Middle East studies in the News
'I Could not Forget What Happened to Me That Night With Him' [on Tariq Ramadan]
by Carlotta Gall and Eloise Stark
The Facebook post, coming shortly after the terrorist attack by Islamist extremists at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris in November 2015, fell like a bombshell in the febrile atmosphere in France.
Henda Ayari, a French citizen of North African parentage, posted two photographs of herself — one in a full black Islamic veil, the other in a tight jacket and T-shirt, bareheaded — and wrote a bitter denunciation of Salafism and its encouragement of violent jihad among young French Muslims.
She described how, as a student, she had been drawn into the fundamentalist Islamist sect of Salafism, and how, after 10 years of marriage and with three children, she had fought to break out of what she calls the straitjacket of radical Islam.
Two weeks ago, she set off another uproar. Sitting at her computer and reading the accounts of women outing their sexual aggressors in the #MeToo campaign on social media after the Harvey Weinstein scandal, she joined in and identified the man she says raped her five years ago.
"It was something in my heart," she said in a telephone interview last week. "I had a lot of difficulty with this for years, and I could not forget what happened to me that night with him, and so I decided."
"I just thought at that moment to free myself, free my words, and that did me some good, it relieved me a bit," she said. "But, the name, I did not think it would cause such a noise."
The man she accused of raping her in a Paris hotel room in the spring of 2012, and who she says threatened her into silence, was Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss-born Muslim scholar who teaches contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University and who is a familiar face on television news programs, speaking about Islam and the Western world.
The same day Ms. Ayari exposed him on Facebook, she filed a complaint about the assault with the police in her hometown, Rouen, France. She has accused Mr. Ramadan of rape, sexual assault, willful violence, harassment and intimidation, her lawyers said.
Mr. Ramadan said in an announcement on his Facebook page over the weekend that the allegations were unfounded and that they were part of an organized campaign of slander by his enemies. He added that he had ordered his lawyer to sue Ms. Ayari for defamation. "The law has to take its course," he wrote. "My attorney is handling the case, we expect a long and bitter fight."
Ms. Ayari, 40, is a fighter.
After the 2015 Facebook post, she went on to write a book, "I Chose to be Free: A Survivor of Salafism in France," which exposed the mental and physical subjugation that she and other women suffered inside the Salafi community. She also described a sexual assault, though she did not identify her alleged assailant by name.
That stance brought her threats and condemnation, even from her own family. She is not on speaking terms with either of her parents, and her eldest son, now 18, has sided with her Salafi ex-husband against her. Now, she has once again been subjected to torrents of online abuse.
She grew up in a working class family in Rouen, the daughter of an Algerian father and Tunisian mother, both Muslims but not particularly religious. Her parents divorced when she was young and both remarried, leaving Ms. Ayari feeling insecure and unwanted.
She enrolled in college to study psychology and began to explore religion. She started to wear the veil and was quickly welcomed into a circle of conservative Muslims. Within months, they had set her up with a Tunisian Salafi who lived in Lyon. They married when she was 21.
One of the first things her husband, Bachir, did was buy her a jilbab, which covers a women from head to toe, and a niqab, the veil that hides all but the eyes. The niqab was, in his words, the height of religiosity, the female garb that most pleased Allah.
For the next 10 years, Ms. Ayari lived a life of almost complete seclusion, bearing three children, sometimes spending days without leaving her bedroom and barely talking to anyone outside her husband's family and immediate circle. Salafis teach that only they follow the true way, drawn from the time of the Prophet Muhammad. They reject association with those outside their sect.
The family survived on government aid, as her husband spent his time with Salafi companions at the mosque. As the children grew up, she urged him to find work but he complained that racism and discrimination in France prevented him from finding a job. She gradually came to regard his Salafi dress and long beard as an excuse not to work.
As their marriage deteriorated, she said, her husband became abusive. When a social services official told her she lived in a prison and advised her to seek psychological help, she realized she had to break out.
"It is a trap, especially for women, because they say you have to take the veil, and marry and not study, and they want you just to be a submissive woman," she wrote.
She began to question the patriarchal Salafist strictures that command adherents to obey the example of the prophet unquestioningly, and that seemed arranged particularly to suit men.
Eventually, Ms. Ayari fled with her children. But restarting her life as a single mother while grappling with a crisis of faith proved to be too big a leap. She suffered a nervous breakdown and lost custody of her children for two years.
The internet and particularly Facebook have been her companions along the way. As she started questioning the extreme ideology of Salafism, she began following the teaching of Mr. Ramadan, who became an online instructor and mentor, eventually suggesting they meet in Paris where he was attending a conference.
She said she viewed him as a saint, and was shocked and terrified by what she says was his violent assault and his threats to her to remain silent afterward.
Since naming him as her attacker, she says she has been inundated with insults and abuse. "The reaction, the buzz, really frightened me," she said in the phone interview.
"I am very scared of being recognized when I go out in the street," she went on. "I am scared that they will hurt my children, that they know where I live. It is very hard."
Yet, she says the messages she has received from other women, many of them in abusive marriages or struggling with similar dilemmas over abandoning the veil, give her a sense of purpose.
Two years ago she founded a nonprofit association called Liberatrices, which helps Muslim women in the same straits she had been in. She gives talks in schools and at workshops against radical Islam, and helps women seeking legal advice and refuge from abuse.
Banning the burqa and niqab, as France has, was not the solution, she said. Salafi leaders have used the ban to stoke anger among their followers, and many women have opted to stay home rather than go out without the coverings, and so have become even more isolated.
Instead of being hit with fines, women should be made to attend educational workshops, she said. "You need to resolve the problem with discussion, comprehension, softness and above all not exclusion."
And countering the Salafist message, she said, is essential.
"I took a long time to open my eyes, to understand that they indoctrinated us," she said. "It is important to say to all women that they should speak out, that they should not be scared, that they are not inferior beings to men, that they are equal to men, that they should fight to be respected and that you do not have to wear a veil to be a good Muslim."Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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