Nina was brutalised by her rapists, and then French justice assaulted her again

For six months, a pack of boys told Nina to turn up at certain times to be raped. Yesterday, the harshest sentence given to her attackers was a year in jail, and several defendants were acquitted. How is this justice?

So there you are, a 16-year-old girl on your way home from a night out at the cinema. You live in Fontenay-sous-Bois, part of the Parisian banlieue, which means “suburbs” but also so much more, because these are the places that ring the city, where authorities have pushed immigrants, poverty and trouble. But you have avoided trouble so far.

You are a good student. You are pretty, slim, with long dark hair, and you are tomboyish, preferring tracksuits, preferring not to stand out, happy to do well at school then come home to your mother and younger brother. But on this particular evening you cross a group of young lads. They are smoking weed and drinking. You get too close; the leader grabs you round the neck and drags you into a nearby apartment block and orders you to “coucher” (sleep with them). You are a virgin and of course you say no, so he hits you hard in the face, then rapes you first vaginally, then anally, then forces you to give him head, right after the anal rape.

He is only the first. The rest of the group take their turn, patiently raping, despite your crying and vomiting. Somehow you get through it, but the next day they are waiting for you at the bottom of your block, and they do it again. They know where you live, they threaten to set fire to your flat, rape your mother, harm your brother. You believe them so when they tell you to come back the next day to be raped, you do. You couldn’t say how many rapists there were. Sometimes half a dozen, sometimes twenty-five, sometimes a line of boys waiting. Such patient rapists.

That is how it is every day for the next six months, and it continues despite your vomiting and passing out, in disgusting stairwells and empty garages. It continues though your mother asks you why you are showering up to ten times a day, but you daren’t tell her. Then during one session in a garage, another lad you know arrives and yells at all the rapists to leave, and they do, astonishingly, and the next day they don’t come back. Some still beat you when they see you but it’s not until one beats you unconscious that you are sent to hospital bleeding and finally tell the truth.

Except that's not the truth, according to French justice. Because that is the story of Nina, a young Parisian woman, who dared to take her rapists to trial in the Cours d’Assizes of Val de Marne, and who has just been told, along with her co-defendant, another young rape victim given the pseudonym “Stephanie”, that the French state believes the young men who say that she wanted it, that she was consenting, that they weren’t there.

How else to understand the sentences? Six acquittals. Four prison sentences, but three suspended. The severest penalty was one year in jail. Twelve months for six months of multiple, ferocious, sustained pack rape.

I prefer the term pack rape, because gang rapes do not always involve street gangs, but they always involve packs. The French have other names for it: the law talks of viols en réunion, which sounds too much like a picnic. Sometimes they are called viols collectifs. Or there is tournante, a word I discovered in 2003 via a film shot by a former high school teacher in his former high school in Sarcelles, that featured a tournante, or pass-round. You pass round (faire tourner) a joint; you pass round (faire tourner) a girl. They are both legitimate booty, if they have transgressed the viciously misogynistic codes that can arise when you take patriarchal religion, poverty and fury and mix them together. Feminists call this intersectionality: when gender and class and other issues intersect, and women are damaged by the consequences. I call it horrific.

Back in 2003, I interviewed girls who told me that they couldn’t wear a skirt to school because that meant you were a slag. They knew of a girl who had worn one anyway and been attacked by 30 boys in the school toilets. They couldn’t wear lipstick. If they fell in love, their boyfriends generously shared them amongst their friends. A helpful police officer in one northern Parisian suburb showed me police dossiers of a dizzying darkness. I watch a video deposition of Elodie, 14, who answered the door one evening and five minutes later had been shoved into her dining room and had the first of five penises in her mouth. When she gives her testimony, her hands never leave her face. Solange, 17, whose boyfriend held her while his friends raped her. When she dumped him, her next boyfriend did the same. One girl I read about was raped 86 times. I wonder now if that was Nina.

Then Samira Bellil wrote a book called Dans L’Enfer des Tournantes (In the Hell of Tournantes). Samira was a pretty girl with corkscrew curls and cornflower blue eyes, of north African background, who fell in love at 14 with a man who soon delivered her to three of his mates, then again and again. Like Nina, Samira went off the rails, into foster homes, drugs and delinquency. And like Nina, she found the extraordinary courage to denounce her rapists, then to write a book and put her face on the cover, “because my publisher says I have a pretty face”.

Samira died of stomach cancer in 2004 – brutalised internally, I am sure – at the age of 31 but the feisty organization Ni Putes ni Soumises (Neither Sluts nor Doormats) that she helped found is still going, and still angry. They are still needed. When I asked French feminists in 2003 why they weren’t screaming about tournantes, Julia Kristeva sent me an old paper she had written about “the damage to psychic space”. Are things better now? The contemptuous verdicts in Nina’s trial have got widespread attention. Ministers have commented. The legal teams of Nina and her co-defendant ‘Stephanie’ called the verdict “a judicial shipwreck”, whatever that means. But the case took 13 years to get to trial. In all that time, Nina was given little financial or psychological help. She was moved away from her rapists, but the hostels, pillars and posts made her desperate enough to move back home to live with her mother.

But her mother still lives in Fontenay-sous-Bois, and her rapists still live there too. That is where she probably went after that verdict, to the apartment blocks and garages where she was raped, where her rapists still hang out, where an outraged comment from a minister is no defence.

She was brutalised by her rapists, and then French justice assaulted her some more.

 

Rose George is a journalist and writer. She tweets @rosegeorge3

The Parisian banlieues. Photo: Getty
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism