Leila Lesbet: « The veil is not a matter of modesty and prudishness, but a means of controlling women’s bodies »
Biography by MC Lortie: Leila Lesbet arrived in Montreal in 2002. « I came here because in Algeria, as a woman, it was no longer possible to live. » A teacher in her country of origin, she found a job in a school here as a special education technician. Basically, she is entrusted with difficult cases and her role is to defuse crises, to make recalcitrant children studious. Soon, she also became involved in the feminist movement. Once an activist, always an activist. Having seen her name displayed in mosques in Algeria, inviting the faithful to murder her because she organized demonstrations against the government, including the March 8, 1994 Women’s march, failed to silence her. She became a member of the Fédération des femmes du Québec (FFQ). Wrote opinion letters. Engaged in discussions. In 2009, she was saddened to see the Federation take a controversial position on the wearing of the veil in public service. She is one of those who believe that the veil is not an accessory or even a religious badge. « It’s an Islam I don’t know, even though I grew up with very religious, very conservative parents. » According to her, the veil is more of a message. A message of submission, a political message that has been in effect since the Iranian revolution of 1979. A step back. ‘’In Muslim countries, women are raped because they refuse to wear it’’, she recalls. « This veil and burqa that we are defending here are stained with the blood of all the teenage girls and women who wanted to say no. » She is so committed to her ideas that she wanted them to be heard by the Fédération des femmes du Québec as part of the Estates General that the organization convened to determine its political orientations for the next 20 years. However, after participating in some activities, including a symposium in May 2012, Leila was told by the organizers of this broad reflection movement that she would not have a place at the discussion tables taking place in preparation for the major final forum in November. « Problematic behaviour », wrote the coordinator of the Estates General, Alice Lepetit. Reading the email where it was announced, Leila thought she was back in Algeria. « Living exclusion here, by women, after what I have experienced, it was painful, » she says. Shocked, she replied: « If I chose exile, it is not to accept, here in Quebec, the actions of potentates… » Leila, however, can’t believe that her ideas, her time, her energy, her willingness to participate have been put aside. « How can they talk about inclusion, intersection, equality? What hypocrisy… »
« I grew up in a traditionalist and religious Muslim family. My father was self-taught, my mother and grandmother illiterate. It was these people who taught me Islam and pushed me to read it, to understand it, but above all not to stop at literal reading, let alone to peddle falsehoods that are especially harmful to women. It is true that all religions only offer women folding seats. And it is also in this family that I learned to use the ijtihad (an intellectual effort that has been part of the Islamic tradition for many centuries) to fight dogmas and blockages in the interpretation of the Koran. The veil is one of those misinterpretations. So, the veil that women wear on their heads and that you seem to find trivial, know that it has no existence in the Koran. You would benefit from reading about this subject, which you defend in the name of the right to be different. The veil is not Muslim, it is our yellow star, we Muslim and non-Islamic women. It has been imposed by Islam, which has been distorted by the alliance of politics and religion for nearly 40 years. It was this Islamist vision that forced me to leave my Algeria to take refuge in Quebec to escape my execution, this fundamentalist vision that your organization seems to have adopted within itself without even understanding the dangers. There is no connection between wearing a piercing or a tuque and wearing a veil: not wearing the formers does not lead to death, whereas derogating from a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, as is the case with the veil, can lead to whipping, imprisonment or even death. In countries where Islamism has imposed itself, women take the risk of assault every day, not for a fault committed, but simply because they are women. I admire these women for what they dare to do in a country where 911 does not exist. Could you look them in the eye and tell them that the veil you are defending in Quebec has another connotation, that it is the symbol of free choice? My mother who wore it because of the imposed tradition has always hated it. We, the daughters of independence, have never worn it. It was a time when the men in my society were more attached to modernity and progress than to women’s hair, which had become a source of perversion. Every action you take here to make political Islam acceptable will reverse the struggle of these women and bring joy to Islamists who impose this veil in Muslim countries. If you were a mother of two girls like me, would you find it normal that they have to hide their hair so that they don’t soil the thoughts of the boys around? In fact, the veil is not a question of modesty and prudishness, but a means of controlling women’s bodies. It was a tradition among the left to take the cause of the oppressed wherever it may be. Today, we see that this ideal is being replaced by cultural relativism, which, for us Muslim women, is the highest form of contempt, since here we are invisible and inaudible if we are not veiled. Take the time to read Olfa Youssef, Ani Zonneveld, Fatima Mernissi, Mohammed Arkoun, Rachid Benzine, Soheib Bencheikh, Tahar Haddad, Chahla Chafiq, to name but a few reformers, who are more and more numerous and who are facing political Islam sponsored by petrodollars and relayed by the community left.’’
For this « VOICE OF WOMEN » evening, it is the story of NEDJMA that I have chosen to tell you about. It is a very powerful experience demonstrating the courage and self-sacrifice of a young woman with multiple resources. NEDJMA’s story is not a fiction but a young woman’s sad and courageous reality.
