By Sylvie Kauffmann
November 13, 2017
If you thought it was challenging for women to come forward and accuse Harvey Weinstein of rape, consider accusing the Islamic theologist Tariq Ramadan. Emboldened by the enormous response in France to the #MeToo wave that was born in Hollywood, two Frenchwomen decided last month to sue Mr. Ramadan for rape and sexual abuse. One of the women, Henda Ayari, has gone public. The second has described her ordeal to journalists but has remained anonymous. And for good reason: Henda Ayari has had to appeal for help after becoming the target of a vicious campaign of insults and slander on social networks, mostly from Muslim extremists. Mr. Ramadan, a grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, denies the accusations.
It is not only that the Swiss-born Mr. Ramadan, 55, who has taken a leave of absence from Oxford University, where he has taught contemporary Islamic studies (a chair financed by Qatar), is a prominent figure on the intellectual and religious Islamic scene in France. What makes his accusers particularly brave is that they, like him, are practicing Muslims. By the very fact of having spent time alone with him, they have, in the eyes of rigorist teachings of Islam, violated the rules of modesty that women are required to follow.
The sexual revolution that liberated Western women in the 20th century has yet to occur in most of the Muslim world. But we may be seeing a beginning, six years after the crushed hopes of the Arab revolutions. In North Africa, at least, and in the Arabic communities within France, the seeds of women’s rebellion are bearing fruit slowly. Tunisia, the one Arab country that did not turn its back on the Arab Spring, is breaking barriers.
“In Arabic, revolution means whirlwind,” the Tunisian film director Kaouther Ben Hania, a woman, recently told the French public radio channel France-Inter. “So it turns everything upside down, it changes everything, and overnight we find ourselves talking about everything, while under the dictatorship we did not talk. I would never have been able to do this movie before the revolution.”
Just released in France and in her country, Ms. Ben Hania’s movie “The Beauty and the Dogs” is a harrowing tale of a 20-year-old student raped by two policemen in Tunis after being caught walking on a beach with a boyfriend at night. The film concentrates on the night that follows, during which Mariam, the student, tries stubbornly to file a complaint, which would require getting a doctor to examine her and policemen to take her testimony. Gradually, as hours pass and she encounters more obstacles, her violated dignity leads to a political awakening. Threatened with arrest at dawn, she does not give in. In the end, Ms. Ben Hania explains, “it is the policemen who are afraid of her. Fear has changed sides.”
Ms. Ben Hania, 40, is one of several Arab women now raising their voices in North Africa and in France. The New Year’s Eve attacks by mostly Arab migrants on German women in Cologne in 2016 shed light on what the Algerian author and columnist Kamel Daoud described as “the sexual misery of the Arab world.” His scathing text, published in Le Monde and The New York Times, shocked a group of French academics, who accused him of indulging in “Orientalist clichés.” But when the video of a young woman sexually assaulted by a group of teenagers on a bus in Casablanca, Morocco, went viral this summer, those academics kept silent.
Neither did they utter a word when the Moroccan actress Loubna Abidar had to take refuge in France last year after receiving death threats for her role in “Much Loved,” a Franco-Moroccan film about prostitutes that was banned in Morocco.
As more women emerge, in France, Switzerland and Belgium, with allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Ramadan, a picture emerges of the domination exercised over women by a powerful Islamic theologian who had also impressed some left-wing French intellectuals and television hosts. It is a picture of a double life that those who had scrutinized him had long suspected. The French feminist writer Caroline Fourest, his archenemy, says she had been approached by some of his victims but was not able to persuade them to file complaints.
Bernard Godard, a former official of the Ministry of Interior, where he was for many years the main expert on Islam before retiring three years ago, even told the French magazine L’Obs last week that he had heard that Tariq Ramadan had “mistresses, that he consulted sites, that girls were brought to the hotel at the end of his lectures, that he invited some to undress, that some resisted and that he could become violent and aggressive.” But he admitted to being “stunned” by the latest allegations, of rapes. “I have never heard of rapes,” he said.
Double life is a familiar theme, as is sexual misery, in a very revealing book just published in France, “Sexe et Mensonges: La Vie Sexuelle au Maroc” (“Sex and Lies: Sex Life in Morocco”), by the Franco-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani. A celebrated author in France, Ms. Slimani, 36, took advantage of a book tour in Morocco to interview all sorts of women about sex, men, family, women, religion and dress codes.
The world they describe is a world of hypocrisy, where appearance and reality clash constantly, where sex is a source of shame but on everybody’s mind, where the cult of virginity — demanded only of women — leads veiled girls to favour sodomy and oral sex to keep their hymen intact or to pay for hymen reparation before getting married. They tell Ms. Slimani of a schizophrenic society, torn between submission and transgression, where the law prohibits sex outside marriage but where everybody does it — in hiding. They feel sorry for mothers who had to give up a school they loved to marry a man they did not choose. They are sick of the chaos that mass consumption of pornography on the internet adds to teenagers’ confused view of sexuality.
Women are on the front line of this indispensable revolution, because they are the first victims of Islamic obscurantists. Ironically, this world of religious dogmas about sexuality was once a very different world. Ten centuries ago, Arabic erotica written by religious dignitaries and sophisticated dictionaries of sex shocked the West. Six decades ago, women wore miniskirts in Kabul and in Tunis.
Today, they just want to decide freely who they are, what they wear, whom they love and when. Make no mistake. In the environment they live in, that is a highly political demand.
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor in chief of Le Monde, and a contributing opinion writer.