The Attacks on Muslim Women and their Union

ACORN International Anti-Racism France

Lyon    Traveling from Paris, we arrived in time to meet the head organizer of ACORN’s affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, in Lyon for a quick coffee, and then were off to a community center in one of the housing complexes where we had a chapter organization.  We passed by the building where, earlier in the week, we had hung a banner in a joint action with Greenpeace, which we had also duplicated in Grenoble and Aubervilliers, demanding energy and climate-saving weatherization in the buildings in conjunction with the action in Glasgow at COP26.

In ones and twos, leaders of the Alliance chapters came into the large, chilly meeting room of the center, but first I had a chance to visit in some depth with the co-chair of the Alliance, Sanaa Souid, about their project, the Muslim Women’s Union.  Although this is just one of many Alliance/ACORN initiatives in France, this work has raised the profile of the Alliance over the last several years and triggered intense repression of the organization in some instances as the French government continues its insistence on mono-culturalism in the country.

The law in France both protects religious practice and bans discrimination, but the practice has included aggressive, government-supported challenges to some of the more visible expressions of Muslim women including the scarf.  These bans have excluded Muslim women from public employment either directly or through contractors.  They have also excluded them in joining with their families in public facilities like swimming pools and from participation in women’s sports in most instances.

When we had met near St. Etienne, not far from Lyon in 2019 for our international organizers meeting, the organization had already conducted a number of swim-ins where authorities had closed the pools in the area when women with head coverings and modest suits had jumped in the water.  That fall and in 2020, the Muslim Women’s Union had expanded with enthusiasm and support from around the country.  We had organized women’s soccer clubs and campaigned, sometimes successfully, to get individual clubs to allow the women to play and compete.  We had been awarded a significant multi-year grant from the European Union to support the work.

One of the top French cabinet officials in a demagogic move had tried to block the grant and initiated a rightwing action, Sanaa described to me, labeling the organization a Muslim group.  The grant had been blocked, but other local actions had led to eviction from our offices in Lyon and similar reprisals.

None of this seemed to have deterred the organizing efforts by tenants in our chapters.  They have embraced the campaign for retrofits of housing to reduce energy costs and the impoverishment that comes with them.  There had been significant progress in France including commitments in the worst two categories of housing habitability to rehabilitate the houses by 2025.

The attacks on the organization have had their toll, but the easy discussion and excitement of leaders throughout Lyon showed no signs of any cracks in their unity or commitment to fight forward.