I know pretty much the whole world is up in arms about Cuties, the French film set in a housing project or cite in an inner ring suburb / banlieue or outer ring arrondissement in Paris. Initially, I had only heard about the outrage, vaguely how this film was on the order of a snuff film starring very young girls, but for pedophiles. I’m in the midst of trying to save my life and career, which is weirdly isolating, in that I just don’t have the time or the energy to worry about anything online that doesn’t directly concern me. But the outrage had crescendoed to the extent that it penetrated my cocoon of infamy and vengeance.
I had no idea that this was a French film set in the housing projects of the suburbs of Paris until I started watching it on Netflix. I was shocked. I’ve also been meaning to watch Les Miserables, a similarly situated Academy award nominated French film, also on Netflix, but I haven’t yet.
A decade ago now (how time flies!), during the year following my graduation from Fordham law school in NYC, I worked with Ni Putes Ni Soumises in Paris, France, as a Human Rights Fellow. I was awarded a fellowship from my law school in Spring 2009, the year that the bottom fell out of the legal profession, especially for human and civil rights attorneys. I felt very lucky. I had the option to work with any human rights organization in the world for a year, and I chose Ni Putes Ni Soumises, following an online search. I tried desperately to freshen up my French. I contacted Ni Putes Ni Soumises and told them that I wanted to come work for them for a year for free, and they immediately agreed. The French Consulate in NYC was less convinced that this was a good idea. Being the naive open book that I am, I just guilelessly fessed up that I intended to embark on a sociological study on access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights for the girls and women of the banlieues surrounding Paris, the suburban housing projects predominantly comprised of Muslim immigrant communities.
Ni Putes Ni Soumises may not exist anymore, and that makes me incredibly sad. As a French newspaper said not long ago, “It’s the end of an era.” Ni Puts Ni Soumises, which translates as Neither Whores Nor Submissives, roughly, is a fierce women’s rights organization, born as a response to the egregious violence perpetrated against the women and girls of the banlieues. It began as a 40 day march across France, to the French Parliament in Paris, led by Fadela Amara, Ni Putes Ni Soumises’ first President, after a young girl was burned alive behind a dumpster, in a banlieue.
The three pillars of Ni Putes Ni Soumises are secularism, actually the strict French version thereof, gender equality, and gender desegregation. Ni Putes Ni Soumises take an uncompromising stance on women’s rights as universal human rights. They demand that women have full and unfettered access to the public space, as part and parcel of their French citizenship.
During my year with Ni Putes Ni Soumises, hardly a week would go by when we were not marching through the banlieues, being filmed by broadcast and cable news, chanting slogans, after a woman had been burned to death by her husband in front of her children, raped and murdered, or terrorized for staging a play about Muslim immigrant women’s oppression.
Ni Putes Ni Soumises was, unsurprisingly, a very provocative organization, often accused of stigmatizing the Muslim immigrant communities in France, especially in the ghettoized housing projects, or cites, of the suburbs, the banlieues. Ni Putes Ni Soumises condemns racism and is happy to march alongside the communities in which most of the activists grew up, to condemn the marginalization and dehumanization of their brethren, but they also reject political Islam (Islamism) and cultural relativism and insist that women can only be fully citizen under a secular government.
While I was with Ni Putes Ni Soumises, in 2010, the entire nation was in an uproar over the proposed anti-face mask law, colloquially known as the burqa ban. I marched with Ni Putes Ni Soumises in front of the French Parliament, in faux burqas, in support of the law, which Ni Putes Ni Soumises regards as a simple safety provision, as well as a civil rights and public desegregation measure, along the lines of the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the United States. We also placed a huge black burqa over a statue of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, in the Place de la Republique.
We participated in a town hall on the burqa ban in an inner ring banlieue, at an elementary school, that erupted repeatedly into violence. I was filming the event. There were women in niqab speaking and denouncing Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Lubna Ahmed Al Hussein, the Sudanese UN worker who had been sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing pants in Khartoum was present. She had escaped to France in a burqa and was being sheltered by Ni Putes Ni Soumises. At one point, when the event erupted into violence, I scurried out a side door. Thank goodness we were not in the US, or someone probably would have started shooting a gun. From the outside, I could look in through the large windows. I found myself standing next to a woman in hijab. We looked at each other with wide eyes. She grabbed my hand when people started grabbing and pushing in the interior of the room. “C’est chaud,” she said, meaning: “Things are getting heated.” I only responded, “Oui.”
