the projects to find new meaning, "to regroup around essential issues such as the struggle against sexist violence, against conjugal violence, in favor of equal pay, for greater professional mobility."

Starting at zero, Muslim women in the French projects had their work cut out for them, and as this book reveals, rose to the challenge. The original march organizers far surpassed their original expectations. Mothers, once confined and cowed into submission, broke tradition and marched alongside their daughters. Grandmothers, even more entrenched in conventional ways, emerged from crowds along the marchers’ route to whisper blessings in the ears of that younger generation, inspired. Upon their arrival at their final destination in Paris, the marchers were met with astounding support and received a meeting with the Prime Minister to express their motivations for marching and their hopes for the future. These were things Amara never could have conceived of before.

By putting these stories on paper, Amara is able to convey the message that the impossible can become possible through solidarity. In this way, this book is inspirational. The stories collected here represent human will triumphing over oppression; in any context, that is an uplifting thing. The women presented in Breaking the Silence disregard the usual rhetoric and theory surrounding the concept of feminism in favor of pragmatic approaches to results-oriented activism. Their cross-country march earned them respect and visibility. A community once completely invisible within even within the confines of their own homes is now gaining the power to improve the quality of life for Muslim women in the projects. The writing isn’t ground-breaking, but the story is. This may not be the most finely crafted piece of writing, but here, the value lies in the work of raising awareness and spreading information about a social issue barely recognized by France, let alone the rest of the western world. This English translation is an extremely valuable tool in this process. On its own terms Breaking the Silence is a resounding success, a testimonial, a manifesto, and a call-to-arms.

Written by: Kelly Moritz, November 19th 2006