We all met a NEDJMA on our way. Our duty is to not leave them alone.
Ms Leila Lesbet,
Founding member of PDF Québec (Pour les droits des femmes du Québec)
Montreal, June 7, 2018
« I was born in the wrong country and in the wrong body. In other words, I came into this world with two disabilities.
And as if that wasn’t enough, providence sent me as the youngest child, which makes me a girl surrounded by two males.
This social position in a country like Algeria, which is gradually but surely immersed in a political-religious patriarchy, leaves you with only two choices: to stand up against adversity or to submit to the diktat of the majority, which day by day is abandoning reason in favour of a religiosity of appearance combined with a certain hypocrisy.
Very early on, I knew that my freedom would depend on me and that only education would be my salvation. That is the path I have chosen. It was the only option available to me.
The day I saw my name posted on the list of candidates for the bachelor’s degree*, an indescribable joy overtook me, I no longer felt my being. I felt invincible.
September 2010 will remain engraved in my memory. This is the beginning of the realization of my dream: to enter university and being the only one in the family to give my mother this joy and pride.
I chose to study sociology. I wanted to understand how my society worked in general and my family particularly.
As I prepared for my second birth, the one I chose, my brothers put a condition on my entry into college. This access to education would be conditioned by the wearing of the veil. For me, another fight was starting.
There was no way I was going to accept the situation passively even if my mother was not of much help in this fight. In my father’s lifetime, his sons would never have dared to impose anything on me.
My first year in college was the year of all the battles. I was constantly being watched, by two men who didn’t know what to do with their time while mine was full.
Thus, I accumulated convictions: condemned by my sex, condemned by my society, condemned by the family code. There I was condemned to excellence in my studies and to managing the stress caused by two machos, who could not accept their failure, let alone my success.
Nevertheless, I was able to find my happiness, and my results were very much involved in it. I shared my joy with my mother who was proud of me, even though deep down in her heart she would have liked one of her sons to be in my place.
My excellent results allowed me all the hopes and despaired my brothers to achieve their domination over the female that I am. In their eyes, I was a rebel.
Entering the second year of university made me forget everything I had endured and everything I was going to endure, I no longer thought about it.
I had so much faith in the future, I was so confident in my abilities that I could no longer see anything except my studies, my success that would lead me to freedom.
One evening in 2012, I arrived home after college at the usual time. As soon as I walked through the door of our house, my younger brother greeted me with a pair of resounding slaps that made me stumble. I stumbled not out of weakness but out of the unexpected gesture. I found myself on the ground kicked in the stomach, on the back, on the head, on the thighs, on the chest: no body part escaped the furious madness that inhabited this demon.
When he stopped, I thought my ordeal was over. This was not the case, it was my eldest brother who took over. Every shot I got was punctuated with explanatory sentences, pictures taken with his smartphone, which he wasn’t.
I screamed in pain and especially rage, begging them to let me explain to them that this student, to whom I was speaking, was my partner and that we agreed on the distribution of research and on the drafting of the final text to be given to our teacher.
In a voice I never heard coming from them before, they kept telling me that I shouldn’t talk to anyone of the opposite sex. My youngest brother had even taken a picture of me laughing.
What sacrilege that is!
What profanation did I dare?
Laughing meant that I was communicating my happiness to a stranger… That I was telling him that his presence brought me joy. How could the presence of a man make me happy? In their eyes, this joy was proof of the intimacy that had developed between him and me. What if a neighbour or someone they know had caught me in male company, they repeated. My impudence was bringing our family into disrepute.
How could they think for a moment that I could have a mind as tortured as theirs because of a man’s presence? This person who for me was a colleague, could only be a lover for them. How could my parents have caused such a pathology? My father must be rolling over in his grave.
How could they manage to contain so much hatred towards me?
Am I that dangerous? For whom? Why?
I was alone, left to my torturers.
Where the hell was my mother? Did they take advantage of her absence to plot my death?
No, my mother was there, she saw everything, heard everything, followed everything. She was the only witness to my suffering, to the violence that her sons exerted on my abandoned body.
I even prayed strongly that she would at least pretend to defend me. But no act of compassion came from this woman that only her male offspring could hoist into this society which glorifies the masculine despite the stupidity that determines it.
Here I was lying on the cold ground, which somewhat eased the pain. My body no longer belonged to me, I no longer felt anything except my mother’s indifference and the threats of her two sons to lock me up at home as I was becoming a walking danger to the family’s honour.
By this act, perverse in their eyes, by these words that I had just exchanged with a student, I had just sealed the family’s dishonour.
I admit to having committed a crime, yes, that of having dared to succeed.
My dreams vanished, my world collapsed. To never set foot in college again? I might as well had been in prison or dead.
Everything collapsed around me. I had no control over my body or my future. No freedom, no hope on the horizon. It hurt too much, I didn’t want to suffer anymore. How could I be delivered from the life they were preparing for me?