With the permission of the then President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, Sihem Habchi, I conducted a sociological study in the banlieues with a small troupe of international interns on access to sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights for the women and girls of the cites. We would take a train and a bus and another bus out to an isolated French suburb near one of the housing projects involved in the 2005 or 2007 riots, which were, not dissimilar to what is happening in the US currently, embroiled in rioting and fires, following the deaths of young dark skinned Muslim immigrant men at the hands of the French police. It was a profound and eye opening experience, to say the least.
We created a survey, in French and Arabic, asking intimate questions about their sex lives, including how many abortions they had had, if they had used the morning after pill, and if they went to the gynecologist regularly. We would stand on street corners, near the mosque or housing project, and speak to any women or girls who passed by. Most were at least in hijab or chador. There were a few women in niqab, with their faces fully covered below the eyes. The women and girls, for the most part, were very happy to speak with us. We took care to only speak with the women, and we tried to avoid provoking the men or capturing their notice. When the men did take notice of us, or even approach us, we would just pretend to be clueless American college girls, working on a project for college. We would usually leave as quickly as we came, once we drew the attention of the men in the community.
I was quite and pleasantly surprised that the women were happy to answer all of our questions typically. They usually asked to have the questions read aloud to them. Sometimes they were unable to read. They did not seem to be concerned to answer in front of others. They usually wanted to speak about how angry they were at the French government for abandoning them with nothing but crumbling housing projects, out in the middle of nowhere, with no access to education or jobs or reasonable transportation into the city or anywhere. They wanted very much to take us home for tea usually. In some suburbs we would speak with young girls in blue jeans and uncovered heads, hanging out at the new McDonald’s. There was a range of attitudes that we encountered, attitudes towards assimilation and sexual mores, but, regardless, everyone seemed open to speaking with us about any topic. Of course, most of the young seemed eager, if able, to be like any other French girl, enjoying her youth and beauty and freedom.
While at Yale, I told Jack Dovidio, my Statistics Professor in the Psychology Department, that I was holding onto a treasure trove of data. As my final project, I conducted a rudimentary statistical analysis. And, there was a very particular question I was hoping to answer. I was looking for a preference for emergency contraception over regular birth control (oral contraceptives or the patch, etc.) in young women and girls, especially Muslim young women, and I found statistically significant results.
I had been told repeatedly, especially by young women and girls from Muslim families, that they preferred to use emergency contraception as their primary form of birth control, because it was easier to hide from their families than oral contraceptives would have been.
I had had a similar experience in Rabat, Morocco, when I spent the summer there, working with the Moroccan Organization for Human Rights. I was visiting with a family in their home, the home of a young woman, who was the girlfriend of a young man who was the good friend of a young man whom I had met and befriended in Rabat. I had dinner with them, and I ended up spending the night. I wanted very much to speak to the women when I was there, and I would just let people take me home with them. Everyone wanted to take me home with them for dinner and to meet their families, and I would let them. I know that might sound crazy, but I really wanted to speak especially with the women and girls about their lives, and that was the best way to do it.
So, this one evening, after dinner, we were watching tv, and the elderly mother of this young woman was sitting with us, and she didn’t speak French, but the daughter would translate into French from Arabic, and the mother really seemed to want to speak with me and to tell me about her life. And, I was very happy to listen and to ask questions.
And, she had been married to her much older husband, sitting in the next room, when she was a very young girl. She said that she was so young that she wasn’t very good at cooking or housework, and he would beat her mercilessly. She had had a large number of children from a very young age, and she was quite old. The young woman who had invited me was in her early twenties at the time and was this woman’s youngest child. At least a few of her older siblings were living in France. It seemed that the goal of most young people in Rabat, Morocco, was to get to France, somehow, some way.
