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Samira Bellil was a feminist French activist and a campaigner for women’s rights. She rose to fame in France with the publication of her 2002 book entitled “Dans l’Enfer des Tournantes” meaning in the hell of gang rape.
The book discusses the violence that women are subjected to in predominantly African and North African immigrant outskirts of Paris. She uses her own experiences and the ones of the females around her to highlight the predicaments faced by young girls in the poor banlieue of French cities. This book made Samire infamous, because it was the first time a young woman had dared to speak out about the reality of her life in the deprived ghettos.
Living in these areas, it’s a standard occurrence to witness violence against young women. Gang rapes have been normalised to the point that they’re not even called gang rapes, but tournantes. Tournantes means pass-around, meaning the girl is passed around like a joint. Bellil strongly desired to live freely as a young French woman and rebelled against the traditional constraints of her community. As a teen, she wanted to go out, meet boys, rebel. This was considered dangerous behaviour.
In these macho environments, a girl’s reputation is considered sacred. In these communities, girls who dared to wear make-up, drink or go out were considered fair game for a tournante. The caution towards these young women often when something like “behave or you will end up in someone’s basement.” Everybody knew what that meant.
At 14 years old, Samira was gang raped for the first time. Her boyfriend decided to hand her over to three of his friends and she was helpless to stop him. They viciously beat her and raped her all night before making her a breakfast. This was considered normal behaviour. She writes about how she was then repeatedly gang-raped as a teenager by gangs which were led by people she knew.
A month after that first attack, one of the most violent attackers in the gang followed her and dragged her off a train by her hair. Meanwhile all the other passengers looked the other way. She was again brutally raped by this boy.
Her rapes went unreported until two friends told her that the same gang had also sexually assaulted them. Samira then decided that she would appeal to the French legal system to prosecute the men that had attacked her. This decision was not without it’s consequences. Consequences that Samire and all of her peers were very familiar with. Revenge is all too common in these situations. Flats burned down, little sisters threatened. But Samira decided to prosecute in spite of these things.
In the end, the most violent attacker and the leader of the gang was sentenced to eight years in prison. Her parents kicked her out of her house believing that they were shamed by her presence. Her neighbourhood also ousted her immediately. Bellil wrote that “people outside the community don’t know. And everyone in the community knows, but they won’t say anything.”
But, refusing to be diminished, she published her book. She used her real name and put her cover in the photo. This was all the more courageous when you consider that she had chosen to remain in the same area. And her attacker lived there too.
Eventually, she found a psychologist who helped her to overcome both her traumatic experiences and her need for revenge. She had years of therapy, and described how she decided to write her book to show other young gang-rape victims that there was a way out. “It’s long and it’s difficult, but it’s possible,” she wrote. She dedicated the book to her “sisters in trouble” and to Boris Cyrulnik, her therapist.
Bellil was a key role in the foundation of the group “Ni Putes Ni Soumises” which means “neither whores nor submissives.” The organisation was founded to address the issue of violence against young French women. Through numerous marches and press conferences organised to bring attention to these tragic events in the French banlieue, they managed to draw the attention of the French and European press.
Both Bellil’s book and the activism of the organisation had a huge role in the Paris government and the mayor’s offices deciding to investigate the problem of violence relating to young women in these communities. A writer from the Guardian once told a story that displayed her huge strength at a public debate. After a young man antagonised Samira by asking what was wrong with gangbangs, she looked exhausted. But she had the perfect response; “Firstly mate, get it straight. It was not a gang bang. I was gang-raped. Ok?” She maintained eye contact with him until he backed down.
During one of her final interviews, she stated that she “can’t carry all that violence forever”. Through devoting her time to drama, the thing she loved, and working as a youth worker in her area, she managed to slowly find some peace. After reuniting with her mother and two sisters, she even decided that, and I quote, not all men are bastards. She was ready to settle down, fall in love and be normal. After all those violent experiences and a seemingly endless fight, she died on the fourth of September 2004 of stomach cancer in Paris. She was 31.
She was honoured in many ways. Her portrait was hung outside the French national assembly, she was chosen as one of the new Mariannes (the faces of France) and in 2005 a French school in l’Île-Saint-Denis was named in her honor: Ecole Samira Bellil.
It’s hard to find any comfort in this story. Bellil spent her life battling against her life circumstances that she knew were unjust, and then she had an early death. I could say something clichéd like her legacy lives on, and it does. But I like to take inspiration from Samira’s courage and strength. She was a fighter, and we can’t begin to estimate the effect that her work had on the world.