When my torturers stopped, I barely managed to pick up what little strength they left me, I was alone in the room with a huge window overlooking the street.
I looked at this prison that I no longer wanted to see and that’s when I saw my mother, reflective, sitting on the edge of her bed. Was she proud of her two sons? What was she thinking while the two cowards she generated poured their gall on me?
She showed no compassion, she didn’t try to help me. Why?
Will I ever know?
With my father dead, I really was an orphan.
Fresh, soft air entered through the half-opened window.
For me it was a sign of providence, a call of deliverance. It was time to leave this sordid and evil place. But I didn’t want to leave without telling my great-aunt and friend. I dialed her number, I didn’t give her time to talk, very quickly I told her: « I’m going to kill myself ».
I turned the phone off and moved very quickly to the window.
I gathered my courage and made a three stories jump.
I don’t know what happened next. Distant voices came to me. I was trying to recognize my father’s, my grandmother’s. When I painfully opened my eyes, I saw strangers leaning over this mass of flesh that seemed to be my body. I didn’t feel anything anymore, so I became numb. I came back to myself very slowly. Was I in the world of eternity?
When I regained consciousness, after several days in a semi-coma, I realized that I had just defied death. I felt immortal. This invincibility gave me the courage that my entire family lacked.
The doctor who was treating me explained very clearly in his report that my body was showing signs of extreme violence and that all my injuries were not just the result of my fall.
I didn’t hesitate for a moment to confirm his diagnosis and told him about my ordeal. I had an impartial listening and I had to grasp it.
My mother tried to convince me not to overwhelm her sons. She dared to ask me that when I had just lost the use of my legs. Is it really my mother, that woman who uttered those words when her sons condemned me to the wheelchair?
I categorically refused. I couldn’t stop at this point in my fight. I would maybe never walk again, but they would not go unpunished. It was not my infirmity that seemed to worry her, but the fate of his beloved sons.
I had just decided that my disability would be the price of my freedom.
I conquered death or death did not want me and sent me back to life. Was this a sign of providence?
When you dare to defy death, nothing seems impossible anymore. I had just made a decision that shocked my mother and made her sons tremble. My brothers had the choice of accepting all my requests or answering for their actions before the courts. An act they had premeditated.
I sincerely believed that they would choose to defend their machismo and the pseudo-values that characterized it. To my great surprise, they complied with all my requests. They no longer had a choice.
I must point out that my aunt and her husband strongly supported me in my efforts.
Another battle awaited me, that of recovering the use of my legs. I had to walk again, my brothers could not be the winners.
This lasted two long years between hospitalization, multiple surgeries and rehabilitation. I defied every doctor’s predication that gave me only a fifty percent chance of recovering my motor skills.
My decision was different. I would never be a great sportswoman, of course, but I would walk again, I had to. It is true that I must constantly preserve my weakened legs, that I will often need support, but I am free.
When I came back to life and school, my mother and her sons decided to cut me off. It is the cowards’ way of making women dependent in a country that has lost all reference and where men’s injustice reigns in absolute terms.
I responded to their action with a complaint to claim my share of the inheritance left by my late father. The courts granted me what religious law grants to Muslim women.
I had just won the third run and it wouldn’t be the last.’’
I will conclude by saying:
This is the story of Nedjma, that means star, a predestined name.
I had the privilege of meeting her during a trip to Algeria.
As she told me her story, Nedjma’s radiant face reflected neither hatred or resentment. Her success filled her and gave her incredible strength.
Nedjma obtained her bachelor’s degree in sociology, enrolled in a master’s degree. Today, she has only one goal: to finish her studies and leave this country where she was born and where women no longer have a place.
How many Nedjma are there in the world where patriarchy and religion go hand in hand trying to tarnish their light?
But what would our sky be like without the glitter of these stars?
All the Nedjmas can shine in the skies of their country if the benevolent West, settled in comfort and indifference, decides to reconsider its vision of political Islam rooted in the most degrading patriarchy.
The West cannot and should not see women’s alienation as a form of emancipation or individual choice: every year, the veil ceremony imposed on girls is a form of alienation on which Quebec closes its eyes, as it has done for the Lev Tahor community.
Also, FGM is not a respectable social value, it is a crime against humanity, against girls, against women in the making, we cannot accept it.
No girl, no woman decides on her own that her body is a sexual attraction.
There is no sincere belief if the latter always requires that the sacrifice be associated with the feminine.
Let us not forget: No religion has ever recognized equality between men and women.
For my part, I remain convinced that no Goddess or God can dictate such infamy. «
*French diploma opening access to the University.
Original texte + extracts from:
- Qui a peur de Leila? https://www.lapresse.ca/debats/chroniques/marie-claude-lortie/201302/14/01-4621836-qui-a-peur-de-leila.php
- Le voile est un moyen de contrôle du corps de la femme https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/libre-opinion/543829/le-voile-est-un-moyen-de-controle-du-corps-de-la-femme#