We were watching a rap music video on tv, with women in thongs grinding against one another and various young men. It made the old woman laugh uproariously. I asked the elderly woman what she thought of the video and the nudity and the promiscuous behavior. She said that this is for the young, not her. She seemed completely unfazed by it. I asked her if she was happy. She said that she was very happy. She said that she loved her husband very much and all of her children. She said that she did not bear any grudge about how difficult her life had been. She showed me pictures of all of her children, including her children living in France.
The young woman and I slept in one room, on couches. She showed me where she stashed her birth control pills. She swore me to secrecy. As we fell asleep, we could hear her parents cooing at one another and giggling in the next room. “Lovebirds,” their daughter whispered to me and laughed quietly. I was so struck by the scene.
While I was in Rabat, Morocco, when I was living in an apartment building in the city center, I would hear the maids being beaten and I would cry myself to sleep. I told the young man whom I had befriended. He simply said there was nothing to do and that this is just the way things were. He advised me not to say anything to anyone.
I also had an experience meeting a young girl who was homeless. She hung out at the telephone cafe where the young man worked. He told me that her mother had thrown her out of her house, because her father had said that he wanted to start having sex with her, with his own daughter. The young man whom I knew told me that it was better for her to be living on the streets than to be raped by her own father, and that her mother had acted out of love for her.
I fear that this blog post is getting too long. And, I haven’t even addressed my initial reaction to Cuties yet! I want to wrap this up. But, I have much more to say. I believe that I will write multiple blog posts about Cuties. I have also invited Gretchen Mullen, skepticreview89, and MisfitPoise, from Twitter, to respond. I will post their responses. And, we’ll have something of a conversation via blog post.
So, I wanted to tell you about all of these experiences I had had, because, obviously, these experiences very much inform my reaction to the film.
My reaction to the film was very much along the lines of Misfit Poise’s reaction and Gretchen’s reaction.
I think the film is much more about the relationships between the mothers and the daughters, and how Muslim immigrant women and their girl children navigate a new life in France and straddle two cultures, the culture of their birth, a Muslim immigrant / African culture, and the culture of their newfound home, secular and libertine modern France.
Just like the elderly woman living in Rabat, Morocco, laughing at women gyrating in thongs on the television, seemingly at ease with this display of flesh, yet her daughter hid her birth control pills from her. Just like how young women and girls in the Muslim immigrant communities in the housing projects in the ghettoized suburbs around Paris use emergency contraception as their primary form of contraception, because it’s easier to hide from their families.
The mother in Cuties tells the grandmother to leave her daughter alone, while the daughter is dressed like a whore. She tells her she need not attend her father’s wedding to his new, younger second wife. But, this same mother had a man, whom I presume was the local imam, check her daughter for demons after performing something of an exorcism on the girl.
It seems to be ok for the young to adopt the dress and habits and tastes of libertine France, as long as the young girls are not adopting the sexual mores of libertine France. Skimpy clothing? yes. As long as chastity and virginity are maintained.
I have so much more to say, but I think I’ll stop here for the moment. But, I didn’t feel that this was a movie made for pedophiles. I do completely understand why some of the scenes with the very young girls dancing and gyrating on the floor, etc. were very disturbing for a lot of viewers. Of course I do. But, I don’t think this was the point of the film by any stretch of the imagination.
I also want to end by saying that I didn’t feel that the film was hyperbolic in its characterization of the day to day life of a young girl like Amy. I do think very young girls feel tremendous pressure to be cool, to be liked by boys, and girls, and to be very sexual from a very young age. And, girls are nothing less than vicious to one another at that age. And, for someone from a strict religious and insular culture, it’s almost impossible not to blunder and egregiously violate social conventions where are entirely foreign to you. I had this kind of experience growing up in a strict and misogynistic religious cult, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and then attending public school. I have so many memories of my blunders that make me cringe in shame to this day. I wanted so desperately to be cool, to be popular, to be liked by the boys, to be thought of as pretty and beautiful and sexy and desirable. Thank God there was no internet and no social media. Phew.
More to follow.
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